Of the numerous ethnic groups which have migrated to the United States over the centuries, the Dutch are unjustly among the most overlooked. Given the fact that history is written by the victors, it is of little surprise that the Dutch got short shrift in the annals of early American history, much of which was penned by the English. However, on a per capita basis, the Dutch have had among the most profound impacts on what would go on to become the greatest city belonging to the world’s greatest superpower—New York City. This paper explores the early settlement and three major waves of Dutch migration to what is today the United States, and details much of the extensive early influences the Dutch had in shaping the United States as we know it today.
Early Settlement and the First Wave:
Early Dutch settlement in what would become the United States began in the early 17th century with a sparse network of communities and forts along the eastern seaboard of North America in what was then the colony of New Netherland. The most important of these settlements was New Amsterdam, with its fort at the tip of what is today Manhattan Island. Founded in 1625, Fort Amsterdam served as a means for protecting Dutch interests in New Netherland against the English and Native Americans, in addition to serving as a trade post for the region’s fur trade. Beginning in 1629, The Dutch West India Company attempted to stimulate emigration to the Dutch Republic’s scarcely populated colony by initiating a patroon system, though this initiative failed to stimulate much migration. Underpopulated and flanked on either side by English colonies, New Amsterdam was surrendered to the British in 1664, who renamed it New York, while the colony of New Netherland was officially ceded to the British in 1674 under the Treaty of Westminster.
Despite the brevity of Dutch rule and miniscule Dutch presence, New York continued to grow under the English as a bustling trade port unique for its inclination toward commerce, diversity, pluralism and tolerance—all first-wave Dutch influences which were found to be wanting in nearby English colonies. From its inception, New York, home to the first immigration center in America, was a melting pot of various peoples, religions and languages. Most of its inhabitants were not Dutch from very early on, as Swedes, Germans, Jews, African slaves and others also lived there, together speaking 18 different languages almost from the start. Millions of immigrants would later pour into the United States through New York’s Ellis Island, the gateway to America. They would live and work in eclectic areas of the city with Dutch names like Brooklyn, Harlem, Wall Street, The Bronx, Long Island and Staten Island, and adopt Dutch customs like eating cookies or coleslaw and believing in Santa Claus—all on streets which still match the Castello Plan of New Amsterdam made in 1660. In short, a strong case can be made for the United States’ founding ethos being at least as much Dutch as it was English.
Towards the end of the 18th century, many of the first-wave Dutch living in the English colonies of North America had become both revolutionaries at the forefront of shaping a new American life, as well as conservative relics from migrations of yore. On the one hand, would-be Dutch-Americans enlisted in militias during the Revolutionary War and were even signatories of the Declaration of Independence. On the other hand, conservative Dutch communities in New York and elsewhere were seen by some as throwbacks to a much earlier era, as described by American author Washington Irving in both Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In the latter work, Irving described Dutch communities of New York as places where “population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement […] sweeps by them unobserved.” This pattern of active and passive Dutch involvement in the great American experiment would persist throughout the coming waves of Dutch immigration, as the next section shall show.
The Second Wave of Dutch Migration:
The second and largest wave of Dutch migration to the United States, taking place between the 1840s and 1920s, saw immigration numbers rise from fewer than 3,000 per decade in the 1830s, to over 50,000 per decade by the 1880s. Despite a partial fall in migration around 1900, immigration numbers during this wave spiked again around 1920 to over 45,000 per decade. Driving this wave were two crucial push factors and two major pull factors. The first push factor was from periodic crop failures in clay soil regions of the Netherlands which increased poverty and joblessness. The other push factor was religious persecution by the Dutch government of religious sects such as the Seceders, who made up 20% of all Dutch emigres to the United States through the 1880s despite being only 1.3% of the population in the Netherlands. Fewer than 10% of Dutch immigrants during the first part of this wave came as singles, and by World War I this number only increased to about 30%. The vast majority arrived together as families or with entire church congregations and settled in homogenous communities largely in the Upper Midwest.
The pull factors affecting Dutch migration to the United States were natural boom-bust economic cycles that made life at home or abroad seem better or worse at different periods. Harder times in the Netherlands spurred more emigration, while diminished prospects in the United States had the opposite effect. This, of course, was a common pull factor for nearly all immigrant groups, not just the Dutch. Another pull factor for the Dutch back in the Netherlands came from the famous “bacon letters” sent back from the United States. Relatives or friends who had already made their way to the United States would often write back to their loved ones still in the Netherlands with information about how life in the New World was going. These “bacon letters,” so named for their frequent references to success and the large amounts of pork fat consumed by simple farmers in the United States, had a strong effect on Dutch farmers considering emigrating, as they assumed such consumption was only fit for wealthy farmers.
Although most of the second-wave Dutch immigrants took to rural settings on the calm periphery of American life, this period of Dutch migration also gave rise to numerous prominent Dutch-Americans who would take center stage in the United States. Most prominent among these was Martin Van Buren, who grew up speaking Dutch in the home and later became president at the moment when the second wave of Dutch migration began to gather steam. Though his presidency was by no means an outstanding one, his legacy as the first and only president whose mother tongue was not English endures to this day. Other famous Americans of Dutch extraction such as Thomas Edison, Warren G. Harding, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were all born during the 19th century at the time of the second migration wave. Many of these great figures would go on to shape the 20th century in profound ways.
The Third Wave of Dutch Migration:
Following the second wave of migration, most immigration to the United States was drastically reduced after World War I by acts such as the Immigration Act of 1924. Dutch immigration was no exception, and it would not be until the end of World War II that the third and final wave of Dutch migration would begin in earnest. This wave, lasting from 1950 to 1975, saw a brief return to pre-World War I levels of Dutch migration, peaking in 1960 at just over 45,000 immigrants per decade. Much of this wave was comprised of Dutch citizens from the former Dutch East Indies—now Indonesia—which in 1949 declared its independence, prompting the repatriation of hundreds of thousands back to the Netherlands. It is estimated that among these, some 60,000 immigrated to the United States as refugees, with most settling in California. Most of these immigrants were of mixed Dutch-Indonesian ancestry, making them unique among the three waves of Dutch migration for their visible-minority aspect. Given the sheer size of the United States’ population at this time, which numbered 180 million in 1960, it is understandable that not many Dutch-Indonesians of the third wave are well known, the Van Halen brothers being a major exception.
In total, the three waves of Dutch migration to the United States have culminated in the over 4.5 million Americans claiming Dutch ancestry today, or 1.5% of the entire population. This paper has shown that from the outset, the influence that the Dutch had on the United States, particularly in shaping the ethos of what would become New York City—the gateway to America—was absolutely crucial to the development of the United States into what it is today. With its orientation toward trade, pluralism, diversity and tolerance, the colony left behind by the Dutch would retain these qualities and later become a major thoroughfare for trade and millions of immigrants into the United States. The Dutch legacy has become an integral part of the rich ethnic tapestry of the United States, with contributions ranging from core folklore to timeless culinary traditions. Despite the relatively small numbers, each of the three waves of Dutch migration brought forth important Americans at each stage of the country’s development—from revolutionaries to rock stars. In short, the Dutch imprint made on American life is an order of magnitude larger than immigration figures would suggest, giving this history of migration a character uniquely distinguished by its quality, not quantity.
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