Dutch Immigration to Eastern Michigan

Dutch immigrants were among the earliest settlers in Bay County, first arriving in the Saginaw valley circa 1850. The vast majority were Catholic, from the southern Dutch province of Noord-Brabant, and came from many generations of farmers.

To start your search for your Dutch ancestors, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the culture and religions of the region you will be searching. The Dutch, in particular, were influenced by several religious traditions. As a haven of religious tolerance, many Protestant traditions entered the Dutch culture from the 1400s forward. However, there was a backlash among the Catholics of the Dutch countryside who were eager to maintain their religious traditions without outside influences of the Reformation.

Looking at the emigration patterns of those who left the Netherlands in the middle of the 19th century, we find that there was a conscious effort among the Catholics and the Dutch Reformed to separate themselves from each other upon arrival in the U.S. When the first Dutch arrived in the young state of Michigan, there were four main ports for them to disembark from the sailing ships to: Detroit, Bay City, Mackinac and Muskegon. They would from the port of Amsterdam, arriving in New York City at Castle Clinton in lower Manhattan, then travel by train to Buffalo where they boarded a steamship for Detroit. At Detroit, they would be recruited to settle in one of the young communities popping up along Michigan’s coastline. The Catholics, among the earliest to arrive, were heavily recruited to work in the new lumber trade in the Saginaw valley. They were the first off the ship, therefore the first to go to work and start building their new lives.

By contrast, the Dutch Reformed immigrants continued sailing the Michigan coast until reaching Muskegon. This group went on to found the town of Holland (named after the province most left in the Netherlands). Records on that group are a little different to search, as they did not keep records in the same way that the Catholics kept records.

Using the French tradition, Catholics in the southern province of Noord-Brabant kept the majority of their records through the Catholic Church until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. They first went to the town notary to register their marriage, then went to the Church for the blessing ceremony. Records of their marriages are kept in both the Civil Register and Church records. The Protestants did not follow this tradition, instead opting for the civil ceremony only.

As with other ethnic groups, the Dutch who settled the Saginaw valley often sent money home to provide passage for other family members to travel. There was a caveat to this, however, that they were unable to secure passports for younger family members unless they personally returned to the Netherlands to escort the juvenile.

One of the earliest of Bay County’s Dutch settlers was a young man named Peter Van Erp. It appears that he was a leader in the emigration of several of the Dutch settlers. We find he was best man at a large number of weddings, and much of his village of Sint-Oedenrode (near Eindhoven) emigrated to the Saginaw valley within ten years of his arrival.

Early Dutch families to the Saginaw valley included such names as Huijskens (with many variant spellings), Van Wert, Vulders, Van Horn, and Von Hamlin. Ironically, when the home villages of these early settlers are mapped out, they follow the perimeter of the Battle of the Bulge fought some 90 years later.

Other prominent Dutch families came in a second wave following the American Civil War and peaking between 1873-77. Families coming during this period include such names as Jacobs, Droomer/Droomers, Vos, Hages, Van Sumeran, and Walraven. While many of these families continued coming from the province of Noord-Brabant, others are from Holland, Friesland and Utrecht.

There are three main resources to check when starting your Dutch research. Start with Census records to determine as best you can when your ancestor(s) arrived. Those arriving before the Civil War are likely to be found on passenger records transcribed in the book Dutch to America. Particularly valuable in this resource is the frequent existence of the traveler’s hometown in the Netherlands. Armed with whatever information you have been able to locate on this side of the ocean, the next resource to tap is the Genlias database maintained by several of the Dutch provincial archives. The shortcoming to this resource is the absence of records from the northern provinces, particularly records from Amsterdam. But the resource is bilingual with an English interface.

A brief history of Noord-Brabant

Until the 17th century, the area that now makes up the province of Noord-Brabant was mostly part of the duchy of Brabant. The southern part of the duchy is in present-day Belgium, although through time several areas have been autonomous entities. In the 14th and 15th century, the area went through a golden age, especially in the cities of Leuven (Louvain), Antwerp (both now in Belgium), Breda and Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc).

After the Union of Utrecht was signed in 1579, Brabant became a battlefield between the Protestant Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and Catholic Spain, which occupied the southern Netherlands. With the Peace of Westphalia, the northern part of Brabant became part of the Netherlands as the territory of Staats-Brabant (State Brabant) under federal rule (the founding provinces of the Dutch Republic were self-governing).

