Why to America?
The answer to this question could not be given better than by Harmen Jan te Selle. Together with his brother Jan Hendrik and his new sister-in-law he left for Uncle Bloemers and Aunt Janna te Selle Bloemers in Wisconsin the day after the wedding of his brother. On April 12, 1869 he writes to Winterswijk:
“Yet another small note. Mother and Brothers, About something my heart could not hold back any longer. I often think of Holland that Old Native Country (Motherland), when I reflect how many people there fare and some of my own brothers as well how they have to work from the early morning until the late evening and then have to be content with a sober meal, then I often think I wish they were here, and I think of myself how three times a day we are capable of filling our tables with so much bacon and Meat as we can eat, oh how privileged I am compared to many of my brothers. Thank the Lord that he has given me so much possession on the earth, but before I decided to get married I often prayed to the Lord and asked just like David shall I advance. When I left Holland brother Jan Hendrik had trice as much as I had, but now I have thirty times more than he has, so times can change. On Sunday mornings I can tell the farmhand to harness the horses to the carriage and thus I and my wife sit in the carriage and drive to the church. Thus my eyes are often filled with tears when I think how the Lord has blessed me so much”.
The migration to the United States is perhaps the most fascinating part in the history of the Te Selle family. Their adventures in this migration are even mentioned in a couple of books. In a short period from 1846 to 1882 a considerable part of the family moved to America, which is a unique event because in the nineteenth century the life of the Achterhoek farmers was simply characterized by tradition and a great deal of stability. In the middle of the 19th century Winterswijk was a quiet village.
In the Geographical Dictionary of the Netherlands by Van der Aa (1849) the village is described as follows:
“Winterswijk at the moment counts 1,366 houses, inhabited by 1,422 families, forming a population of about 7,600 inhabitants. They make a living in agriculture and trade, as well as in timber and in commerce and colonial produce. This trade is very much promoted by the newly constructed main road from Winterswijk over Zutphen to Deventer. This trade would become important if a connection could be achieved between this road and Prussia. Furthermore there are a number of weaving mills which cannot directly be considered as factories since the weaving is actually done by the members of the households in their own dwellings. Altogether there is a total of 6,550 Reformed people, from which 2,700 are church members. The separatists numbered 150 people, from whom, however, several sailed to America in the last two years. They form a congregation now. The 20 Baptists form a congregation of 50 souls together with Borculo. The Roman-Catholics now number 1,200, including 800 communicants. The Israëlites count 40 souls. The village itself consists of 8 streets, 1,300 good houses and 2,200 inhabitants and has a very beautiful new town hall.”
The Te Selles lived in the Winterswijk hamlets such as het Woold, Kotten and in de Brinkheurne amongst their neighbors with whom they share all customs and uses of the neighborhood and the hamlet. It was a way of living that was rooted in the past and for which they in fact did not have any alternative. Every new generation of Te Selles accepted this farmers’ life that was completely orientated toward self-sufficiency. This way of life was quite vulnerable. Every human tragedy or shortcoming, and every set back caused by nature had potentially significant consequences. The sudden passing of Jan Albert te Selle in 1845 at farmstead “de Selle” was just such a catastrophe. His wife Dela now had to keep the business going at the farm, together with her son Derk Willem who had just become eighteen years old. There were another six sons and the youngest of them, Harmen Jan, who was only one year of age. Everybody had to make his contribution to the best of his ability.
Child mortality was very high in those days, but even if a child of eight passed away and no longer reeled spools for the weaver or kept watch over the cows, the loss of this child became even more important. A son or daughter could hire himself or herself out when her or his place at home was occupied by a next child. Thus Harmen Jan became a farmhand at the “Siebelink” farmstead owned by “scholte” Jan Willem Tenkink in Kotten. In some cases another profession was looked for. Gerrit Jan te Selle became a carpenter; Jan Albert Jr. a weaver in Bredevoort; Hendrik Jan, a wooden shoe maker in Haaksbergen. All efforts and creativity were almost exclusively focused on the existence and survival of the family unit. For a pleasant diversion, there was the folk feast with its attractions and there were the festivities of the neighbours.
