The Recollections of Rieks Bouws
Map of the Holland, Michigan colony around the years 1847 and 1848. This is the time period recalled by Rieks Bouws in 1881.
Hendrikus “Rieks” Bouws wrote down his recollections of early life in Graafschap, Michigan at the request of Rev. R.T. Kuiper, pastor of the Graafschap Christian Reformed Church. Rieks had emigrated from Emlichheim in 1848 at the age of fourteen. You can read Rieks’ biography by following this link.
When in the year 1847 the emigration to North America increased, there were also in Grafschaft Bentheim many who pulled up stakes to move to the New World. Some of our relatives and good friends made the journey in that year. Among them was an unmarried brother of my father by the name of Gerrit Bouws. My father was a widower and had two children, my brother Jan Bouws, who has since died, and me.
He, too, deemed it best to leave the old Fatherland and settle in the New World. In the spring of 1848, the 12th of April, we left home, departing from Bremerhaven by sailboat on the 16th. We arrived the 6th of June at Quebec, from there we went by steamboat to Buffalo. We traveled from there by way of Detroit to Chicago to the mouth of Black Lake.
The lake was so shallow that the rowboat had to be partly unloaded and dragged over the sand bar. After we got over it, the baggage was loaded in again, and then we headed for Holland. Sometimes the boat was rowed, sometimes towed by people or horses until we came to the place where the boat was unloaded, and we boys hurried to go into the city to look up friends and acquaintances.
“Holland Harbor and Black Lake” map from the U.S. War Department (1920). In 1935 the lake’s name was officially changed to Lake Macatawa, which is a Native American word meaning “black” or “dark.”
Rieks Bouws Sees Holland For The First Time
It was the first of July, 1848, about fourteen months after they had begun to cut down the first trees in the virgin forest for the streets of the city of Holland. Here and there we saw a small house standing between the trees, among them also a store where something was for sale, near which, nailed fast to a tree, there was a coffee mill where coffee beans could be ground. We saw here and there a plank shanty or a little log cabin hidden between the trees.
At last we asked, “Father, where is the city?”
“I don’t know, boys,” said Father. When we finally happened to meet some acquaintances we asked them, “Where is the city of Holland?”
“Well,” said they, “You are in the middle of it; here, here is Holland.”
That was a bitter disappointment. We had expected to come into a beautiful city and now we stood in the center of it, in a forest where we could not believe a city could ever rise. There were but few trees cut, and the logs were still lying crossed in all directions.
The colony pioneers built a small log cabin church in the forest. "We saw here and there a plank shanty or a little log cabin hidden between the trees." — The Recollections of Rieks Bouws.
We did not like Holland at all; we wanted to go to Graafschap, where our relatives and old friends lived. Some of our party had to go to Zeeland and after we had taken leave of them, as they had to go east into the forest, we made efforts to go into a southwesterly direction to our friends.
Without a guide we could not possibly have found them, but a friendly native took it upon himself to direct us. We went into the woods but without track or trail. Men might have gone that way before, but of wagon tracks there was not a trace. Our guide alone was able to hold the course by keeping his eye on marked trees at set distances. These had been blazed with an ax and served as guide posts.
"Our guide alone was able to hold the course by keeping his eye on marked trees at set distances. These had been blazed with an ax and served as guide posts." — The Recollections of Rieks Bouws. Another guide used by the Native Americans was the signal tree, like this one found in McGregor, Ontario. This signal tree was destroyed by vandals in 2019.
Coming Home To Graafschap
What a journey that was! First we went over sandy, wooded hills; then we came to mucky bottomlands, now high, then low. More than once, our way led through a creek. And when wind-fallen trees lay across our path, we climbed over and then we crept under, or, when they had fallen crosswise over each other, we did both.
At last we came to Graafschap. Yes, that is what it was called, but it was more insignificant than Holland. Here we met with old Graafschappers (from Graafschap Bentheim) who had come here the year before; namely, our uncle Gerrit, who was unmarried, and Johannes Rutgers, Stephen Lucas, Lambert Zalmink, Berend Jan Brinkmann, Geert Arends, Albert Klomparens, Arend Jan Neerken, Geert Heneveld, and the brothers Hermanus and Hendrikus Strabbing from Drenthe, and a few more.
