Jelle VanderMeer's 1848 Letter

An Important Letter from North America by Jelle A. Van der Meer, who was formerly hotel-keeper at the Three Romers in Roordahuizen.  It is addressed to his friends and acquaintances in Friesland and elsewhere and intended as advice and information for all immigrants.

To:  Leeuwarden      D. Meindersma W. Z.
Translated from the Holland language by P. T. Moerdyk.  January 26, 1943.
North America    State of Michigan    Grand Haven
August 15, 1848
Dear Friends,

Although we have as yet not been here long enough to tell you of many special things, I can and dare nevertheless wait no longer to tell you something of our journey to the new world. You have undoubtedly become impatient because we allowed you to wait so long for news, but at our arrival at New York we could inform you of so little that you would not be fully informed.

We have all, God be thanked, kept hale and hearty and arrived in good health, and this you will want to know first of all. No one will realize the truth of this better than he who is separated from his fatherland and friends.

On May 28th, we and our party, to which Van Der Meulen and his family also belong, sailed by steamship from Rotterdam to Havre de Gras, where we arrived the following day. At Rotterdam we had made arrangements for the trip to New York for sixty six gulden a person in which was included the cost to Havre and the freight on our possessions. At Havre we had to buy our provisions according to instructions and in accordance with a fixed tariff. Here our papers were also accredited. In Havre we received much service from an attendant in a store, a Jew, who, it seemed, was stationed there to be of aid to the emigrants. This man, whom at first we did not trust, rendered us wonderful service and was of great help in the purchase of our necessities and in a short time we were benefited and put at ease.

We were to leave Havre June 1st, but because of storm and adverse winds we were obliged to remain there until June 5th. Then, with 254 passengers, French and German, we set sail. At first the weather was so calm that it took 12 days to make the passage of the channel. Usually this takes no more than two days. We had scarcely passed the hook of England and entered the ocean when a severe storm was the welcome of the great ocean. You should have seen the heaven-high waves, and the tossing of the ship, and the sea-sick people! We remained in our places with difficulty. Of our entire party, I and Jacob, next to the oldest of the boys, were sick, but not bad.  Luckily the storm quickly calmed down and after this we had the best and most beautiful weather of the trip.

I want to tell you something of the life aboard ship. Our ship was a large American bark. Between decks it was eight feet high. Below was the storage place for freight. Our place and quarters with the two hundred fifty four passengers was uncomfortable and very bad. On each side we had two rows of bunks above each other, six feet square, each meant for four persons. The aisle between the bunks was barely the width of a ten-inch board so that the person who lay on the end could overlook the entire row. We had hidden and separated ourselves by use of curtains. In front of the bunks stood two chests serving for seats and tables. In the center we had placed the barrels with provisions so that we were all obliged to sit close and packed together. The cooking of food was very inconvenient since all the passengers must rely on two cook's galleys and there the fuel was scarce. This all caused much ado and quarreling --- sometimes ending in fighting. It was a rough and very wild life. At times it had the appearance of a band of wild men --- yes, even worse. However, this did not matter, for one can accustom himself to it as long as he may have good health.

We may be thankful and heartily rejoice that we were in good health with the exception of our servant Siebrand De Hoop. He became sick with a severe attack of pleurisy after we had been here three weeks on the sea, and to make matters worse, there was no doctor on board ship --- a person who really on such a trip and with as many people should be responsible. Luckily one or another of us had taken things with us as precautions to be used in case of need. At the advice of a doctor we had a good supply of mustard, which in the case of an emergency, such as this was, must be applied as a poultice. At first we were perplexed with our sick but by the application of mustard poultices on the chest there was relief and also, by God's blessing, restoration.

Potatoes, rice, ship's bread, white beans, pork and beef were our food. Besides this at Havre we had purchased a cask of wine, containing two hundred and sixty bottles at the cost of twenty five gulden and we took this aboard ship. This came in extremely handy since the water toward the end of the trip became very bad. Together with our party we used three or four bottles of that precious liquid each day, which was extremely good for us. I advise anyone to do the same if he undertakes so long a journey.