Even though tradition was strong, sometimes even in de Achterhoek there were people who did not want that kind of life any longer and who quit and moved out temporarily or forever. Often craftsmen tried to find a job in the more prosperous western parts of the Netherlands. Amsterdam always could use servant-girls. A lot of farmers’ daughters accepted jobs there before their marriage to earn money for a trousseau (bride’s outfit).
The eastern border with Westfalia was not a real obstacle, but in the west the world ended at the dunes of Holland. There was hardly any talk of people from the Achterhoek crossing the ocean before the great migration to America started. In the Achterhoek people moved from Winterswijk to Bredevoort or Aalten or from Eibergen to Vreden or from Aalten to Bocholt in Germany. Something drastic must have happened to set into motion and to perpetuate the extensive emigration that followed.
In this respect historians very often point to a trio of circumstances.
- The first cause was a worsening standard of living created for example by wars, natural disasters, or overpopulation. Also, discrimination, such as religious persecution, sometimes played a role.
- A second circumstance was the attraction of the land of emigration. This area must have the possibilities to offer the emigrants a better existence and way of life.
- And as a third factor the “land of promise” had to be within easy reach of the emigrants without too much risk. The transport fee has to be affordable, too, for people “with a purse that is not all that thick”.
The Standard of Living in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century
From the chapter about the landed gentry you may have gotten a clear idea that the Winterswijk society obviously had an agricultural character. The craftsmen and the shopkeepers also were dependent on the farming population. You could see this very clearly from how many of them went from farm to farm to work or to peddle their wares. Agriculture was adapted as much as possible to the needs and the condition of the soil. As a result of the power of the ‘scholten’ the Winterswijk landscape did not change much at all. There was a well-balanced relationship concerning the allocation of the soil into categories of arable land, meadow, wood, peat moor and wasteland.
For a long time there was a well-balanced population as well. For an extended period, the birthrate and mortality rate were almost completely in balance. Before 1800 already there was a significant change in this situation. Population increased and as a result the farmers were forced to do their utmost in order to cultivate new land. The surface of cultivated soil would not have been larger then 6 percent. The limits were reached very soon because manure supplies always were the bottle-neck of the existing farming system. “Continuous rye-farming” (without letting the soil lie fallow for some time) made it impossible to expand the number of cattle because the amount of meadow was limited. The heath (fields of heather) and the waste-lands were indispensable as a supplement to animal manure by the use of heather sods. In this manner the waste-lands were as important as the cultivated grounds.
The expansion of the population in Winterswijk resulted in partition of farms and created marginal settlements along the edges of the common grounds, consisting mostly of small houses with little land. In the hamlets and countrysides of Winterswijk where even the smallest occupied hut had an official name, a person could read how far the farm had come from the partition of the living accommodations. A single example: In the hamlet Dorpbuurt one came across: the Mentink, Mentink’newhouse’, Mentink’little-house’, Mentink-’barn’, Mentink’hill’ and Mentink’wood’
In the hamlet het Woold: Roerdink, Roerdink-’Forest’, Roerdink’gatehouse’, Roerdink’barn’, Roerdink-’openfields’, Roerdink-’kortschot’, Roerdink-’sheep-fold’, Roerdink-’newmeadow’ (nowadays Rozen-hoeve or ‘Rosesfarm’) and Roerdink-’hut-cotta-ge’. A hundred years earlier one came across only the farmstead Roerdink-ten Loo adjacent to the manorial farm Roerdink.
In the immediate surroundings of the ancestral farm “Fökkink” of Albert te Selle and similarly situated was the farm “Fökkink-’barn’. When Jan Hendrik te Selle emigrated, he married the day before departure his girl next door from “Fökkinkschoppe” – Hanna Onnink.
The new housings all came into being by growth of population. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the lists of emigrants one regularly came across the inhabitants of these later-created shelters, with or without land. Fortunately the growth of population could be met to some extent through the additional occupation of the linen weaver. In addition, more and more stubble-plants, roots, carrots, and fodder beets were grown. This made an expansion of the livestock possible and the further reclamation and cultivation of waste-land. For centuries the cottage industry had been a supplemental source of income.