It was a joyful meeting but also not without a feeling of disappointment for us because we saw our friends living in such wretched little houses. Miserable little log cabins they were, between and under the trees, small and sparse, and poorly roofed. The roof was of split slabs of oak or pine or perhaps of hemlock and basswood bark that had shrunk when dried and did not give sufficient protection when it rained, so that it often happened that bedding and clothing were thoroughly wet.
Here we had to lodge with them and, although our first impressions were disappointing, we soon tried to make the best of it; and when we saw how cheerful our relatives and friends were in their lowly circumstances, we began to hope with them for better times.
Watch a short video about Graafschap, Michigan’s early days.
Rieks Bouws Recollects Hitting The Road To Allegan
But something had to be done, and earned; and how to begin, here in the forest! The people were too poor for us to earn anything. They themselves had to go away to look for work, and besides, the work first in order here was far too heavy for boys of fourteen and eighteen. Chopping trees and splitting timbers, or working among logs with a handspike, was too much for us. A few young people, young men and girls, had already gone to Kalamazoo to look for work, or in the country round about the Americans.
Three weeks after our arrival, six of us (four boys and two girls, the youngest of whom was 14 and the oldest 18) also started out. I was 16 years old but very small of stature. One of the boys had worked out before. With our clothes and clean underwear in a pillow-slip or carpet bag, and hung by a stick over our shoulders or tied in a cloth and carried under arm, we went on our way.
The first day we went 25 miles on foot. There were Americans living nearer, but we could not ask them for jobs since they had settled here so shortly before that they themselves did not have much to live on. At first the trail was untraveled and we had to look sharp to watch for the marked trees and not get lost, but the farther we went from home, the better the trail became.
"First we went over sandy, wooded hills; then we came to mucky bottomlands, now high, then low. More than once, our way led through a creek." — The Recollections of Rieks Bouws.
Continuing On Towards Kalamazoo
We spent the first night with friends at Allegan, and the next day we continued our journey, for we had to go ten, twenty, yes, thirty miles farther before we could hope to be successful in getting work. It was indeed a weariness journey.
None of us understood anything of the language that was spoken. When we wanted to ask about the road, we showed the address on a letter and asked, “Road Kalamazoo?” We understood the words “Yes” and “No,” and so we knew whether or not we were going in the right direction.
But we kept courage and everything came to us and, by means of us, to our parents, for soon we would become a great help to them. I happened to get a job; one of the others also, farther toward Kalamazoo; the others here and there in the country around; one of the girls in Kalamazoo.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Presently we were all placed, the one here, the other there, miles apart, with American people, so that we did not hear a single Dutch word any more. We understood nothing of what these people said to each other, and when they spoke to us, understood neither more nor less and could give no answer.
You can imagine what a life that was for us in the beginning and what a hard teacher experience was. They had to show us everything by signs and examples, but they were very obliging. They did it gladly and helped us as much as they could. We soon learned a few common English words and the names of the things we used every day and we got along pretty well at work. But still we were sentenced to constant silence because we knew people could not understand us and, O, that was a punishment.
What joy and delight it was to meet a Dutch boy by chance, as sometimes happened when they came by that way, or when two or more of us met together on a Sunday. We all felt ourselves to be brothers and sisters.
The Kalamazoo Experience
After we had struggled through six or eight weeks of this, the language became easier and we began to get used to the people and their way of living. After four, five or six months, we went home to visit our parents.
One can imagine how happy we were to meet again. With great joy we saw how much had been changed in the short time we had been away—how many trees had been cut down, how the trails had been improved, and also how some better houses had been built. We and our parents together began to hope that something might yet come of it.
We spent a few days or weeks at home and then, again putting a bundle of clean and mended clothing on a stick, we went down the same trail, but not always to the same place.
Now that we knew more of the language, we went where we could earn the most. We were curious to see more of the country, and we changed places often. After we grew older, we could do more and so earned more. In this way we were in service, mostly among Americans, four or five years.
There And Back Again
In the meantime, much had been changed and improved in the colony, and our parents could not spare us any longer. Each one had made efforts to get land for himself and had chopped and cleared as much of this as he could, and there were some nice clearings now.