Our captain was a Frenchman, along in years, harsh and not friendly, although not of a bad disposition. In order to preserve his dignity he could not be familiar with the crew or the passengers. Because of this it happened that many of the passengers were really mean people, especially the Germans. The French were better, also more clean, happy and talkative. Abraham could soon get along with the French because of his music, and very often came in contact with the captain.

You understand, by all this, that the sea journey was not just pleasure, but I was not disappointed since I had always frowned on it very much. We were on the ocean forty seven days, that is from June 5th until July 21st when we arrived at the dock in New York. Besides the unpleasantness of such a trip and passengers in such great numbers, the sea has also her charm. The approaching ships in the distance, the passing of the ship itself, the strange and great fish, and other inhabitants of the sea, this all often served as a pleasing change. But above all description it is beautiful and heavenly at the setting of the sun at sea. That climbing out of the sea or that sinking again into the ocean, that beauty, that majesty, he who can observe this with indifference, who remains cold and unfeeling, he has no respect for the great Creator. Also the first sight of land, after such a long and strange voyage is a real pleasure. The impression this made of us was strange and unknown.

In the dawning of the morning of the 21st of July we neared Staten Island in the mouth of New York river. Soon a pleasing sound reached our ears as in the distance we heard the barking of dogs and the crowing of roosters. The impression this all made on us cannot be described. Slowly we neared the island. Thereupon the doctors came aboard to investigate health conditions. After this was found to be good all the passengers were allowed to disembark. We, however, permitted the entire company to precede us and waited until the last. Thus we escaped the troublesome intruders and escaped from the hands of swindlers. At our ease we could unload everything and soon came to the hotel.

In New York we engaged lodging with a Holland hotel-keeper, an Albers, who came from Almelo. We were nicely accommodated here and well treated. The following evening, July 22nd, we took passage on a large steamboat for Albany, twelve hours at one dollar and fifty cents a person. Albany lies fifty hours distant from New York. From description you know so much about these cities that it is not necessary to write more in detail of them. Only this: a person stands awed at the many and great steamboats that arrive at and depart from New York and at the amazing business of the great American city. From Albany we journey by railroad to Buffalo, a distance of one hundred fifty miles in the time of twenty four hours at the cost of five dollars a person. One dollar is two hundred and fifty Holland cents and has one hundred cents, each worth two and one-half cents in Holland money. On July 24th we arrived at Buffalo. This city has but shortly been settled, but is growing fast. Its location helps very much for it is beautifully and interestingly located on Lake Erie. On July 25th, in the evening, we left by a great steamboat America for Chicago, which is located in the state of Michigan. This journey lay through Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan, a distance of about two hundred and fifty miles. We made this trip in four days at the cost of three dollars a person. We intended at first to travel by way of Detroit, but a Holland gentleman in Buffalo, a Van Der Peul, advised against this, advice which we found afterwards to be good. From Chicago we journeyed back to Grand Haven where we arrived August 1st. Here we rented a room and soon settled. You can realize that now we felt at ease after a journey of fifty seven days.

The next day Van Der Meulen and I journey to Dominie Van Raalte to get information and to buy land. Van Raalte is founding a city here in the vicinity of which most of the Friesians live. The soil here is outstandingly clay and brings forth crops almost by itself. But since the woods are not yet cleared the roads are bad. Even so fruit producing land can be had in a short time with little trouble. The trees are chopped off three feet above the ground, from the best, lumber fences are built; that which is left over is burned. When this is done, then one sows and plants without first spading or ploughing, and I can assure you I saw glorious crops standing on soil thus prepared. This place suited us so good that we decided to make a purchase here. I bought one hundred and twenty and Van Der Meulen eighty acres for one and one-eighth dollar an acre. The acre is about forty Netherlands rods. We investigated and found that a person can buy a cleared acre for forty gulden, that is to say American money, ready to cultivate.

