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When you grow up in Pella, Iowa, you have an automatic version of heritage that adheres to you at birth. We all knew the story of Pella: 800 religiously persecuted refugees led by Hendrik Peter Scholte, their “Dominie,” who had seceded from the state church of the Netherlands in 1834.
That was the only story we heard in our school years, booming from overhead speakers as we marched in parades; written in black and white in the pamphlets we handed out while staffing volunteer spots at the Scholte House; taught in the fifth-grade field trips by local schools.
In 2016, I accepted the position of Executive Director of the Pella Historical Museums, I knew this story. I had lived this story. I had fully absorbed this story.
What I discovered later is that what I had been taught was part of the story.
Being on staff at a historical museum gives one certain perks in being able to look at primary documents. I was struck by the divisions that took place immediately upon building the city of Pella—churches splitting (what is it in our Dutch genes that seems to mandate church splits?), cliques of settlers made up of residents’ native provinces, negative attitudes and comments toward Scholte and his wife, Maria, who was deemed “too beautiful” to be a Dominie’s wife. (Scholte’s sardonic reply to his elders who broached the subject—“What would you have me do with her, gentlemen? Drown her? Poison her?”)
In 2022, Pella celebrated the 175th anniversary of its 1847 founding. As part of that, I was invited to speak at a conference in the Netherlands that looked at the emigration from the Dutch perspective—why did they go? What was their experience? How did a little town on the Iowa prairie settled by 800 dissidents survive?
I was stunned that some of the leading historical scholars in the Netherlands were attending a conference in the tiny town of Noordeloos in South Holland, talking about Pella, Iowa. I sat, amazed, in the back of the conference room with my translator, watching slides of Pella’s WalMart with its Dutch front; our local Pizza Ranch (which for some reason, they found incredibly amusing); and a band that marches in red wooden shoes from our hometown. I noticed that my interpreter quit giving me the translated info; I surmised that the comments weren’t all that complimentary.
But equally surprising was the reaction of some of these folks, many of whom had family members who had left with Scholte. They were a bit sarcastic, a little chip-on-the-shoulder-ish: “After all, you guys were the ones who left,” one old man told me. “You were the troublemakers.”
I had the feeling they would have been thrilled to hear that our little town had withered on the vine.
But later, reflecting, I realized I had never considered it that way. I guess we were the deviants, the rebels, “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” as Emma Lazarus put it.
By 1840, the religious situation had greatly ameliorated in the Netherlands; a new King was granting more religious liberties, and Scholte had agreed with the terms of these new laws. It looked for a while that he wouldn’t be leading anyone out of the country. True, the economy was in terrible condition, especially for the poor, and the iron-clad social hierarchy meant that anyone born into poverty would most likely stay there. There were those who wanted to leave for that reason alone.
More study at the National Archives in The Hague and back in Pella gave me a few more jolts. The archivists in the Netherlands had showed me page after page of letters Scholte had written while in the Netherlands, mostly to wealthy benefactors. In one of them, dated October 1846, Scholte describes why he’s decided, finally, to pull the trigger on emigration: A widow in his congregation had allowed Scholte’s church to meet in her large house. Laws at the time declared groups of more than 20 have an official permit to gather. The widow was fined, and Scholte appeared with her in court.
The letter is plaintive and expresses the complaint that he (Scholte) is no longer respected by those in the upper echelons of the justice system or the government. “There is nothing else I can do here,” he writes, adding, “It is time for us to leave.” In short, Scholte was no longer the big frog in the pond. Adding to that, I suspect, were the other contemporaries of his time, Revs. Antonie Brummelkamp and Albertus Van Raalte, who were leading their own groups overseas. The seed of competition had been planted.
In his booklet Dutch Emigration to North America 1624-1860, written in 1940, Bertus Harry Wabeke, writes:
To distinguish clearly between material and spiritual causes of the emigration is impossible, for the emphasis changed with the individual case. With the majority of emigrants, famine, unemployment, cut-throat competition, excessive and unevenly distributed taxation was the chief consideration…others shared in the general desire for greater freedom—freedom of worship and education as well as freedom from oppressive supervision and compulsory military service.
To strengthen this argument, in 1848 the Dutch government published, in the Staatscourant, statistics about those who had emigrated in 1847—the single largest year of emigration from the Netherlands prior to the years following World War II. The survey probed the reasons Dutch citizens had chosen to leave. Of the 2,334 heads of families and single persons emigrating that year, only 439 listed a desire for greater freedom of worship among their reasons for leaving. Of these, only 149 said religious reasons were the sole reason for emigration. The lure of land and a better life was the strongest desires among those surveyed.
Some asked me if my learning all of this destroyed my faith in the “Pella story.” Not at all. Despite learning that our city was founded, perhaps, more on economic and civil liberties than on religious ones, my view of Scholte was actually enhanced. Knowing that a man who had been put on the pedestal of my childhood was a real person, with all the faults and fallacies of the common man, was refreshing. This fuller story filled in the blanks of the pat script that I’d grown up with and presents a complex city founder as someone who was brilliant, driven, determined…as well as, at times, inflexible, arrogant, and needing to exert control.
If nothing else, it taught me that there’s hope for everyone.