Not many Dutch flags were flying today, though I put out the red, white, and blue tricolor for the first time at the new house. Many of my neighbors are of Dutch extraction, although the Netherlands banner stood solitary on the block. It would not be much of a surprise if it was the only Dutch flag flying in town. More's the pity. But America is a place that allows us to make and observe our traditions as we see fit. Dare to be different.
Every April 27, the Netherlands celebrates Koningsdag, the King’s birthday. Willem-Alexander turns 54 and, like the year before, no great celebrations, street parties, or other festivals are being held due to the pandemic. Aside from some Dutch immigrants and very traditional families, few in America recognize this foreign national holiday, but if any state should share in the happy sentiments of the Dutch, it is New Jersey. We share more than just “Bergen” names like “Hackensack,” “Cresskill,” and “Schraalenburgh,” but also a shared national origin.
In the 16th Century, the “low countries” were ruled by the Spanish monarchy, known as the Spanish Netherlands (Belgium) with the United Provinces—a republic of seven Dutch “states” nominally headed by the noble House of Orange. These small states joined together and, fearing the persecution and oppression of the Spanish, fought a war of independence that lasted four generations before finally emerging strong and free. At the time, Spain was the most powerful European power in the world, with colonies in the New World and little tolerance for upstarts in its possessions.
If that sounds at all familiar, it should.
As the new nation gained its freedom, the Dutch quickly established themselves as highly savvy traders and became wealthy from its commercial endeavors around the world. The arts flourished and Dutch credit was vast and valuable.
Among those endeavors was the establishment of New Netherland following the exploration of the North American seaboard by Englishman Henry Hudson, in Dutch employ. The Dutch established New Netherland as a commercial investment and settlers created a capital, New Amsterdam, on Manhattan island. The colony extended across Long Island, up to today’s Albany, and northern New Jersey. When the Swedish established a colony in what is now Delaware, and the New Jersey counties of Salem, and Gloucester, the Dutch were quick to capture it and add it to their own possessions.
In 1664, the English captured New Netherland and renamed the provinces New York and New Jersey.
For most of the Dutch families living in New Jersey, life was more or less the same, despite the change of flags. Dutch culture had been firmly established and the Dutch language was still spoken to a significant extent into the early 20th Century.
Fast forward to the American Revolution, the United Provinces were the first to officially salute an American flagged ship, an incident which incensed Great Britain. In 1780, the Dutch—who had been providing financial and material support for the rebellious colonies—officially entered the war against the British. By the strange circumstances of geopolitics and a heft case of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, the Protestant Dutch were fighting the Protestant British while allied to their traditional enemies, the Catholic French and Spanish.
Dutch New Jerseyans continued to make up the fabric of American culture, even contributing to a large extent to what is considered the New Jersey accent, those elements which were not affected by later immigrants from southern Italy and Sicily. “Jersey Dutch” was, in fact, a dialect of Dutch spoken in northern New Jersey up until about a hundred years ago when English came to fully dominate the language. And, to New Jersey’s credit, “Jersey Dutch” was, in fact, actually Dutch, unlike “Pennsylvania Dutch” which refers to a German dialect—Deutsche, Anglicized.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before a Dutch-American, albeit a New Yorker, came to occupy the White House. Martin Van Buren, born in 1782 at the close of the Revolutionary War, was sworn in as the 8th president on March 4, 1837—the same year the Dutch-named Bergen county and English-named Essex county was divided to allow the establishment of Passaic County. (In the southern part of the state, Atlantic County was established with the same piece of legislation.) The Roosevelt family, which produced Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano, descend from 17th Century Dutch immigrants, although New Jersey has yet to match its neighbor for putting a New Jersey-born president, Dutch or otherwise, in the Oval Office in the White House since Grover Cleveland (Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia.)
Towns like Prospect Park, a tiny but highly mixed town ethnically and religiously, bear a number of Dutch names on their streets and the municipal logo incorporates a windmill and wooden shoe. It is also the town where yours truly's Dutch immigrant great-grandfather settled and raised his family while working in neighboring Paterson.
There are still parishioners of a Dutch Reformed Church in Franklin Lakes who remember services given in Dutch before grudgingly switching to English.
In Belleville there stands the Reformed Dutch Church of the Second River, built and rebuilt over the centuries.
In Holland Township in Hunterdon County, one can find the Amsterdam Historic District and the now-closed Volendam Windmill.
Stanton, also found in Hunterdon, has long Dutch roots as well. Readington Township Museums supports the 18th Century Dutch Bouman-Stickney Farmstead.
Jersey City’s oldest building is the Newkirk House, also known as the Summit House, a Dutch colonial sandstone building constructed in 1690 and still standing today. Jersey City also is home to the Van Wagenen House, where George Washington is honored each Presidents Day for having met with the Marquis de Lafayette there. Jersey City additionally is the site of the Van Vorst House—named for an old 17th Century colonial family of the same name, remains as a private residence.
In Oakland, one can find the preserved Van Allen House, home of the Oakland Historical Society, where George Washington stayed during the American Revolution, shadowing British troop movements.
New Jersey Dutch-Americans continue to shape and define the Garden State. More recently, Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen who represented New Jersey’s 11th District and the 25th District in the New Jersey Assembly hails from a long, venerable Dutch line stretching back to pre-Revolutionary America. One would be remiss not to point out that Bruce Springsteen does, in fact, have Dutch heritage and his father, Douglas Frederick Springsteen, was nicknamed “Dutch.”
So, if you encounter your Dutch or Dutch-American neighbor, friend, coworker or are one yourself, April has both Dutch-American Friendship Day on April 19 and for those who hail from the old country, you can wish them a “Fijne Koningsdag” as they celebrate—most likely at home or on Zoom as the pragmatic Dutch would during such times.