In the inventory of the “Fökkink” farm, no less than three looms are found together with a bunch of flax and all the tools necessary for the processing of flax into linen. The Achterhoek even had the reputation of growing an excellent quality of flax. People did everything themselves. The flax was cultivated, water-retted (soaked), rippled, braked, hackled, spun to yarn and woven to cloth by their own hands.
If economic times were hard in the weaving room, then one tried to spend more productive hours in agriculture, and vice versa. If a Te Selle in the nineteenth century could no longer find himself a job at the farm, than he often became a carpenter or a weaver. However, as a result of increased population pressures, the number of professional weavers had become already too big, resulting in a poor livelihood for these professions. The day-wages of a Winterswijk weaver were 8 pennies.
The prices of grain increased by more than 200%. This increase was lucrative for those farmers growing for the market. At the baker’s, however, the big bread board displayed mainly rye breads. The small bread board with wheat bread most of the time was out of sight. Also the price of buckwheat – often mentioned in the letters from America – folIowed the rising price(s). People cultivated buckwheat on even poorer grounds than were used for growing rye.
Another important reason for emigrating was the enormous burden of taxation. Taxes in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century were predominantly indirect taxes, taxes which forced up the prices of taxed articles. There was no taxation based on financial capacity, which would protect the economically poor persons. Therefore, one encountered the “mill tax” at the grain mill, the “slaughter tax” on the slaughtering of livestock, taxation of vinegar, beer, wine and “burned waters” (distillated beverages). For others there were taxes on real estate, for which the farmers particularly were assessed. The “verponding”, was some kind of land tax or property tax and the “fireplace money” was also called “chimney money” Especially the “tax on the mill” and the “tax on the slaughter” were hated, especially the last one. When people went to the miller to have a sack of grain ground, they had to pay tax if it was meant for their own use. If people said that the flour was meant to feed livestock, then the customs officers poured sand through it.
In 1823 new regulations were introduced for the “tax on the slaughter”. The taxation was in force for all livestock and amounted to 10% of the estimated value. Also the slaughter of hogs and sheep was taxed at 8%. If the owner declared the value too low, then the animal that was supposed to be slaughtered was “roughly calculated”, as it was called. That meant that it was confiscated by payment of 5% above the declared price. One year later a public riot broke out against the tax authorities in the normally quiet town of Winterswijk. In the opinion of the people the unjust “roughly calculated” confiscation of a number of slaughter hogs, mostly owned by poor people, passed all bounds of fairness. The riots took place in the neighborhood of Essink’s meat hall. A number of people could not or did not want to pay the claimed extra payment, and at that time hogs were being slaughtered at Essink’s. Others had to borrow money in order to get back their slaughtered animals. When it was proclaimed that at Essink’s there was slaughtered waste-meat for sale, the whole village turned out, not to buy, but to protest. At Essink’s and at inspector Bomgaard’s the windows were promptly broken. The customs officers were enthusiastically abused. The inspector even suffered injuries. Some arrests were made. The tax officials tried to sell their bacon in adjacent villages even as far away as Vreden in Germany. But everywhere the meat was labeled “contaminated” pork and bacon. Even now people in America can tell you the story that in Holland people once had to pay if they wished to slaughter their own hog.
In addition to this tax misery, there were other disasters: extremely poor grain harvests and the potato blight. The potato blight, which started in Ireland, cost Belgium its entire 1845 harvest. In the warm and sultry weather the foliage of the potatoes turned brown and black and began to smell. The potatoes which were attached to it became rotten and slimy and smelled as bad as the foliage. “People started to dig up the potatoes, but no merry word was heard at the fields.” Many people lived primarily on potatoes. During the crisis people got only one per day and sometimes two on Sunday. People ate turnips and even fodderbeets intended for the livestock. At large farms, where farmers still had enough for themselves, people stole the bread out of the oven.
