HOLLANDERS OF IOWA
JACOB VAN DER ZEE
Submitted by Gayle Harper
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THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE DUTCH COMMUNITY
NEARLY six hundred foreigners in an unsettled country must have presented a scene of great bustle and industry in the late summer and autumn of 1847. First of all they had to provide immediate shelter of some sort; and then they proceeded to erect more permanent, substantial dwellings as a necessary protection against the rigors of an approaching Iowa winter. Of the inadequate quantity of lumber which they found they constructed simple sheds which afforded cover to many families. Other families were housed in the log cabins and other buildings of the American settlers who vacated their homesteads as quickly as possible. But a majority of the immigrants commenced house-keeping in this wild land much after the manner of primitive people.
Shortly after their arrival on September 2, 1847, the Hollanders engaged a surveyor to lay out eight blocks of a new town. Later more space was added; and for many years the streets and the avenues bore the names which Scholte gave them. The streets were called Extension, Addition, Columbus, Washington, Franklin, Liberty, Union, Independence, Peace, South End, University, and Oskaloosa; while the avenues were Entrance, Inquiring, Perseverance, Reformation, Gratitude, Experience, Patience, Confidence, Expectation, and Accomplishment. In Holland it appears that Scholte had prayed that God would "prepare for His people another PELLA, and let the motto of its inhabitants be in truth: In God is our hope and refuge. In Deo Spes Nostra et Refugium."
Pella was platted in order that all persons who wished might build houses at once.(72) Despite the lack of sufficient ready lumber, the first Dutch city-builders in Iowa showed their practical, workday character by using whatever materials nature furnished close at hand. They received an early visit from an Iowa tourist who had lectured with success in various parts of England. This gentleman noticed that "the men in blanket coats and jeans were gone", and that a race of broad-shouldered men "in velvet jackets and wooden shoes" was there, "rejoicing in the antiquity of nearly a month." He saw most of them living "in camps, the tops covered with tent cloth, some with grass and bushes, the sides barricaded with countless numbers of trunks, boxes and chests of the oddest and most grotesque description that Yankees or Hawkeyes ever beheld." (73)
The Hollanders, however, were not satisfied with dwellings so crude, so characteristic of a lower stage of civilization, like Indian tepees. They quickly constructed "dug-outs" or "sod-houses "- so-called because their interior lay partly below and partly above the surface of the ground. Earth was removed to the depth of a few feet, and blocks of tough prairie sod several inches thick were then piled up to complete the upper portion of the walls. Roofs consisted simply of branches covered with prairie or slough grass, straw or reeds; while doors of sackcloth and interwoven twigs, and chimneys built of sod blocks completed the sombre exterior of what came to be called " Strooij en Stad" (Straw Town).
Despite the appearance of these early homes, which indicated a partial but compulsory reversion to a more primitive state of nature, these sod houses in many cases served as human habitations for nearly two years. As makeshifts against exposure to all sorts of wintry weather, these inelegant quarters stood until their occupants were better able to erect more sanitary and substantial houses; and although never entirely water-proof, they provided a considerable measure of comfort and satisfaction, partly due no doubt to the mildness of the first Iowa winter.(74)
Later on, as lumber became more plentiful, frame buildings, both cabins and barns, gradually supplanted the temporary, unsanitary shacks and hovels. Like true American backwoodsmen, the Hollanders quickly learned to thank their rivers for the incalculable advantage of forests of fine hard-wood trees. They found that their settlement embraced a quantity of excellent timber sufficient to supply all needs. But during the early months and years the supply of lumber to be obtained from American-owned sawmills on the Des Moines River was so limited. and the demand so great that Scholte availed himself of the water-power of the Skunk River, installed machinery in a mill of his own, and thus early in 1848 began to manufacture lumber for the Dutch colony.(75)
In 1856 the growing city of Pella, beautifully situated on a high and spacious prairie plateau, presented a pleasing view with its rows of simple, wooden houses, interspersed with a few red brick dwellings. Hollanders in the fatherland during the nineteenth century were accustomed to living in brick houses; they shrugged their shoulders and pitied those Americans who were forced to live in flimsy, wooden structures; but inhabitants of Pella declared that they needed no pity because they had learned to find a combination of comfort, convenience, and even beauty in these neat, little dwellings, which were in many respects so desirable that as "to style and general taste they did not need to bow before the low brick cottages of Europe." (76)
Although the city of Pella grew and developed like any other frontier town of the early days, citybuilding by the Hollanders was not the primary object of their coming to Iowa. Most of the people were farmers, and even those who had never tilled the soil found such abundant opportunity to become farmers that from the beginning the Dutch colony of Marion County was distinctively an agricultural community. It is true, as someone has said, that "a new land offered the opportunity, a wild land presented the necessity, a rich land held out the reward, to men who were eager to do something."
