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The Dutch Door To America

June 2024
15min read

“One nation is a copy of the other,” said John Adams on his first visit to the Netherlands; two centuries later an American visitor to Holland can still trace the connection

We are well weaned from the delicate milk of our mother country, and inured to the difficulties of a strange and hard land,” wrote John Robinson and William Brewster in 1617. They were negotiating a land grant in the New World with England’s Plymouth Company, for their followers, the Pilgrims. The strange and hard land they spoke of was Holland, where the Pilgrims were living.


We are well weaned from the delicate milk of our mother country, and inured to the difficulties of a strange and hard land,” wrote John Robinson and William Brewster in 1617. They were negotiating a land grant in the New World with England’s Plymouth Company, for their followers, the Pilgrims. The strange and hard land they spoke of was Holland, where the Pilgrims were living.

Dutch-American history officially began in 1609, when the Englishman Henry Hudson, sailing under the Dutch flag, claimed Nieuw Amsterdam for Holland. Eleven years later Dutch ideas about government and daily life reached these shores with the Pilgrims. Those ideas would be instrumental in shaping what would become American culture, and their sources can still be visited all over Holland.

Life in Leiden was agreeable, but Pilgrims worked about the effect of Dutch permissiveness on their children as well as about a loss of their English heritage.

The Pilgrims had evaded English persecution through the peculiar tolerance of the Calvinist Dutch, who had given them a religious safe haven upon their arrival in 1608. By 1609 the newcomers had settled in Leiden, whose city fathers declared they could “refuse no honest people free entry to come live in the city.” In Leiden the Pilgrims joined other British exiles amid a population of students, intellectuals, and refugees, including Gypsies, Mennonites, Lutherans, and Muslims.

While in Holland, the Pilgrims attracted some new members from England and from what is now the French-speaking part of Belgium, then occupied by the Spanish. Among the latter were Jean Pesijn and his wife, Marie de la Noye, Walloons from Lannoy, France. Relatives of theirs were passengers on the Mayflower , and in 1621 their son Philippe sailed across in pursuit of a woman, effectively ferrying the surname Delano (as in Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to America.

John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ leader, lived in the Groenepoort (Green Gateway) at Kloksteeg (Bell Alley) 21 in Leiden. The building grew until it took up three sides of the square, providing one-room apartments for twenty-one of the poorer Pilgrim families. Robinson, unable to sail to the New World because of ill health, stayed there until his death in 1625. By 1637, with most of the Pilgrims off to America, the remaining few found it difficult to keep up the Groenepoort. It was soon torn down, but the almshouse built on its site in 1683 still stands in what is now Leiden’s most charming neighborhood, with narrow, cobblestoned pedestrian alleys, antique shops, restaurants, and tiny step-gabled brick houses.

The Groenepoort’s starkness contrasted with the splendor of the still-standing brick Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church) directly across the street. Pilgrims would often wander into St. Peter’s to listen to the organist or the choirs. On the church’s south wall a bronze plaque from the National Council of Congregational Churches of the United States—the Pilgrims’ spiritual descendants—honors them. Inside, where a corner of the church is devoted to Pilgrim history, a stone tablet from the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the United States praises John Robinson’s “broadly tolerant mind.”

The deconsecrated Pieterskerk is now used, like so many Dutch churches, for exhibits, banquets, and seminars. Leiden University even gives exams there. The church always had a secular side; in Pilgrim days Leiden’s prostitutes picked up clients there, and workers taking a shortcut pushed wheelbarrows through the nave.

John Robinson, who was in his thirties, immersed himself in university life, matriculating in 1615 and gaining “scholar’s privileges,” which included a generous allowance of free beer and wine. The other leader, William Brewster, spent his time around the corner, at a printshop on the Pieterskerk Koorsteeg (Choir Alley), from which he ran the Pilgrim’s Press, publishing tracts in English, Latin, and Dutch. Thomas Brewer, who funded the enterprise, lived in Groenehuis (Green House), two doors down from the Groenepoort, but Brewster was less fortunate; he lived on the Stinksteeg, which meant just what it sounds like. Recently the city honored him by renaming the small passageway on Pieterskerk Koorsteeg the William Brewstersteeg.

The pilgrims’ clandestine publishing activities were controversial from the start. Documents found their way across the Channel, and one, David Calderwood’s The Perth Assembly , enraged British authorities by criticizing King James’s imposition of Anglican bishops on the Presbyterian church of Scotland. After the British ambassador pressed reluctant Dutch authorities, Thomas Brewer was arrested and jailed. Pressure from the English finally succeeded in shutting down his press. Meanwhile, Brewster went underground in late 1618 and spent time in both Holland and England before sailing on the Mayflower in 1620.