They had begun to buy oxen for plowing and to work in the woods. But since these oxen had had an American training, our parents could not do anything with them because the animals, though they were willing, could not understand them. Therefore, it was necessary for us to come home to work with the oxen.
But when the older brothers came home, the younger brothers went out to work, as their brothers and sisters had done. We saw that such living among strangers was profitable, yes, even necessary, not only to learn to drive oxen, but especially to learn how to be a citizen of this country.
Many young people went to school in the places where they worked and educated themselves in the English language so well that they were able to transact all their own business. Very few of our present-day young people can measure up to many of those of old times.
Main Street in Kalamazoo, 1860. Daguerrotype by Schuyler C. Baldwin, a noted photographer originally from Troy, New York.
Bird’s eye view of Kalamazoo in 1870.
"Each one had made efforts to get land for himself and had chopped and cleared as much of this as he could, and there were some nice clearings now." — The Recollections of Rieks Bouws. This drawing appeared in a Dutch publication and illustrated "How an American cuts down a tree."
“How an American builds a fence.”
The Village of Graafschap Begins To Emerge From The Forest
Many parents who came into the possession of oxen and cows could thank the industry and thrift of their children for it. The children considered that they owed this to their parents, and so they worked together for the common good.
In this manner, with a lot of privation and effort, hard work was in itself encouragement. Houses were improved, here and there a small barn was being built, property spread and increased steadily.
In the winter, when there was nothing to be done on the farms, old and young went to the woods to earn a little: one with hemlock bark, another making tub and barrel staves, a third with cord wood for stoves, a fourth with something else.
Barrel staves are individually numbered to aid in assembly. Photo by Lies Van Rompaey.
"In the winter, when there was nothing to be done on the farms, old and young went to the woods to earn a little.... One who had oxen could sometimes earn quite a little by sledding timbers to the water." — The Recollections of Rieks Bouws.
Cord wood (firewood) is still a “cash crop” today in Michigan. Photo by Herman Brinkman.
One who had oxen could sometimes earn quite a little by sledding timbers to the water. It was necessary too, for, although we lived on what we raised, there were so many other things we had to have. Now that there were oxen and able drivers, there had to be also home-made sleds, wagons, plows, drags and other tools. How would they have obtained all this if the children had not helped by earning some money?
What was remarkable in those days is that the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom, seemed to inspire old and young more than is the case now. Our parents were truly pious. They acknowledged God in all their work and were conscientious in family and public worship. This filled the young people with love and reverence and made us respectful and loyal for the Lord’s sake to those who were over us.
I still recall those days with pleasure and thankfulness, but when I see how this community has advanced and how we enjoy a material prosperity we did not then expect, but also, alas, how we have lost much of our spiritual earnestness and have become lax, then I am ashamed. Then I feel as though God, our benefactor, were asking us,” Is this your kindness to your Friend and your gratitude for all His faithfulness?” And then I heartily wish the spiritual life of those days back again.
May the Lord grant it, and, now as then, influence old and young by his Holy Spirit.
—Graafschap, November 14, 1881.
Publication History Of "The Recollections Of Rieks Bouws"
The Recollections of Rieks Bouws has been published a number of times in Dutch and English. We will soon publish a German edition. The memoir has also appeared under different titles:
- 1881 in the Christian Reformed Church Yearbook—under the title, Iets uit het leven van de kinderen der Eerste Settlers (“Something from the Lives of the Children of the First Settlers”);
- February 14, 1911 in De Grondwet newspaper—under the title, Hoe ik de eerste jaren doorbracht (“How I Spent the Early Years”);
- May 26, 1944 in The Banner—under the title, “Recollections of Rieks Bouws”;
- August 16, 1972 in The Holland Evening Sentinel—under the title, “Bleak Setting Greets Graafschap Immigrants,” an abbreviated edition;
- August 7—September 4, 1980 in The Zeeland Record—under the title, “Recollections of Rieks Bouws” in four weekly installments;
- September 28, 2016 on GereformeerdeKerken.info—under the title, “Hoe ik mijn eerste jaren in Graafschap doorbracht” (“How I Spent My First Years in Graafschap”).
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