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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Wisconsin Magazine of History
Vol. 30 No. 1 (Sep. 1946), 85‑90

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p85 Reminiscences of Arend Jan Brusse
on Early Dutch Settlement in Milwaukee

Contributed by Henry S. Lucas*

The accompanying memoir by the Rev. Arend Jan Brusse (or Bruce in its Americanized form) introduces us to the exact circumstances of the coming of the Brusse family to America. This document was written for publication in De Grondwet, for many years — from 1860 until the 1920's — the chief Dutch weekly newspaper in this country. For some reason Mr. Brusse's sketch was never published. The manuscript passed into the possession of the Netherlands Museum of Holland, Michigan, whose director, Mr. Willard Wilchers, has kindly given the writer permission to publish it. In preparing the text for printing we have changed the wording in a few places but in no way modified the facts.

[decorative delimiter]

When I was a young man, aged about twenty-two years, from what I noticed of the general condition of the class of people to whom I belonged, I plainly saw that my temporal prospects for life were not very promising in the Netherlands; and so I concluded to go to America, if I possibly could get there. I then had no idea that my parents and the rest of my family would break up and also go to America; but my mother, not being willing to let me go alone, induced father that we all go together. Our family consisted of father and mother; Jan p86Brusse, and his wife Grada, with their seven children, Arend Jan, Gerrit Jan, Dersse, Willem, Berend, Janna, and Hendrik.

On the first day of June, 1846, we left our home at Dinxperloo, province of Gelderland, for Rotterdam; by way of Arnhem and the Rhine. At Rotterdam we took passage on the sailing vessel "De Hollander". There were 100 passengers on board, of whom one-half were Hollanders; the others were Germans. Of the ten families of Hollanders seven came from Aalten, Varseveld, and Dinxperloo, from what is known as de Achterhoek. The others came from Velp near Arnhem and from the province of Zeeland.

Of the many Hollanders on board the ship I had only been intimately acquainted with Mr. Rademaker and family, from Varseveld. He was one of the elders of the Reformed Afgescheiden Church of Varseveld, a gifted and devout Christian. Of this church I had been a catechumen till I left for America, and of which I still retain many blessed memories. On board the ship everything was about as inconvenient and as untidy or dirty as it could be. We were herded together almost like cattle. We had to provide our own provisions for the voyage. There was little chance for cooking. The stove, or range, or whatever you might call it, had only two or three holes, where the many families could do their cooking. The water for drinking and cooking was nasty. I yet imagine that I can smell it. Those who did attempt cooking on the stove were not always particular about the fire. At one time through someone's carelessness the ship took fire, and but for its timely discovery might have turned out very serious. We had only one severe storm that was considered really dangerous. There was no death, nor any serious sickness among the passengers, and when we left the ship there was one more passenger than when we boarded it.

After being forty days on the Atlantic Ocean we landed at Boston. Our aim, and that of the seven families mentioned above, was to reach Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But how to get there was a serious question. There we were, strangers in a strange land; we understood nobody, and nobody understood us. I could speak a little German, and so could Mr. Roelof Sleijster, one of our fellow passengers. Well, as best we could we made a bargain with a German agent to get us to Milwaukee. Through our ignorance we knew nothing of the route we were to travel. This was in 1846, hence we were among the very first that left old Holland to open the way to the West.

p87 At Boston we were put into the cars of a freight train that slowly took us to Albany. Arriving at Albany we had to stay there for a day, and stopped at a German hotel. While there the Rev. Dr. Isaac Wyckoff passed by. Hearing us speaking Dutch, he stopped and took some of us to his home. There Mr. Sleijster who had been a theological student at Arnhem gave Dr. Wyckoff a letter from the Rev. A. C. Van Raalte and A. Brummelkamp [dated Arnhem, June, 1846], directed Aan de Geloovigen in de Vereenigde Staten van Noord-Amerika (To the Faithful in the United States of North America). Through this medium the Hollanders became acquainted with the Reformed Church in America.

At Albany we got on an immigrant canal boat. The horses going nearly always on a walk, in the day time, I walked a good deal of the time by the side of the boat. It was a slow and tedious way of travelling. Our daily fare on the boat was bread and milk, which we bought along the route of the canal. After being a week on the canal boat we reached Buffalo. From there, as steerage passengers on a steamer, we came to Milwaukee late in July, 1846.

The only Hollander we met in Milwaukee was a saloonkeeper by the name of Wessink. He told us that times in Milwaukee were dull, and advised us to go into the country among the farmers. There was a farmer at his place from near Kenosha who had come to Milwaukee for help on his big farm, or farms, it being wheat harvest time. Through this Holland saloonkeeper we made a bargain with the farmer. He promised to give us work through the harvest, and after that was finished we were to continue working for him, or take his farm and work it. We hired a team and followed the farmer to within sight of Kenosha, where at the semblage of a house, we unloaded our goods and took possession.

This farmer had a large field of wheat. He was to give every one of the family work, or to those of us that could work. He tried us, to see what we could do. My brother Gerrit did not like the appearance of things; so he went to work for another farmer. The rest of us were sent to work. I and two other hands were sent into the fields with cradles to cut grain; it was the hardest work I ever did. I found that this farmer was a dishonest rascal. When his grain was cut, we had to leave, without getting a cent for our hard and honest work. We again hired teams and went back to Milwaukee. By this time our purse p88was getting light and I had to do something. I got work tending a bricklayer, made mortar, carried brick, etc.; and again I was cheated out of my pay.

