In the 19th century the provinces of Brabant and Limburg in the south of the Netherlands were anything but rich. The
sandy soil in the eastern part of Brabant and the north of Limburg was poor, and farmers could only survive if they toiled
many hours for 365 days a year. Most of them grew potatoes and a limited variety of vegetables, kept a small number livestock
and found themselves in deep trouble when a crop failed or cattle fell ill.
The year 1848 was one of those disastrous years: famine loomed due to the potato blight, as had been the case so many times
before. The poor peasants must have felt desperate in their tiny cottages built of self-made bricks and straw. Fathers wondered
how to feed their offspring through a long, wet and often cold winter.
Father Theodorus van den Broek|
Some 70 years earlier - in
1784 - in the city of Amsterdam Theodorus van den Broek was born into an affluent Amsterdam family. He was ordained a Dominican
in 1808, worked as a parish priest in the city of Alkmaar for over a decade and in 1834 left - accompanied by a group of fellow
Black Friars - for the United States. On 4 July he arrived in Green Bay where he started his missionary work among some 50
settlers and a majority of Indians. In 1836 he went to Little Chute, where he built a church and a school for a strongly growing
community. What little income he had came from his small farm and although life was harsh, he managed to buy - with a $10,000
mortgage - some 336 acres of land near the river Fox. In 1843 the Menominee Indians were 're-settled' some 40 miles from Little
Chute and Van den Broek was no longer in a position to teach them the basic skills. By now the priest felt he was getting
old. He decided to go back to Amsterdam to collect the 10,000-guilder inheritance, which had been waiting there for him since
the death of his mother a few years earlier. This amount would enable him to pay back the mortgage for the land he had bought.
However, having returned to Amsterdam he discovered that all the money was gone: not a penny was left. The priest realised
that this might be the end of all that he had built up on the other side of the Atlantic. In order to safeguard what he had
achieved there, friends in Amsterdam suggested that van den Broek organise a Roman Catholic emigration to Wisconsin. Van den
Broek must immediately have realised that with this stone he could kill two birds: the colony would grow and thus become stronger
and he would also be able to sell his land at a reasonable price, with which he could then redeem the mortgage.
Back in Holland
So in 1847 he placed an advertisement in the Dutch daily De Tijd
and even wrote and issued
a brochure Reizen naar Amerika
. In it he wrote "... the climate in Wisconsin is nearly the same as in Noord-Brabant
and Limburg: on the fields wheat, rye, oats, flax and tobacco are grown. An annual yield of $20 per acre is possible and compared
with a purchase price of $1.25 per acre is certainly not high." What he forgot to mention was that arable land was much more
expensive, that communications were difficult, log cabins still had to be built, that winters were much more severe than in
Holland and that immigrants would have to cope with all the hardships encountered by early settlers.
Many peasants from the Northeast of Brabant (Uden, Boekel, Volkel, Grave, Zeeland, Heeswijk, etc.), who for a long time
had had plans to flee their miserable living conditions, read the brochure and saw the possibility of their 'American dream'
come true. Within months 290 emigrants, nearly all of them farmers, had booked single tickets for a passage to the promised
land. But, emigration would prove to be anything but cheap and the poorest of the poor just simply could not afford it.
The first vessel - the Libra
- left the harbour of Hellevoetsluis on 14th March 1848. On board
were 70 people from Brabant who had paid 56 guilders (= $28) for a ticket. This price was exclusive of food, ($20 per person),
but included a daily ration of water. The ships were freighters that transported raw materials from America to Europe and
on the return voyage had some room left on the between-decks for a limited number of passengers. Storms, filth, stench, frugal
meals and the primative accommodation made the voyage a far from pleasant one. On 5 May 1848 the Libra
moored in Boston
harbour. However, this did not mean that the ordeal of the travellers was over. The trip over land to Wisconsin cost another
100 guilders (=$50) per person. By then the small savings of many a family had already been spent, which implied that they
were unable to travel on. They tried to find work, but work was hard to come by.
The Maria Magdalena transported Father van den Broek to the United States in 1848. The journey from Rotterdam
to New York took 52 days, but it took another month to get to Little Chute.|
Within two weeks the two vessels - the America and the Maria Magdalena - arrived and the journey inland could
commence. Customs formalities and passport controls were unknown. The captain had a list of all the passengers and after all
those on board had been counted, they were allowed to disembark.