The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, at Beschuitsteeg 9, behind the Hooglandsekerk, where numerous Pilgrims who remained behind were buried, is run by Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, an American and a former curator of the Plimouth Plantation museum in Massachusetts. Bangs is an authority on Pilgrim life from the smallest details to the larger philosophical issues. The Pilgrim museum is housed in a period home—cramped or cozy, depending on your point of view. Over the mantel hangs a painting of Edward Winslow, the only known portrait of a Pilgrim. Winslow was Brewster’s printing assistant, and he championed the idea of a United Colonies of New England, modeled on Holland’s United Provinces.

Bangs can rattle off examples of Dutch influence in the New World, such as the ladder-back chair, wood-planked house construction, and perhaps even Thanksgiving, which some suggest is based on an annual October commemoration of the 1574 lifting of the Spanish siege of Leiden. Administrative strategies that the Pilgrims exported from Holland included the division of colonies into boroughs, care for the poor, civil marriages (which foreshadowed the American Constitution’s separation of church and state), and inheritance laws giving children the right to inherit equal shares of their parents’ estates.

The Pilgrims’ doctor, Samuel Fuller, most likely learned herbal medicine and botany while strolling through the university’s botanical gardens, said to be Europe’s oldest. This verdant patch still beckons pedestrians. Miles Standish, an English soldier who joined the Pilgrims while stationed in Leiden, probably learned military tactics and city planning from public lectures he attended at the university.


Life in Leiden was fairly agreeable, but Pilgrim parents worried about the effect of Dutch permissiveness on their children as well as about a lack of converts, loss of their English heritage, and continuing economic duress: even their children had to work hard. In 1619 one of their members, James Chilton, was stoned by locals. It was a case of mistaken identity, and he survived, but the gaze westward became more focused thereafter. The time had come.

John Robinson had gained some favor with the local burghers, and they persuaded the Dutch authorities to offer free transport to a plantation in Nieuw Amsterdam, but the Pilgrims preferred emigrating to British lands, where they might develop a society based on their own ideals. Ultimately an agreement was struck with England’s Plymouth Company, which had a charter to settle much of America’s eastern seaboard. On the day of their departure in 1620, the Pilgrims made their way down the Kloksteeg and the Rapenburg, a route they had often followed to their chapel in the Begijnhof. They climbed onto barges for the short canal journey to the port of Delfshaven in Rotterdam, where they would board the schooner Speedwell .

Delfshaven’s late Gothic, formerly Catholic, Oudekerk has been renamed the Pelgrimvaderskerk (Pilgrim Father Church). Legend has it that on their last night in Holland in 1620, the Pilgrims sought shelter there, but historians doubt it. The church still dominates the small, picturesque harbor, and to this day the Pilgrims are remembered there through special Thanksgiving Day services and an American gift of a stained-glass window depicting the Pilgrims’ departure.

John Robinson, who stayed behind, nonetheless published a “Long Letter” spelling out ideas for legal and social organization in the New World. John Quincy Adams, a Mayflower descendant and, with his parents, John and Abigail Adams, one of the first travelers back to Holland in pursuit of Pilgrim history, said that Robinson’s letter influenced the writing of the Constitution. The sixth President studied at Leiden University in his youth and later returned to the Netherlands as ambassador.

The Speedwell , with its sixty-four passengers, departed for Southampton at dawn on July 22, 1620, where they planned to sail for America in tandem with the Mayflower . Problems with the ship forced the emigrants onto the Mayflower . Another thirty-nine emigrants, most of whom were not Pilgrims, joined them. William Brewster, who had still been living underground in Holland, traveled under an assumed name to meet up with them, outwitting the British authorities in Delfshaven and Southampton. They arrived at Plymouth Rock two months later, after storms drove them north of their destination in Virginia. More Pilgrims left Leiden in 1621 on the Fortune , in 1623 on the Anne , and in 1629 on a second Mayflower .

Delfshaven, incorporated into Rotterdam in 1886, is the only part of the city that survived the bombings of World War II. Today café and shops occupy historically restored pakhuisen (warehouses) there, alone with an early-eighteenth-century jenever (gin) distillery windmill and a jenever proeferij (gin-tasting bar). The Raadhuis (City Hall), built in 1580, was restored on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ departure; in its lobby hangs a replica of the Mayflower ’s passenger list.

