Zeeland: Immigration and Early Settlement

The town of Zeeland, Michigan was founded in 1847 by Jannes Van de Luyster, Reverend Cornelius Vander Meulen, and approximately 450 other Dutch immigrants. They had emigrated from the Netherlands both to avoid religious persecution and escape a faltering economy. They followed in the footsteps of Albertus Van Raalte who had settled Holland, Michigan the previous year.

Jannes Van de Luyster was born on March 12, 1789 in the Province of Zeeland, Netherlands. His ancestors were Huguenots who had emigrated from Belgium to Zeeland 200 years earlier. Rev. Cornelius Van der Meulen, was born December 15, 1800. Both men left the Dutch Reformed Church due to official persecution. They met with other seceders to worship, but were often met with fines and military force. As the economic and religious conditions in the Netherlands worsened, more and more Dutch felt the need to leave their home country.

Main Street, approximately 1895

Main Street, approximately 1895

Both Vander Meulen and Van de Luyster were initially opposed to emigration, as in Christian circles it was regarded as rebelling against the established authority of God. Vander Meulen wrote: “Let us pray that the Lord keep His children from leaving the land of their birth to go out to strange lands for worldly reasons.”

But when Rev. Vander Meulen learned that more felt compelled to go for the sake of religious freedom than for the sake of material gain, he changed his position on the issue. Van de Luyster, too, wondered if it was best to go to America, where future generations would be able to benefit from the move.

Van de Luyster and Vander Meulen helped to form the Zeeland Association for Emigration to the United States of America, to keep people from scattering and “falling into apostasy in America.” The Regulations of the Zeeland Association for Emigration to the United States of America states the reason for emigration: “We wish to be loosed from oppressing bonds in our church life… Jesus says, ‘If they persecute you in one place, flee into another.’”

In 1847, Jannes Van de Luyster sold all his physical assets in the Netherlands. He was a well-to-do farmer, and his holdings were worth 60,000 guilders ($24,000). He provided passage for those who could not afford it, helping ten families for a total of 6,000 guilders. He also planned to purchase land for the settlement when they arrived in the U.S. Moreover, he advanced money to pay off some immigrants’ debts, and for the rest of his life was known to donate and lend capital to fellow believers.

Three ships were organized under the Zeeland Association for Emigration to the United States of America. Jan Steketee headed up the first vessel, the Wilhelm von Wolgast, leaving from Antwerp on April 1, 1847. Van de Luyster was in charge of the Kroonprins von Hanover, which departed on May 4th. The final ship, the Princess Sophia, organized by Rev. Vander Meulen and Johannes Kaboord, left on May 27th.

Van de Luyster’s ship arrived in New York first, after a 35 day journey, twelve days before Steketee’s group. As agreed upon before sailing, the first leader to arrive had the responsibility of choosing the site for the colony. Van de Luyster needed to make the decision between following Van Raalte to Michigan, or accompanying Rev. H.P. Scholte, one of the early leaders of the emigration movement, to what is now Pella, Iowa.

Van de Luyster went so far as to contract train tickets to Iowa for his entire company. However, many in his group still wanted to follow Van Raalte, and they formed a committee to further investigate where to settle. After much discussion, and lack of information, they settled on Michigan.  This was a practical choice, as Michigan was 500 miles closer.

The Zeelanders arrived in Holland on June 27, 1847, and set up a temporary settlement with the Hollanders. With the help of Rev. Van Raalte, Van de Luyster chose a place for the settlement of Zeelanders, 6 miles east of Holland. Van de Luyster purchased a total of 1680 acres of land at $1.25 an acre to begin the town.

City of Zeeland 1880