I have always been curious about the Netherlands since 6th grade European geography when we had to do in-depth reports on several European countries. Fascinated by the landscape and culture of my great-grandparents, I was thrilled to at least have an opportunity to visit Amsterdam during the summer between my junior and senior years of college. So what enticed my great-grandparents, both young couples, to leave their homeland and come to the United States?
Two important factors that likely influenced their decision to leave the Netherlands were the poor economy and changes occurring in the Dutch Protestant church. Johannes and Helena left their hometown of Zevenbergen, a rural town located in Noord-Brabant, not far from Rotterdam. Various historical records indicate that the wealth of the major Dutch cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam in particular, was not extended to most of the rural areas. Unemployment was high and probably affected my great-grandfathers’ ability to find work that would support a young and growing family as neither were landowners. Also the rural areas of the Netherlands were still recovering from the effects of the potato famine that struck their homeland in 1845-1846. In the mid-1800s, the potato was a staple food of the rural Dutch cuisine. 1845 yield of potatoes in the Netherlands was down almost 75%, and consequently, dramatically affected both fertility and natality for the next several decades. This is evident in my great-grandfather’s, Johannes’, family history that has revealed a high infant mortality rate among his siblings.
Also during the nineteenth century, religious dissent was occurring among the protestant Dutch in the Netherlands. A division was being drawn in the Reformed Church between the more conservative Calvinists and the increasingly liberal State Church. It is not known on which side of this division that my great-grandparents stood. From a religious standpoint most outsiders would probably describe the Dutch protestants as generally very conservative. But within the confines of the Dutch Reformed Church, there has been a long history of theological squabbling – drawing lines between being ultra-conservative, and quasi-conservative. This division was apparent even here in Michigan, when the early settlements on the western part of the state split along religious differences in the mid-1800s. The result was two separate denominations, the RCA (the more liberal faction) and the CRC (the Christian Reformed Church – the more conservative faction).
But even those that emigrated before my great-grandparents did in 1890, economic opportunity tended to out way religious reasons for making the move to the United States. So I believe that hopes for a better financial future was most likely the primary motive to leave their homeland.
So how would my great-grandparents have found out about these chances for better financial stability? One way would have probably been via printed news. Another way would likely have been discussions among the men of the church about what they were hearing of these new opportunities on the other side of the ocean. But even more significant would have been letters they possibly received from family members who had already made that venture.