An additional cause of emigration was the religious factor. Although nothing from the letters of the Te Selle’s indicates that they belonged to the so-calIed “Separatists”, Harmen Jan te Selle and Jan Hendrik te Selle in America were taken care of by their uncle, Gerrit Willem Bloemers, and their aunt, Janna te Selle. Gerrit Bloemers certainly did belong to the Separatists. He was born at farm “Diekebos” in hamlet Het Woold as Gerrit Willem Dijksbos. He married Janna te Selle, who came from “Selleman” (= farm “De Selle”). They settled at farm “Veendershuisje” (translated as “Little house of the peat-moor worker”). This happened at the second of June in the year 1819. Twenty-seven years later they closed their Winterswijk farm and set off for America. Two of Gerrit’s letters are inserted in this chronicle. The letters clearly have an orthodox-protestant atmosphere. In the opinion of many people, the Dutch-Reformed Church in the beginning of the nineteenth century had deviated and did not keep to the straight and narrow, i.e. the principles and maxims of John Calvin. Many clergymen no longer adhered to the regulations of the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619); the liberal creed was constantly gaining ground. Many people had serious objections to these changes. In 1834 a first separation took place. Referring to the regulation of the constitution at that time, which assured protection to the existing denominations, the government – and more particularly King Willem I – made the Separatists life a misery. The practice of open worship was made impossible for them by means of heavy fines and by quartering soldiers at houses of those who continued to resist. The government tried hard to suppress the movement.
It is not surprising that the followers of this Separatist creed did consider emigration. They formed, however, only a small percentage of the large group of emigrants from Winterswijk. Van der Aa in his “Geographic Dictionary” mentions a portion of 150 Separatists. Consequently that must have been roughly 100 people, whereas at the same time in a couple of years more than 900 people left Winterswijk! Yet the religious factor will not have been so very strong. The authorities generally inquired of the emigrants what their motives were as they set off. In the Achterhoek rarely a motive of religious nature was registered.
Emigration reasons are long and complex. For Europe in the 1840′s these included the liberal riots charging through the continent, regular bouts of cholera, population pressures, religious restrictions, and bad agricultural situations. The deep-rooted situation in the Winterswijk countryside centered on the domination by the Scholten landed gentry and the taxation pressures. It is not surprising that Harmen Jan, Jan Hendrik and, later, also Gerrit Jan all decided to leave hearth, home, and family. When a person reads through the Te Selle letters, all these motives are found.
In addition, advice either to people left behind to come or absolutely not to come to America as well as stringent social criticism was forthcoming in letters. Reading, centuries later, these letters of honest assessment, we are able to see ourselves on the same paths that our early relatives traveled. Enthralled by the content, we have our attention held and easily imagine ourselves in the things they came across. After all, details always have a certain charm when somebody is telling about something that he himself has experienced.
The letters transport us mentally to the young 19th century America in such a way that we can easily put ourselves in the not so far away pioneer past. The description of these early emigration events by our relatives presents a straightforward and “human document”, and they are carefully preserved at “Fökkink”. For this preservation, Albert te Selle deserves a feather in his cap.
America as a Beckoning Alternative
Between 1821 and 1924 about 55 million Europeans emigrated to other parts of the world. Although America certainly was not the only goal, far and away the biggest part of the European emigrants, about 33 million people did go to America. Yet less than 1% was Dutch. In contrast with the Irish, Germans, and others, the Dutch didn’t leave their homeland in massive quantities. In certain parts of the country the picture was otherwise rather different.
America had a magnetic attractiveness to people and that appeal was so strong that in some especially poor regions, like the Achterhoek, big parts of the population started to shift. Conditions of life in Europe got people into this emigration. The steam trains on the barely constructed railroads and travel via new steam ship companies offered them a way to travel. America offered the space.
Some Dutch emigrants also considered going to Dutch East India (Indonesia) or to Suriname. For the Separatists, the Isle of Java was an attractive alternative because people could then stay in a Dutch territory, but the guarantee that worship was free was absent. Settlements of Dutch farmers in Suriname were not successful because of bad planning, no professionalism, and general ignorance about the situation at the location.