That farming was the first thing to come into notice among the Hollanders as furnishing the best and surest prospects was a matter of course. One man after another, upon getting possession of land, "as quickly as possible harnessed all his united strength to make the earth yield up her rich treasures." (77)
Families of Hollanders entered the homesteads vacated by their first American occupants and at once set about to care for the stock and crops. There was abundant work for all hands to do. Besides the building of cabins and barns, the newcomers busied themselves with general farm duties. They soon discovered the truth of the general American newspaper report that they had settled in one of the best parts of Iowa: they found a soil suitable for the growth of all kinds of products when once the tough prairie sod was broken. On the farms which Scholte had bought grew excellent summer and winter wheat, oats, buckwheat, flax, hemp, and Indian corn., as well as vegetables of fine quality. In the timber grew wild fruits in profusion.(78)
For the live-stock, which American pioneers customarily allowed to roam loose upon the open prairie and in the timber summer and winter, the Hollanders provided some sort of shelter. They were especially pleased with the rich milk of the American cows; and they early convinced themselves that they could produce butter and cheese which not only compared favorably with the best in Holland, but also promised to be of incalculable value to them because the butter and cheese of their American neighbors were quite generally bad and sometimes unfit for consumption. Indeed, the making of butter and cheese became a considerable industry during the early years, and "Iowa Cheese" became famous in the St. Louis market, commanding the highest price. Not only was dairy-farming a popular occupation from the start because the Hollanders had brought all the secrets with them from Europe, but stock-raising also became profitable in the course of time. Especially did the foreigners learn the value of one of America's staple products, the hog, which they had always looked upon as a comparative curiosity in Europe and now came to regard as an asset characteristic and typical of western farm-life. Indeed, early Iowa pioneers allowed their hogs to run loose in the woods, thus foraging for themselves and requiring no attention until they were ready to be fattened when Indian corn was so abundant that they could be quickly prepared for market and sold in the shape of ham, bacon, and lard.(79)
Most difficult for the Hollanders was the task of learning to accustom themselves to the demands of frontier life. Transplanted from Europe to the westernmost point reached by American home-seekers, dwelling upon that "irregular, imaginary line which separated their farm lands and the unused West", they suffered more than Americans who lived under similar circumstances. They missed the ordinary household comforts of Holland and many of the necessities of life, but from the experience of early years they learned to imitate their American pioneer neighbors. Slowly they adapted themselves to their strange environment and a wholly different standard of living; and they soon realized that the problem for them to solve was how to become self-sufficient when their supply of Dutch money gave out.
The Hollanders were not long in discovering that the articles which they had been accustomed to buy ready-made in Holland were manufactured by American frontiersmen from the products of the soil - as for instance bread and other food-stuffs, candles, and woolen and linen cloth for home-made clothing. In the absence of plows some used spades at first and waited patiently until they could obtain such agricultural implements as plows, harrows, and wagons from their Pella blacksmiths who worked night and day; and even then many lacked money enough to purchase the necessary horses or oxen and machinery. It was therefore a difficult problem to make progress without ready money.
Scholte observed that American pioneers got along without much money: "Only when they get money into their hands by selling their claims do they begin to buy, and in that event they are generally liberal in giving or paying. The American people in general understand how to make money, as is well known, but they also have the inclination to be generous in giving it away. That parsimony which is sometimes called stinginess is not a reigning evil with them. They do not turn over a dime four times, as the saying goes in Holland, before spending it, and therefore they get rid of money more quickly, oftentimes too quickly for some Hollanders." (80)
Great must have been the awe with which Iowa's first Dutch settlers regarded that picturesque, nomadic element of the American frontier population, the backwoodsman, who could generally be found upon the crest of the human wave which filled the empty places of the West. These adventurers preceded the rush of emigrants westward, staked out their claims, hunted and fished, cleared and worked some acres of soil for a year or two until the coming of others to their neighborhood. Then, to escape the pressure of advancing emigration, they sold their clearings at a profit, packed their simple belongings into heavy, canvas-covered wagons drawn by horses or oxen, and from pure love of freedom proceeded farther westward to resume their life in the woods or on the plains.(81)
Scholte, leader of the Dutch immigrants in every branch of activity, set up a lime-kiln and a brick-kiln at an early date, thus furnishing labor to masons. Bakers, tailors, shoemakers, painters, office clerks, business managers, and others - all were represented in the Pella population, but most of them found their trades and occupations superfluous among people of simple tastes. Hence they adapted themselves to the situation by learning to till the soil as a means of support. But "the hands of many who were city bred and skilled in everything but agriculture went wrong when it became a question of making a living on the naked prairie. "
In the month of March, 1848, Scholte wrote as follows:
Unacquainted with the language, pioneer conditions, and
ways of America, the first Dutch settlers of Iowa plodded along with the
grim determination and patience characteristic of their nation, and
gradually but painfully submitted to frontier Americanization.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
(72) Van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part I, p. 26; and Nollen's De Afscheiding, p. 51, where the writer explains the meaning of the biblical name "Pella". See also Scholte's Eene Stem uit Pella, pp. 28, 29.
(73) See Burlington Hawkeye, September or October, 1847, for an article by J. B. Newhall on "A Day in Pella." His visit was made on September 17, 1847.
(74) Nollen's De Afscheiding, p. 52; van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part 11, pp. 20, 21; and also pp. 25, 26 of a small book published in 1858, entitled De Hollanders in Iowa, of Brieven uit Pella, written by a man who signed himself "l en Gelderschman ", and whose name is still shrouded in mystery. For a popular account of sod-houses at Pella, see Donnell's Pioneers of Marion County, pp. 161-163.
(75) See De Hollanders in Iowa, p. 115; van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part II, p. 23; and Scholte's Eene Stem uit Pella, pp. 21, 29, 30.
(76) De Hollanders in Iowa, pp. 116, 119.
(77) De Hollanders in Iowa, p. 117; and van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part II, p. 41.
(78) Van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part I L p. 23; and Scholte's Eene Stem uit Pella, pp. 20, 22.
(79) Scholte's Eene Stem uit Pella, pp. 22, 23; and van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part II, p. 49.
(80) Van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part II, pp. 48, 53, 54; and Scholte's Eene Stem uit Pella, pp. 24, 31.
(81) Scholte's Eene Stem uit Pella, p. 24; and De Hollanders in Iowa, pp. 170-172, 175, 176.
(82) Van Stigt's Geschiedenis, Part II, pp. 18, 40, 41; and Scholte's Eene Stem uit Pella, pp. 30, 31.
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