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Priest led party of emigrants to Wisconsin's frontier territory

American communities formed close ties with North Brabant villages

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

During the early 1840s, an infectious virus caught many Dutchmen. Those who did not possess sufficient immunity against the virus, soon found themselves on ships sailing to America. Hundreds of these virus-inflicted families traveled with or soon followed a number of high-profile leaders across the ocean. These travelers initially established new Dutch communities in Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. Place names such as Holland, Zeeland, Pella, Oostburg, Little Chute and Hollandtown became well-known. High-profile leaders such as Van Raalte, Van der Meulen, Scholte and Van den Broek are still remembered today.

The aftermath of the Napoleonic wars was not easy on Europe. Many regions were severely impoverished through the two decades of protectionist French rule. The armed conflicts had extracted a heavy toll from friend and foe alike. Rebuilding the shattered economies was to take a long time.

America attracted Europe's destitute

Across the Atlantic Ocean lay a new country, which rapidly became known as the land of plenty. The independent United States of America also increasingly attracted attention as the haven for the destitute and weary masses of Europe. It offered them seemingly unlimited opportunities for improved economic conditions as well as freedom from Europe's restrictive social structures.

The citizenry in the Dutch river estuaries discovered something was happening as numerous river boats loaded with strangely dressed foreigners passed by their towns and villages on the way to Rotterdam, where these travelers would embark on a still more daring journey across the ocean. As well, just East of the German border with Gelderland lay German states from which also many people were emigrating.

This stream of émigrés caused pressures on, among others, the leadership of the Roman-Catholic Church in the U.S.A. The bishops, in turn, implored their European counterparts and the heads of the religious orders to send workers to ease the great shortage of clergy. These pleadings for help did not go unheeded: a great number of priests, monks and nuns reinforced the ranks of the Roman-Catholic Church in America, among them a respectable number of Flemish-Belgians and Dutchmen.

Van den Broek's visit

One of these priests, a missionary to the Indians and pastor to frontiersmen, merits special attention in this article. Father Theodorus van den Broek's name became associated with the cause of Dutch immigration shortly after the Secessionist Reformed leaders, the Reverends Scholte and Van Raalte, and their first groups of followers had left for the USA in 1847. At about the same time, a small group of Roman Catholics left as well.

By August 1847, Van den Broek returned from the Wisconsin frontiers for a visit to his place of birth, Amsterdam. The Dominican priest had been in the United States since 1832, and fostered dreams of starting a monastery/seminary on behalf of his religious order in the new world. To pursue that goal, he already had purchased property in the Fox River area of Wisconsin in the early 1840s. There was correspondence with the Dutch province of the order about these plans, but there seems to have been little by way of encouragement, consent or commitment from the order's superiors. Nevertheless, Van den Broek remained confident that his dreams would eventually come to fruition.

Meanwhile, the Indians were evacuated so that the area opened up for development. As a religious leader, Van den Broek mortgaged his own real estate to build a church, a grain mill and a saw mill but by the mid 1840s he found it to be difficult to keep up his financial obligations. The journey to his country of birth was directly related to his financial predicament: he expected to claim his share (Fl. 10,000) of the inheritance of his mother. However, upon his arrival in Amsterdam Van den Broek discovered that this inheritance was no longer available. Having relied upon the availability of this money, Van den Broek was now so broke, that he felt compelled to request financial assistance from his order and friends for a return ticket to the USA.

Social and political unrest

Quite apart from his own predicament, Van den Broek's attention must have been drawn to the political controversy between the Conservatives and the Liberals in the States-General, the Dutch parliamentary establishment. The latter faction, led by Zwolle-born lawyer-politician Thorbecke, used the new phenomenon of group emigration due to poor economic conditions to embarrass the policies of King William II and the Conservatives. This political tug-of-war took place virtually on the eve (1848) of massive social and political unrest throughout much of Europe (and soon forced the hand of the Dutch king to request parliamentary reforms).

Van den Broek, meanwhile, also must have been aware of the Nijmegen-based organization of lawyer C. Verwayen which promoted Roman-Catholic group emigration. In any case, Van den Broek, while attempting to raise funds for his parish and his enterprises on the Wisconsin frontier, happened upon the idea to use his visit to lead a group of people who would travel with him to the USA. To that end, and with the encouragement of friends, Van den Broek embarked upon yet another venture, one which would earn him a place in the history of Dutch emigration.

Within weeks of his return, Van den Broek was selling copies of a brochure entitled Reize naar Noord-Amerika (Journey to North America) in which he promoted his group emigration idea to the parishioners at the entrances of Roman-Catholic churches. A Cornelis van de Heij, a parishioner in the town of Zeeland, Province of North Brabant, also purchased one of these brochures. To Van de Heij, the brochure stimulated his interest in emigrating which he had not activily pursued up to that point. (Van de Heij, a farmer, was just the kind of man Van den Broek needed, while Van de Heij used Van den Broek as a vehicle to realize his unfulfilled dreams of emigrating. Van de Heij must share in Van den Broek's success as a leader since he somehow enlisted over half of the group, all resident of the Eastern region of North Brabant.)

