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Digging up Dutch roots new pastime for Winnipeg-born senior

Search leads to ‘homecoming’ in Dinteloord

Tags: Genealogy

CHILLIWACK, British Columbia - Discovering family roots for the North American Dutch often is a tedious process. It covers great distances and could span a lifetime. The need to know did not come overnight to third-generation Dutch Canadian, Winnipeg-born Hermannus Sulkers, now 83, but became more compelling when he, accompanied by his daughters Catherine and Jane, in 1998 visited the Netherlands for the first time. He returned home with more questions than answers about his ancestors. This summer, another trip, his fourth, has been planned when he hopes with two sons to link up with namesakes in ancestral Dinteloord, a village south of national nature park Biesbosch.

Complicating Herm’s searches are a lack of sufficient fluency in the Dutch language, no known family and the fact that his grandparents launched their overseas venture from a different place than their ancestral town.

The Sulkers family left in stages for Canada from around Zaandam. In 1906, their 17-year-old son Herb left for Winnipeg to be followed two years later by siblings John, Cornelis and Antonia. In 1910, their Dinteloord-born parents Hermannus and Maria Johanna Sulkers (Vriens) embarked for Canada on the ship S.S. Victorian with eight of their other nine children. The one daughter who had stayed behind died in 1945 and was buried in Zeist.

Return to Netherlands

Grandfather Sulkers soon deeply regretted his emigration to Canada and was troubled over the family’s separation from the daughter who because of health reasons had been denied permission to come along. He died fairly soon after arriving in the country. In the early decades of the twentieth country, a significant number of Dutch immigrants around Winnipeg, like their counterparts near Chicago, made a living as market gardeners. They and most of the Sulkers’ grew vegetables which they sold in the city, usually off the back of their horse-drawn wagon or truck.

Although a steady trickle of newcomers joined the Dutch community of Winnipeg, few went the opposite direction. Herm’s father Peter and his mother went in 1951. Of the others who did, it will be quite safe to state, nearly all had joined the Canadian war effort, Herm as a navyman on Canadian destroyer Athabaskan. Following of a disastrous naval battle during which the ship was sunk off the French coast in May 1944, Herm was rescued and send to a German POW camp. While he never came close to setting a foot on Dutch soil then, Sulkers’ interest in Athabaskan commemmorations and reunions eventually brought him back to Europe.


This year’s visit to Dinteloord will be Sulkers’ second. Accompanied by a fellow Dutch genealogy enthusiast who has assisted him with his research he had no contacts for the first visit to the 17th century village in Prinsenlandpolder (so named after a son of Prince William I, the Taciturn, who spearheaded the diking project for the area around 1600). With help from sources in Canada, Sulkers learnt that his surname is most common in a half-moon around the Biesbosch where his upcoming visit already has been announced.

Sulkers’ grandparents with their four eldest children left Dinteloord during the 1890s for a farm job in the Zaandam vicinity, likely joining others who had migrated there earlier (the Haarlemmermeer reclamation works of 150 years ago also attracted people from the Western part of Brabant). Circumstances around Dinteloord in the late 1800s were far from ideal for farm labourers.