After immersion in Delfshaven’s cozy diorama-like neighborhood, the visitor can step out into the surrounding hubbub of the dynamic Rotterdam that grew up in the huge, empty swaths left by World War II. Today’s city is a postwar playground of whimsical and audacious architecture. Welcome to the twenty-first century.

After a stop in cozy, diorama-like Delfshaven, the visitor can step out into the dynamic Rotterdam that grew up in the huge, empty swaths left by World War II.

The Europoort is the world’s largest port, where stacked rows of the colorful containers that revolutionized shipping look like huge cubist sculptures. Today 40 percent of all goods crossing Europe pass through the Netherlands, most through this harbor, yet an important historic site remains: the Wilhelminakade (Wilhelmina Pier).

During the seventeenth century Rotterdam’s waterfront became a departure point for European emigrants. William Penn traveled often to Holland and Germany to disseminate his tract Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania , which described the colonies as “the Seeds of Nations.” By 1730 hundreds of Mennonites had passed through Rotterdam to make their way to Pennsylvania.

In 1873 the Wilhelminakade, built on a peninsula that juts out into the Meuse River, became the gateway not only for the first tourist passengers of the Holland America Line, who took luxurious cruises around the world, but also for more humble emigrants bound for Canada, Brazil, Australia, and the United States. They often stayed in the port for several days in a landverhuizer (emigrants’) hotel. Holland America’s, more dormitory than hotel, had nine hundred beds. While there, emigrants were deloused, given medical examinations, and prepared for their immigration inspections in New York. American legislation had made the shipping companies responsible for sending healthy travelers. If the passengers failed their tests, the companies were fined and had to pay for return passage.

In 1984 Holland America sold its Rotterdam headquarters. The building stood empty for ten years and only recently reopened, with much of the Art Nouveau decor and two domed clock towers still intact, as the very chic Hotel New York. The hotel sits majestically at the tip of the Wilhelminakade, a sentinel to passing ships and an emblem of an enduring link between the two nations. There is easy access from the main part of the city, by driving across the Erasmus Bridge, but the trip is best made by water taxi, which leaves from Veerhaven in Rotterdam and goes directly to the pier. As one stands there, overlooking misty Rotterdam and the busy maritime scene, it’s easy to cast one’s thoughts back to times when emigrants walked up the gangway to uncertain futures and when others with more substantial means prepared for luxurious cruises.


Passenger ships began to dock here again in 1996. There are plans to renovate the entire waterfront area in the distinct Dutch fashion, where old is reinvented and historical blends with functional, and soon docks that were once alive with traffic in exotic spices and teas will reopen as a market selling decorative carvings, rugs, and the like.

Amsterdam, too, is full of places connected to America’s past, many of them located in its nautisch kwartier (waterfront area). In 1779 Commo. John Paul Jones came here to pick up the frigate Indien , purchased by the young government and built in Amsterdam’s harbor. During the Revolutionary War Jones had often used Texel, an island off the north coast and now a popular seaside resort, as his base for raids on British ships. On September 23, 1779, he had sailed into Texel with his prize, the British warship Serapis . Texel’s citizens risked British fury as they tended to his wounded and his ships.

When Jones toured Holland after the war, thousands turned out to erect him. In Amsterdam children sang a song still known today: Daar kom’t Pauwe Jonas aan I’t is zo’n aardig ventje. … Hy wist het te probeeren I Fortuijn kan anders keeren. … (Here comes Paul Jones / He’s such a nice fellow. … He knew that by taking chances / One can change one’s fortunes. …) In 1910 Theodore Roosevelt sang this very song—albeit in broken Dutch—and charmed his Amsterdam audience.

The strongest links between Amsterdam and America were forged with the growth of the trading companies that orchestrated Holland’s golden age and allowed the Dutch to rule the seas. Exhibits in the Scheepvaartsmuseum (Maritime Museum), located in a seventeenth-century arsenal on Kattenburgerplein, provide a good introduction, and a replica of an eighteenth-century Dutch East India Company vessel tied up outside is open to visitors. Along Prins Hendrikkade, on the harbor’s edge at Foeliestraat, stood the warehouses of the powerful Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), founded in 1602. The complex now houses a diving school, a maritime curiosities shop, and several apartments. The company’s logo remains above an archway, and its flag still flies over the doorway.