Attempts to preach protestantism failed, and the area served mainly as a military buffer zone. In 1796, when the Netherlands became the Batavian Republic, Staats-Brabant became a province as Bataafs Brabant. This status ended with the reorganization by the French, and the area was divided over several departments that became part of France. It is not uncommon when researching your Dutch ancestors to find references to their parents being “French”, which is the result of this assimilation. Further research will show they were Dutch to the bone for several generations back, but for the period of time when the records were kept, their “nationality” was rightly identified as “French”.

In 1815, Belgium and the Netherlands were united as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. The province of North Brabant was established to separate it from South Brabant, in present-day Belgium, which separated from the Kingdom in 1830. This boundary between the Netherlands and Belgium is special in that it does not form a contiguous line, but there are a handful of tiny enclaves (and enclaves inside enclaves) on both sides of the border.

The majority of the natives of Noord-Brabant were farmers. However, certain towns prospered during the industrial revolution. Tilburg and Helmond were textile centers. Eindhoven evolved into a manufacturing center.

Flemish, Walloon and Dutch

As you can tell from the history of the Duchy of Brabant, many of our Belgian ancestors are of Dutch heritage, and many of our Dutch ancestors were from areas now part of Belgium. Unlike the Netherlands, records in Belgium are very difficult to research without making a trip to the country. Belgians of Dutch ancestry are known in their homeland as Flemish. They spoke the Dutch language and often married Dutch émigrés after settling in America

Belgians who speak French and are from a predominantly French heritage are known as Walloons. They continue speaking French to this day and are very much a distinct group from their Flemish countrymen. Those of Belgian heritage whose lands became part of the Netherlands would be considered Dutch, as the geopolitical divisions affecting their nationality were out of their control, but their culture, language and traditions were identical to those of their Dutch cousins.

Understanding Dutch naming traditions

The idea of a “surname” was slow to enter the Dutch society. Prior to the Reformation, most families were known by “patrynomics”, where one’s father’s name was the second name used by an individual. The son of Paulus would be called by the name Paulusson in official records. Anders’ son was called Anderson. Some of these names continued after the requirement of the registration of a surname that would continue for several generations. Depending on the part of the country, however, patrynomics continued in common usage until the Napoleonic Wars.

Additionally, it is common in Dutch Civil Registers to find men and women with their fathers’ first names in use as we today use “middle names”. Though actually a carry over of the Roman Catholic traditions predating the Reformation, this becomes a valuable tool in tracing our Dutch ancestors. It will keep you from falsely identifying people with similar names in various records and makes it easier to identify siblings.


Research materials and centers of information

One of the finest references for understanding the migration of our Dutch ancestors to Michigan is The Dutch Transplanting in Michigan and the Midwest by Robert Swierenga (Historical Society of Michigan, 1986), available through Interlibrary loan or from the Library of Michigan in Lansing.

Those interested in additional information about Dutch genealogy may be interested in the resources of the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, the Library of Michigan, and the Genealogy research center at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

For copies of actual records, the Archives of Michigan, Bay County Clerk, and Saginaw County Clerk are the main repositories of records from the Saginaw valley. Remember that Bay County was carved out of Saginaw County in the late 1850s, so Saginaw continues to hold records prior to the division.

In addition to the decennial censuses conducted by the US Government, the State of Michigan also conducted interim state censuses mid-decade into the early 1900s. These resources are excellent in bridging the gap between federal censuses, particularly in the mid-1800s where there is a lack of existing documentation on our ancestors in civil records. The complete records are kept at the Library of Michigan, but are available through Interlibrary loan or through the LDS Family History Center in Midland.

Finally, for those whose ancestors were Roman Catholic and arrived before 1870, records kept at the early Catholic churches in the Saginaw valley are the primary source of information on births, marriages and deaths. St. Joseph parish was the first Catholic church in Bay City and holds the majority of records pre-1867. Unfortunately, there are some gaps in their books, especially the death records of 1867-68.

Later Dutch families separated themselves from the predominantly French St. Joseph’s after the Civil War and were among the founding families of St. James parish. The records at that parish are in remarkably good order and we have found the staff of the parish very accommodating of genealogy researchers.


Copyright © 2012 all rights reserved Jan Nearing
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