Early Challenges in de Kolonie

Holland, Michigan: 1847 to 1870



On September 24, 1846, Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte and a group of 101 Dutch immigrants set sail en route to America. Seeking a place where they could form their own community and practice their faith freely, in February 1847 Van Raalte settled on a plot of land situated on Black Lake (now Lake Macatawa) in Western Michigan, about 30 miles southwest of Grand Rapids. The group was greeted by a dense forest, swamps, and Native Americans.

Being mostly farmers, the settlers were ill prepared for the challenges of clearing trees and building log cabins. They did not possess the skills, nor the proper equipment for clearing the land and building shelter. Their success was largely dependent on the assistance and instruction of a few Americans. For the first few years, the colonists lived in make-shift log cabins, cooking over open fires and using left-over tree stumps for seats and tables. Disease was rampant among the colonists the very first summer and many lost the will to live. The realities of colony life shattered the often grandiose expectations of newly arrived immigrants.

Despite the hardships they faced, the colony grew and by 1849, approximately 3000 people called the Kolonie their home. The colonists banded together and built necessary roads and buildings without financial aid. Despite their efforts, the colony remained quite closed-off to the outside world. Mail was only delivered once per week and the only newspapers printed were local. Their religious customs were very strict and devout; several viewed the early governance of the community as a theocracy, as most looked to Van Raalte as the executive officer of the community.

"Since Van Raalte and the consistory also exercised great influence in the general public meetings and since Van Raalte was also the chairman of the Board of Trustees, the administration of the entire colony came to have a very theocratic character, reminiscent of Calvin in Geneva and the Pilgrims in the the New England states."

- Netherlanders in America


However, lack of contact with the outside world did not hinder the colony's growth. By 1852, there were seven stores, two hotels, a bakery, a brass and copper smithry, a tailor shop, a goldsmith's shop, wagon makers and blacksmiths in the colony. Business was often done by bartering or by use of store notes, which were used until the 1860s. The most success business proved to be the Veneklaasen brickyard, which was founded in 1848. Many colonists turned to agriculture, which remained the main industry in Holland for many years.

Education was a very important aspect of the early colony. Van Raalte and many other leaders firmly believed that "the character, the destiny and the prosperity of a nation depend on education." Early colonists were able to learn English by using Bibles printed side-by-side in English and Dutch. The first school district was formed in June 1848, a little over one year after the founding. A few years later, Van Raalte focused on the founding of an institution of higher education in order to train new ministers and teachers for the future generations. This would eventually become Hope College.

In 1866, the colony was finally incorporated and, at the insistence of Van Raalte, given the name Holland.

  Contact: Madalyn Muncy

Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities, Hope College

Madalyn Muncy, 2012