At the Schreierstoren (Tower ” of Tears), built in 1482 on Prins Hendrikkade as part of the city’s fortifications, women are sup- posed to have once congregated to bid weepy farewells to their sailor mates as they watched their ships disappear over the horizon. Historians now suggest that the tower’s name derives from scrayer , an old Dutch word for “shout“; the women weren’t weeping but shouting with frustration at the privations brought on by a constant state of war.

This landmark is located on the northern edge of the once-notorious Zeedijk, the red-light district frequented by seamen. In 1927 a historical society in New York placed a plaque there marking the point from which Henry Hudson set sail for, as it turned out, New York. Today the Tower of Tears contains a lively two-story café with a decidedly maritime interior and a nautical bookstore.

Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company to find a passage above Russia to Asia. He left Amsterdam on March 25, 1609, in the Halve Maen (Half Moon) and arrived at Texel, where he prepared for his journey north. But somewhere in the treacherous waters between the Russian coast, the North Pole, and nowhere, he found his path obstructed by icebergs. This forced him to make a choice: return a failure or seek a northwest passage to Asia through or above America.

He sailed west and on September 12 came upon the southern tip of Manhattan Island and De Groote Riviere (the Great River, later renamed in his honor), which his men declared “the cleanest river man has ever set eyes on.” Hudson went up the river as far as present-day Albany before concluding that it wouldn’t lead to the Pacific. In 1909, to commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of Hudson’s voyage, a replica of the Halve Maen was constructed in Amsterdam and transported to New York on Holland America’s first Nieuw Amsterdam . Then it cruised up the Hudson River under its own sails.

The former headquarters of the Dutch West India Company, chartered in 1621 to handle New World trade, stands on the stately Herenmarkt. The company’s directors met in the main hall there in 1623 to plan a settlement at Nieuw Amsterdam. A letter one of them wrote in 1626 states: “Our people have purchased the Island of Manhattan from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders.”

Trade with America was a free-for-all until 1621, when the West India Company secured exclusive commercial rights in Nieuw Amsterdam. The monopolistic company offered generous incentives to colonists; since poverty and persecution were negligible in Holland, there was little reason for most Dutch to emigrate. Those who promised to work for six years in Nieuw Amsterdam would receive free passage and a generous plot of land.

Like so many Dutch historical buildings, the company’s earliest headquarters, Westindisch Huis, is still very much alive, though parts of it date back as far as 1617. It went up in flames during the closing ceremonies of European Monuments Year, in 1975, but was restored with help from the Diogenes Foundation, which funds preservation of historic buildings. A charming interior courtyard contains a fountain and a statue of Peter Stuyvesant.


Petrus Stuiffsandt was a minister’s son born in the northern province of Friesland, who forsook his studies for the military. Appointed governor of Curaçao in 1641, he lost his right leg after being shot while leading a campaign against the Portuguese. When the wound wouldn’t heal, he was advised to leave the tropics. He was appointed director general of Nieuw Nederland in 1646 and created quite a stir as he walked down the gangplank in Nieuw Amsterdam upon his arrival there in 1647, his reputation as a fierce disciplinarian having preceded him and his wooden peg leg capped with a silver tip. As director general he oversaw Holland’s infamous slavetrade role of ferrying Africans to the Caribbean from Angola, where the West India Company had a monopoly.

Franklin Roosevelt was always very proud of his Dutch roots; Eleanor didn’t share his affection. She referred to the Roosevelts as “my husband’s family.”

Today the halls of the Westindisch Huis are used for weddings and banquets. It also contains apartments for the elderly, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and writers, and the offices of the John Adams Institute. This nonprofit organization named for America’s second President and first ambassador to Holland was established in 1987 to promote cultural exchange between the two nations. The institute sponsors popular lectures and readings by prominent authors from America and elsewhere. The next headquarters of the West India Company, built in 1642, also survives, as an imoressive erouo of buildines with blue shutters and yellow trim on Prins Hendrikkade at S’Gravenhekje. They now hold an interior design collective made up of twenty firms.

From this part of the harbor, you can follow the Singel, one of the horseshoe-shaped canals that ring the heart of the city, to number 460, where in 1782 Ambassador John Adams requested and received from the Van Staphorst Banking House the first of thirty million guilders in loans to help bankroll his young nation. Today the red stucco Van Staphorst building houses the very popular Odeon Diskotheek.

