Tomorrow, April 14, marks the 50th anniversary of the day my mother and her family got off a boat from the Netherlands in New York harbor. The occasion has me reflecting about what it means to be the son of an immigrant, a first-generation American-born citizen, and one of Dutch ancestry.
For much of my life I was a little shy about saying I had Dutch roots. West Michigan is often depicted as overwhelmingly Dutch—in fact, many estimates say 45 percent of the population in Ottawa County claims Dutch ancestry. You would think that would provide some comfort. But if you move in some more diverse circles, you also get the negative comments about the Dutch. Perhaps that’s because of a natural human instinct to resent the perceived majority.
Of course, I’ve had to ponder my own family history in light of all the current political drama about immigration. While I do concur that immigration should be legal, it’s hard for me to bear resentment of immigrants when I myself am only one generation removed from that status. Plus, it’s in my Dutch DNA to advocate for the American “melting pot.” In fact, that very idea comes from the Dutch, and not so much the English as history books have taught us.
I base that assertion on a wonderful book by Russell Shorto called “Island at the Center of the World.” It’s a book about Manhattan and the forgotten Dutch colony of New Netherlands.
Shorto points out that the Dutch culture was the most tolerant in all of Europe in the 17th Century. It’s a little known fact that the Pilgrims—who always steal the show to this day in Thanksgiving plays—fled to the accepting atmosphere of Amsterdam before they came to the New World. In fact, they came to the New World because they felt the Dutch were a little too tolerant of other religions. And as for that dinner with the Puritans and the Indians? I wonder if there was a Dutch person there to translate. Turns out that as late as 1750 the English authorities in the New World needed to find a Dutch speaker to converse with the Indians, since that was the only European language many of them had learned.
That’s just one of many examples of history overlooking Dutch influence on America that Shorto points out in his book. To this day, children learn about “13 original colonies,” but in fact the Dutch colony on Manhattan is the origin of much of our modern American culture. Their natural tolerance allowed the area that became New York City to welcome a great diversity of people from around the world. This, and a well-regarded work ethic and business savvy, helped position New York as the global trade center that it still is today. Shorto describes the New Netherland colony on Manhattan as crawling with people from all over the globe, peacefully coexisting and commencing trade. It was the original melting pot of ethnicities.
The Dutch had their influence on American politics, as well. England took over the colony in 1664 and renamed it after the Duke of York. But in negotiations before that takeover, the Dutch insisted on preserving rights under the new English authority. This document, Shorto claims, is a precursor to the Bill of Rights we all enjoy today in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, it was the New York delegation that expressed the most concern about a strong federal government. Of the 26 names signing a document insisting that a bill of rights be attached to the constitution, half were English, half were Dutch.
While some around West Michigan indicate that the Dutch are “narrow minded,” history actually shows a strong intellectual background. Rene Descartes and John Locke both found safe haven in the Netherlands when their new ideas about philosophy and politics were not well received elsewhere in Europe. In the 17th Century, the Netherlands produced half of all the books published worldwide.
Today, our American culture—not just here in West Michigan--is sprinkled with many contributions from the Dutch. In 1915, New York City adopted as its colors the orange, red, and blue of the 17th Century Dutch flag in recognition of its origins. That’s why the Knicks and Mets have those colors in their uniforms. The reason we eat cookies and not the English “biscuits” is because of Dutch influence. Wives on the original colony in Manhattan popularized “koeckjes” (cook-yahs) or little cakes, which we today call cookies. The Dutch women also improvised in those early years to make food from a variety of ingredients, including a cabbage salad called “kool sla” which you get as a side called cole slaw in many restaurants today. Of course the Dutch tradition of “Sinterklaas” (St Nicholas) excites American children every December as they await Santa Claus.
Perhaps all the Dutch in America today don’t share the characteristics of the inhabitants of the original New Netherlands colony. Perhaps they should. As for me, I’m proud to be an American. And I’m especially proud of all the Dutch influence on American politics and culture. I think I’ll put a Dutch flag on the front porch and have a cookie.