For the Achterhoek people, however, only America was possible. As far as they knew only this possibility existed. The number of people from this region that went to other territories can be safely ignored. Another negligible factor was the chance that people from Winterswijk would have read an American book or travel report about that country. A larger influence was the possibility that the farmers sometimes laid hands on a brochure or an emigrant guide that encouraged emigration. But in the period between 1830 and 1845 when Gerrit Willem Bloemers and Janna te Selle started to consider emigration, none of that propaganda material was available.
Ordinary people were suspicious of printed material, especially if it was issued by the government or came from unknown sources. They had been tricked often enough and consequently were cautious. Written letters from family members or from reliable family acquaintances were the best propaganda for emigration for our Winterswijk families. Letters in general from uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters.
Even Harmen Jan te Selle was aware of the fact that every word written by him about emigration would tilt the scales at the family home farm for emigration. Therefore he was very careful as he wrote words to his brother Derk Willem to tell him about the pro’s and con’s of emigration even to Derk Willem who had the right to stay on “Fökkink” because he was the oldest son.
Letter 8-b started carefully because in Wisconsin farming was quite different from what the brothers had expected and the first reports from Jan Hendrik about his experiences in Nebraska had not yet arrived in Wisconsin. Therefore Harmen Jan begins his letter by writing:
“Brother Derk Willem, you have written me a letter which I have given a lot of consideration, and yet I have not come to a conclusion to advise you one way or the other. Therefore, I’ll leave it to you. Yet I should say it will not be as worthwhile for you as for your children…..”
And he ends his letter carefully, too:
“Yes loved ones, what more shall I write you. I have written you earlier what it would cost to settle here, so I don’t think it necessary to repeat this once again. Dear brother I don’t know what more I should write you about this. I have written as much about it as I could. Therefore, brother judge for yourself what you should do about it. You won’t have to eat black bread1. I haven’t seen that again. Well, this should do.”
The letters from the emigrants were handed from one hand to another in Winterswijk. The letters were personal and they inspired confidence, since they were written by departed neighbors and acquaintances. Every author recommended a certain place that he settled on himself.
The Te Selles started their existence in America in Wisconsin, where already a good number of settlers was present. In spite of that collective, farming was difficult. We might say that with respect to their preference, they could not “make money” as quickly as they had expected. Some time later, Nebraska came into sight. Emigration from Europe got a stronger impulse as the Great Plains of the American West became more accessible to farmers. For a long time, European emigrants ignored the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains during their colonization mainly because they had come from regions with forests and rivers.
The Great Plains confronted them with something new. This was a land of little water. Rainfall was scarce with long periods of drought; rivers were shallow and unreliable; and there was little wood to build houses and fences. In Jan Hendrik’s¬†first letter from Nebraska he wrote:
“The entire prairie, wherever one goes, all grass. Trees, bushes, shrubs one does not find here either, except along the brooks, there is wood, how small the brooks may be. Yet wood, as far as it is concerned here, is in short supply. Other fuel is not here, so one must burn coal. If wood were only planted it would grow very well. Oh, one might have a sack full of pine seeds or other seeds! lt is, however, too far away to get.”
But as the farmers got the suitable tools, the cattle farmers could not in any way hinder them. Breeding cows and sheep was something natural to the Great Plains farms. The cattle breeders in this “cattle kingdom” were convinced that it would be a mistake for farmers to settle there. But the Homestead Act of 1862 granted every pioneer in the West, who was at least 21 years of age and head of a family, a territory of 160 acres for a payment of a registration fee under the condition that the settler stayed on the acquired land for a minimum of five years. The stream of pioneering immigrants gathered force quickly with this incentive. All the while, railroad companies laid open this new land and large scale propaganda put out in its favor. Land speculators joined, with eagerness. The propaganda effort of the railroad companies persuaded entire communities inside and outside of America to settle the Great Plains:
“Why don’t you choose a homestead for yourself? This is the only thing Uncle Sam will ever grant you. We need landless people for a land without people”
Of course this fantastic formula also made an equally fantastic change in Europe during the 1870′s and 1880′s. The Northern Pacific, a company having itself available 40 million acres of land, flooded Europe with publications and for some time the company employed more than eight hundred foreign agents to sell land. In this respect it is interesting to read Letter 20 written by Gerrit Jan te Selle. In that letter he warns the family against the evil practices of former neighbor Willem Lefferdink!