Adams had arrived in Holland on his fund-raising mission in 1780 and appealed to Dutch vanity by declaring, “One nation is a copy of the other.” In November of that year Friesland put forth a plan supporting America’s sovereignty, and Adams said: “Friesland is said to be a sure index of the national sense. The People of that Province have been ever famous for the spirit of liberty.” Friesland’s vote in February 1782 was followed by an accord signed in Philadelphia that made Holland the first nation to recognize America.

In 1982—both the bicentennial of official Dutch-American relations and the centennial of Franklin Roosevelt’s birth—the Roosevelt Study Center was established in the medieval city of Middelburg. Franklin, Eleanor, and Theodore Roosevelt all had Dutch ancestors. This wasn’t the first time the province of Zeeland had become involved in the Roosevelt saga. In the 1930s a group of Dutch provincial ministers sponsored a competition to claim the roots of the American Roosevelts, and numerous mayors commissioned local archivists to prove that the family was descended from their town.

The winner was the village of Oud Vossemer, where Roosevelts were living in the 164Os (Klaes Martsensen van Roosevelt emigrated to Nieuw Amsterdam in the 1650s). A house in the town featured the family coat of arms until it was demolished about fortv vears ago, and a surviving coat of arms still adorns a mantelpiece in the village hall. “FDR was very interested in his Dutch roots; Eleanor was a different story,” says Hans Krabbendam, a historian at the Roosevelt Study Center. “She would refer to the Roosevelts as ‘my husband’s family.’” The center, the first presidential library outside the United States, has become a leading European institution for the study of twentieth-century American history.

The war over which Franklin Roosevelt helped preside has strongly reinforced the relationship between the two countries. The Dutch invest enormous effort in honoring their war dead. There are nearly two thousand monuments dedicated to those who died during World War II. Bent propellers mounted on chunks of concrete, statues, the Anne Frank House, and many resistance museums keep memories alive while also offering programs on such contemporary issues as racism and migration. Of Holland’s sixteen cemeteries consecrated to its allies, only one is an American burial ground, but it holds nearly ten thousand graves. It lies in Margraten, east of Maastricht, which was liberated by the 31st Infantry on September 14, 1944.


It is in the western provinces of Gelderland and Noord Brabant that the majority of American memorials are found. Gelderland, between Nijmegen and Arnhem, is rich in natural beauty. Deep forests and golden fields stretch like a checkerboard tablecloth across the distinctly un-Dutch rolling hills. The Rhine River Valley, dotted with castles, remains a favorite vacation destination. Gelderland was the scene of Operation Market Garden, an undertaking by American, British, and Polish airborne divisions to secure bridges needed for the advance of the Allied armies. The 82d Airborne landed at Nijmegen on September 17, 1944, turning it into a ferocious battleground.

Nijmegen, Holland’s oldest city, is built on hills above the Maas and Waal Rivers. Today it is home to numerous monuments and a museum that pay tribute to the efforts of the Allied troops. A relief sculpture on a white wall of the Hotel Sionshof, Allied headquarters during Nijmegen’s liberation, shows an American parachutist floating to earth amidst a scattering of parachutes. The inscription reads simply: “17 Sept. 1944.”

Southeast of Nijmegen, in Groesbeek, a public garden on General Gavinstraat contains a giant stone star dedicated to the 82d’s commander, Gen. James Gavin. In Overasselt, southwest of Nijmegen, a starkly elegant parachute sculpture commemorates the landings of the U.S. 325th Glider and 504th Parachute Infantry. The 101st Airborne’s strategic objectives included bridges at Eindhoven, Son, Sint Oedenrode, and Veghel. A monument marks the scene of intense fighting along the Veghel-Uden road, known as Hell’s Highway. South of Veghel, in Best, the museum Bevrijdende Vleugels (Wings of Liberation museum) covers the entire war, but because it’s situated in the area where the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” landed, the exhibits focus most closely on their experience.

The railroad stations at Nijmegen, Ede, Arnhem, and Oosterbeek all offer bicycle rentals. This is the best way to appreciate the region’s atmosphere, suspended between natural beauty and human tragedy. Bike trails allow easy access to many cemeteries, monuments, and museums. Special programs for those interested in viewing history this way include an annual fietsentocht (bike tour) of Airborne-related sites held in late August.

And there is more—much more—for the traveler who is interested in the Dutch chapter of America’s past. Scores of other spots scattered throughout the nation speak of this strong old connection. Be it in trade, or politics, or philosophical conviction, the Lowland link to America’s destiny persists, waiting to reveal itself to those willing to venture beyond Holland’s tourist-worn trails.

From the Dutch TO PLAN A TRIP

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