In Milwaukee I had become acquainted with a Zeelander, a painter, by the name of Lukwilder, who had been in this country for years. He persuaded me to go into the painting business with his boss, and I did so. After having worked at this for a number of weeks, painting made me sick and I had to quit. Again I got no pay for this work. I felt that I was yet far from the promised land. In fact I was almost ready to exclaim, as I later heard Dominie H. G. Klijn exclaim (the gentle dominie) when a boat of Hollanders destined for Holland, Michigan, stopped at Milwaukee longer than he thought necessary, and he seemed to think there was a sinister motive in this delay, "O dit goddelooze Amerika!" (Oh this wicked America!)

Milwaukee was then a town of 6,000 people. On the northwest part of the town away from the Milwaukee River bottoms (which then were covered with stumps, and in the spring stood under water, but now form the center of that beautiful city) there was a commons where most of the Hollanders who had come with us across the sea were living in cabins. So we settled there. I helped build our cabin 16 feet square, out of rough common lumber. The boards were lapped and nailed on like siding, without anything else being added inside or out, and the roof was of the same material. There was also a so‑called upstairs which was reached by climbing a homemade ladder. Not much of a manse this — and it was certainly an uncomfortable dwelling during a storm or in weather below zero.

We few Hollanders there keenly felt being deprived of the public ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ to which we had been accustomed in Holland. As a substitute I suggested to our Holland friends that we meet on Sunday afternoons for worship in our cabin. To this they all agreed. This was the beginning of social life and public religious meetings among the Hollanders of Milwaukee.

Aside from prayer and song and the reading of Scripture, I made use of a volume of Hellenbroek's sermons from which some sermon was read. This certainly was a day of small things as far as means and outward form are concerned, but God's presence surely was felt.

Later in the fall of this same year, 1846, other families of Hollanders from the Old Country came to Milwaukee, so that by winter we p89had quite a settlement of Hollanders op den Hollandschen berg (on the Dutch hill) as the Hollanders used to call it. I do not know who was the owner of that land, but we were not disturbed.

A great bereavement befell us — my mother, who for years had been in poor health, died in October, three months after our landing. Care of the family devolved upon my sister Dersse, now Mrs. William Giebink of Waupun, Wisconsin, the only one of us children except the writer now living. On October 9, 1850, my father died from the effects of cholera which at that time was prevalent in many parts of the country. So after a short stay, after great privations and many hardships incident to a new country, both parents passed away.

That first winter in Milwaukee I had no steady employment, but my brother Gerrit who was a tailor readily got all the work he could do. In the summer of 1847, the Rev. Peter Zonne with a number of families came from The Netherlands to Milwaukee. We rented a hall, and for over a year he preached to the Hollanders without pay. Mr. Zonne was certainly a talented preacher, whose ministry I greatly enjoyed. The population of Hollanders op den Hollandschen berg kept increasing all the time I lived in Milwaukee, but all of them were comparatively poor. In Scripture parlance, they were the hewers of wood and drawers of water for the well-to‑do Yankees.

In Milwaukee I kept working at whatever I could find. Soon I began to go to an evening school, and for two years I attended a collegiate institute. It was my desire to enter the ministry of the gospel. I was given the opportunity to study at the Rochester University and Theological Seminary. There I was ordained to the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God indeed has ever been good to me.

Before I left Milwaukee in 1850 the Hollanders had learned that Uncle Sam had cheap and fertile lands which invited occupation. Some accordingly left for the timber lands of Sheboygan County, where they each claimed a quarter section of land. These Hollanders at once started to turn the wilderness into fruitful fields and in time came to own their splendid farms.

When I left Milwaukee de Hollandsche berg began to assume a different appearance. Streets were laid out, lots were sold cheap, the humble cabins of the first pioneers were replaced by more pretentious and desirable dwellings, and we Hollanders realized that we really had come to a better country. We have great reason to be thankful to our heavenly Father for having led us to this land of plenty.

p90 Now at the age of eighty-five years as I look back with my mind's eye to the first Hollanders as they came to this country, most of them poor, uneducated, and lacking in practically all the civilities of American social life, I see them and their children, educated, enterprising, thrifty, and prosperous, equal in every way in social as well as in business life to any class of people in this broad land.

May God continue to bless the Hollanders and their descendants in America, who remain true to the faith of our fathers.

[signed] Arend Jan Brusse.

Lowell, Indiana,
March 17, 1909.

P.S. I ought to state by way of explanation, that as my life and labors were among English-speaking people who pronounced my name Bruce instead of Brusse, the former spelling and pronunciation were adopted. Letters addressed to "Brusse" were invariably returned to the sender and for that reason I chose the form "Bruce."


The Editor's Note:

* Professor Henry S. Lucas, a staff member of the University of Washington, has contributed — with introduction — the Brusse "Reminiscences" which describes the coming of this Dutch family to Milwaukee. Professor Lucas has made a careful study of the earliest Dutch immigration to America. This we hope to publish in the near future.

Thayer's Note: The "earliest Dutch immigration to America" was of course in the 17c, where among other things they founded New York City (parenthetically, a good book on those Dutch colonies is onsite). What the editor meant, however, is the earliest Dutch immigration to the Midwest: and in the next issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History our author did deliver the item, which is also onsite.


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Page updated: 1 Aug 10