Publicity paid dividends

Van den Broek generated a fair amount of attention with publicity and advertisements in the Roman-Catholic daily De Tijd. From these reports, it appears that Van den Broek, in spite of his financial difficulties, remained optimistic about his enterprises. Prospective emigrants were informed about the region of Wisconsin they would settle in, they were told about the missionary activities - hundreds of Indians were converted, the Dutch term of 'wilden' was used for them - and that a grain mill and a sawmill had been build, while it was expected that a monastery and a seminary would be founded in the Roman-Catholic colony.

The promotion activities paid-off for the 64-year-old priest. When the time had arrived to embark for the journey 'home' to America, Van den Broek's party consisted of 323 passengers, requiring three ships. Well over half of these people came from North Brabant-villages and towns such as Zeeland, Boekel, Uden, Mill and Oploo.

The journey's across the Atlantic took from 44 to 52 days, while Van den Broek's ship encountered a severe storm which caused the captain to decide to cut down the ship's mast. Van den Broek successfully pleaded with the captain to postpone this desperate act. Soon after this plea the storm subsided. However, the priest's troubles were far from being over yet. Once in the USA, Van den Broek's own group traveled aboard a riverboat. The boat sat stuck on a sand bar for a whole day. These experiences served as an appetizer for other things to come. One of these groups of emigrants traveled by ox-drawn carts to virtually non-existing communities on the frontier. According to the Franciscan priest Godthardt, who accompanied one of the three traveling group's for Van den Broek, and who became a rival to his colleague's leadership, the members of his group were totally disillusioned upon the arrival at their destination.

The first impressions of America were not very positive to Van den Broek's party. Life on the frontier was hard, the 'acres' - wrongly translated in the Dutch brochure as 'akkers', suggesting cultivated land - needed to be cleared from trees first. The soil was not of the best quality either. And parish life was different from what was experienced in centuries-old Brabant towns, while the plans for the monastery and seminary did not materialize. In contrast to the efforts of the Reverends Scholte and Van Raalte, Van den Broek had his insufficiently prepared. In due time, Van den Broek sold land to most of the Dutch emigrants, thereby lessening his own debt load. His Dutch parishioners benefited from the canal-digging work when it got underway after long delays. Eventually, the colony attained a measure of prosperity.

The colony attracted many more emigrants from the Brabant (and Limburg) towns named earlier in this article, as well as from other parts of the Netherlands. In 1850, Father Gerard J.B. van den Heuvel of Boekel, arrived with another 200 emigrants from North Brabant. Dutch emigrants eventually spread throughout the region, settling in places such as Green Bay and De Pere. From the Fox River Valley, they scattered throughout many regions of the USA, one of the most notable being the town of Verboort in the State of Oregon. The Dutch-American historian Lucas in his book Netherlanders in America, 1955, refers to Van Hinte's earlier calculations in Nederlanders in Amerika, Assen, 1928, that the Fox River Valley until 1927 attracted as many as 40,000 Dutch Roman Catholics.

Books which deal with the subject write about the so-called chain effect: relatives attracting relatives, townsmen 'pulling in' their former neighbours and friends, whereby, in effect, Dutch towns and villages formed their own special ties with American (frontier) towns and communities. Van den Broek did not live long enough to see this development take place. He died four years after introducing so many Dutchmen to American frontier life, at the age of 67.

Several historians have attributed or inferred that the Roman Catholic group emigration amounted to a form of social protest since Dutch government policies before 1848 only tacitly allowed the Roman Catholic religion, and that it certainly frowned upon the idea that Roman Catholics might be citizens with equal rights to the Protestants in the Northern region of the country. In his recently successfully defended doctoral thesis st03obLandverhuizing als regionaal verschijnsel, Van Noord-Brabant naar Noord-Amerika, 1820 - 1880*, H.A.V.M. Van Stekelenburg takes issue with these factors as underlying motives for Roman Catholic group emigration. Van Stekelenburg argues that the motivation for this emigration was predominantly economic in nature, the emigrants wanted to rise above the social classes their ancestry had placed them, and that the decision to emigrate was more caused by 'a pull to America' than a 'push away from Holland'. The presence of Roman Catholic communities in Wisconsin certainly was such 'a pull' factor. * Landverhuizing als regionaal verschijnsel, Van Noord-Brabant naar Noord-Amerika, 1820 - 1880 (freely translated as 'Emigration manifested as a regional phenomenon, From North Brabant to North America, 1820 - 1880') by H.A.V.M. Van Stekelenburg. The 258 pages of Dutch text are complimented by a summary of 17 pages in the English language. Van Stekelenburg's book provides comparative studies between Secessionist and Roman Catholic immigrant groups, and covers the largely unexplored territory of modern Roman Catholic Dutch emigration history. The book is a welcome addition to the published sources of information on Dutch emigration history! The information on Van den Broek in this article was in large measure gleaned from Van Stekelenburg's book, and supplemented by other sources inthe Windmill Archives.