The Dutch in Massachusetts, the USA
It’s an almost forgotten historical Dutch enclave: Whitinsville, Massachusetts. In around 1886 the first Dutchman arrived in the town from the province of Friesland, bringing with him a herd of dairy cows from the Netherlands.
Hans Miersma, 2.06 metres tall, plays basketball for Whitinsville Christian School. Last week, he led his team to victory in the Division 3 championships for smaller schools in the state of Massachusetts. His height and his blond hair leave little doubt as to his Dutch roots. And he’s not alone. His teammates all have typically Dutch surnames: Bloem, Koopman, VandenAkker and Dykstra. His coach is called Bajema, and the school principal is one of the many Vander Baans in and around Whitinsville.
Dutch family tree This Dutch-flavoured slice of small-town America is located just one hour west of Boston. The main street is home to Wiersma insurance, Vander Zicht real estate and the Hamer legal firm. The gravestones at the local cemetery mark the passing of people with Dutch surnames such as Foppema, Miedema, Bangma, Ebbeling and De Vries. It feels like discovering a long-lost branch of the Dutch family tree.
“Our ethnic background is Frisian,” confirms school principal Chris Vander Baan. History teacher Dick VandenBerg explains that around 1886 a man called Jan Bosma from near the Dutch town of Sneek became the first Dutch emigrant to settle in Whitinsville. Bosma brought his Frisian dairy cows with him, to replace local cattle that had succumbed to disease.
Dick VandenBerg recounts: “He described Whitinsville in the letters he sent home and before long around 60 families had followed in his footsteps. There was work for them here in the factory and on the farms.”
Economic emigrants Unlike the wave of emigration to West Michigan in the 19th century, the Dutch emigrants to Whitinsville did not emigrate because of their strict religious beliefs, according to Dick VandenBerg: "The emigration was economically motivated. But of course the church was still an important part of their cultural life. In around 1900 they founded the first Dutch Reformed church in New England right here."
Whitinsville is far less well known than places such as Grand Rapids and Holland in West Michigan, where many descendants and traditions established by Dutch emigrants can still be found.
Devoted to Jesus The first church services in Whitinsville were held in Dutch. It was also the language of tuition for the first pupils to attend the Christian school founded in 1928. Things have changed a lot since then. Whitinsville Christian now teaches around 550 pupils from pre-school to high-school, the majority of whom no longer have a Dutch background. But Dutch surnames continue to dominate the roll call and the school board.
The locals still refer to Whitinsville Christian as the “Dutch School”. It’s seen as something positive, since "the Dutch" in the community are known for being "particularly devoted to Jesus Christ and upholding Christian traditions," says school principal Chris Vander Baan. But the Dutch connection can have an adverse effect, discouraging people from other Christian backgrounds who sometimes think they won’t be welcome. Dutch treat That’s one of the main reasons why Dutch cultural heritage is no longer a major focus at school in Whitinsville. However, there is one notable exception: the pastry filled with ground almonds that is baked and sold as a December school fundraiser. "That’s a real Dutch treat that people from all over the county stand in line for," says Dick VandenBerg.
Dutch DNA is clearly evident in lanky basketball player Hans Miersma. His father John, only a few centimetres shorter, is treasurer of the school board and son of Dutch emigrants from Nunspeet and Leeuwarden. Hans and his three sisters are going on holiday to the Netherlands for the first time this spring. "I’m really curious about the land of my grandparents. I’m proud of my Dutch roots,” smiles Hans. “My dad says everyone there looks like me and for once I won’t tower above everyone in the street."