In addition to free American land, other reasons worked as a magnet for emigrants. The resistance of Native Americans had been broken, and gold and silver had been found. There were no kings ruling autocratically. Some emigrants wrote letters praising the political climate in America so highly and in contrast to their homelands that the Austrian government, for example, burned – without exceptions – all mail originating from America, “in order that these letters would not spread a desire for a better homeland or for more free institutions”.
The chances for freedom and advancement in America seemed to be unlimited. More than 8 million immigrants were flocking to the country; the population rose with 22 million.
The Land of Promise Has To Be Within Easy Reach and With Minimal Risks
The passage to America was a perilous undertaking in the early period of emigration. The ships on which the voyage were made were abominable. Extortion for money by ship owners, captains, and crew for the voyages made by the emigrants often made the journeys take catastrophic turns.
Accommodations for these passengers would not even now be acceptable for the transportation of cattle today. With head winds for weeks lengthening the journey and with distress over food that people prepared for themselves with only a right to “fire, fresh water and a box bed”, travel conditions were terrible. Besides those hardships, the compasses used for navigation often were not solid and many captains went to sea with as little as a book with aphorisms concerning the weather and a thermometer to catch the Gulf Stream!
Of 90,000 Irish people crossing the ocean in 1847, 15,000 died on their way or immediately after arrival in the hellish quarantine stations. On board, women and girls were in the greatest dangers by crews. In November 1853, the twenty-eight emigrant ships that arrived in New York showed a loss of lives totaling 1,141 out of 13,762 passengers. As a consequence of these statistics, the American press started a campaign against the “damned pest ships and floating coffins” and Congress passed a law which fined ship owners ten dollars for every death on board.
Once the emigrants landed, they were swarmed by shady characters who relieved the new arrivals of their last cents. The American coastal cities were centers of vice, robbery and other crimes. If emigrants came safely through those two initial zones, than they met with the gamblers and the cheaters on the riverboats who also gladly made use of the emigrants’ naivety. At the place of destination, there were many more aspects stacked up against and waiting for our earlier relatives who boldly took on emigration to a new land.
Fortunately the first important group of Dutchmen, the Separatists, fared better. Among them were Uncle Bloemers and Aunt Janna te Selle-Bloemers. The voyage, led by the Ministers A.C. van Raalte, H.P. Scholte, and C. van der Meulen, was brought about after careful plans were drawn up.
After arrival in America, these first immigrants delivered scrupulous reports on their experiences to family and friends in the homeland.
These letters and also the letters of the Te Selle brothers proved that only a few immigrants from the Netherlands entered the New World at random. In 1846, the year in which Van Raalte brought a group of emigrants from Arnhem to Michigan, the total number of emigrants from the Netherlands amounted to 2,000 people. In the same year 5,000 Germans emigrated to North America. Many of these people traveled through the Netherlands on their way to Rotterdam and Amsterdam. At the coast some of them had insufficient money to pay for their passages.
We don’t have a travel story from Uncle and Aunt Bloemers, but we do have one written by Harmen Jan te Selle. From this letter, we find that railways were used and that legislation didn’t miss its effects. The Te Selles were very satisfied about the voyage and the ship by which they crossed the Atlantic: “but only one child in the age of six months died” and the food also gets his approval. “I shall also tell you about our food. Many did not like it, but we ourselves cannot say we didn’t. In the morning we had fresh bread with ample butter on it and coffee with sugar. In the afternoon we started off with soup first and afterwards potatoes with meat, and so much meat one could hardly eat it all. In the evening tea with sugar and sea biscuits as many as we liked and again with butter, and Saturday rice instead of potatoes with either molasses or sugar on it and Sunday we had pudding and so we cannot say it was that bad really.”
Harmen Jan te Selle’s travel report in letter 2 is one of the most pleasant parts to read.
- Swart brood: roggebrood – ryebread ↩