Tag Archives: immigrants

If yer not Dutch, yer not much

7 Aug

I grew up in a town that was half Dutch, half not – I was on the half nots. I can say Housinga, Vandermyde, and Reimer properly… because they were my classmates. This rather strange situation led me to a love/hate relationship with all things Dutch. This also created an ethnic solidarity to a past their ancestors wanted to forget.

Between 1880 and 1920, there was a wave of Dutch immigration to Northwest Illinois (and Michigan and probably Minnesota). This took the nearby Catholic town of Fulton, Illinois and turned it completely Dutch. They spoke Dutch, they went to Dutch Reformed churches, their kids mostly hung around other Dutch kids. The story my grandma (born 1937) would tell me is that the Dutch kids wouldn’t be allowed to drink and dance, but they DID seemed to get pregnant a lot.

Now a lot of this is slander, because she also told some degrading stories about Catholics too, but it certainly changed the political and social landscape of these small farming communities. This created a new identity among the new citizens. The picture with the windmill is on the Mississippi River. The people of Fulton bought the “de Immigrant” windmill from the Netherlands and moved it brick by brick to Illinois. There are Dutch Days every summer (well, not this summer) with folks wearing wooden shoes and washing the streets.

The funny thing is that their grandparents and great-grandparents were doing everything in their power to blend in… to become American. They refused to teach their kids Dutch. The strictness of the Dutch Reformed Church weakened over the decades. The last Dutch-language service in my town was in 1972. They went to the local schools, embraced being Americans, and apart from the strange-sounding names, were American by my generation in every sense. Of course, by then, there were other waves of immigrants which shifted them over to “white.”

Of course, I’m not blameless. I’ve got a kilt in my closet and my ancestors left Scotland three hundred years ago. I’ve never been to Scotland. I’ve been to the Netherlands (okay, the airport), but I have as much connection to the Hague than I do to Dumfries. My ancestors may have left thanks to being on the wrong side of a political dispute (Dissenters against the Kirk), but what they really wanted was land to farm. Along the way, we lost the “e” on our name–fought, then married Irish–and kept moving to have their kids get their own farm.

Maybe we’re all looking back to a history that doesn’t exist? Thanks to a note in my family history, I thought I was 1/256th Cherokee for decades. (Turns out, I’m not… not even close.) Are you proud of dubious connection to the past? How much is your identity tied up in your ancestry? Let me know in the comments below!

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