Since crops, milk, and butter are sold here quite readily it is worthwhile to purchase land which for one reason or another is cheap. In this place a colony, solely Holland, is being founded since the state has given the authority to Van Raalte that land can be purchased through him alone, and because of this he is able to ward off all strangers. We visited Van Raalte at his home and purchased the land mentioned from him personally. We were given a friendly reception there, and the man deserves respect and wonderment, because he had put himself to such trouble to bring all to such a degree. He has really blazed the trail and undergone much for all those who come after him. The city begun by him will also be brought to completion. If we can make arrangements, it is our purpose to each buy another eighty acres about 1 hour's distance from Grand Haven and settle there. The soil in that location is not in all respects as good, but the location is better --- on a good road and on the shore of Lake Michigan. Here daily steamships pass and thus we can easier bring our produce to market.

The Americans, as a rule, are good people, to the point in their dealings and without compliments, they expect to get a good profit, are honest, and give the best of measure. They also allow good profits. A small proof of this: Abraham and my servant once helped load a ship with wood and earned a shilling (Holland) in an hour. Then both boys, Jan and Siebrant, helped also and received one half a shilling an hour. The servants and tailors are well off here also. There is much to be earned by washing and sewing. Some earn one dollar a day, others more. A tailor works for us for less than a dollar. A worker in a wood sawmill here, having come only a year ago from Gelderland, a young man, earns more than two dollars a day.

Food stuff here is not high priced --- smoked pork, two and one-half stuivers, best beef, three stuivers, and flour a little more than one stuiver a pound. Milk and green vegetables are high priced. Clothing is about the same as in Holland. Exceptional woolens and manufactured materials are high priced.

A person can therefore see that there is a chance to get ahead here, even to save something. One or another of these things can easily be seen by observing the Americans. These people know nothing of thrift, they seldom patch their clothes, and so much edible food is thrown away as we in Holland cannot imagine. The means of subsistence in this country is broad, one person is not in the way of the other, everything moves free. The taxation is not worthy of the name. Large land holders alone must pay for grants. Anyone who owns forty acres must work one day on the roads and pay a tax of a half stuiver.

The cows are good, but do not give much milk. They soon become fat. They browse for food in the woods and are never kept in the stable. Only in the winter are they given some fodder. Pigs are numerous and become very fat. All kinds of other European animal life is found here also, especially many birds, chickens, turkeys and many wild fowls.

A person also meets natives here, real Indians. These people have a rough appearance, dark brown of color with long black hair. They live by hunting and fishing and are not so poor. Many such Indians live near Dominie Van Raalte, however those are Christians and love their families. They are good people and will harm no one. They cannot stand ill- treatment. Sikke Jaltes Bakker lives in the city of Holland and is an ox-rider as well as driver. He earns a comfortable living for his large family.

I must frankly acknowledge that I have not been disappointed in my expectations in regard to America. It agrees with all of us, also my wife, and the future looks good if we live and have good health, so a person need not be fearful of the future. Everything is free and plentiful, unlimited and free. I will not advise against anyone coming to America, nor especially recommend the hardships and costs to come here.

I am sorry that I cannot write more but we have been here but a short time, and have not seen everything in the distance. Embellish or beautify I will not whatever I write. I write with honesty. Later I hope to be able to write more concerning everything. We also feel very keenly the absence of family and friends and how great a gulf there is between us. Believe me that often in our thoughts we are with you. Those delightful friendships are always pleasant memories to me, which I shall remember with thankfulness. Whomsoever I can serve in regard to the trip to America or to whom I can give help and information in regard to any of these things, I am at his disposal. It will be a pleasure to me which I gladly will fulfill.

All our possessions came over in good shape, also the piano. What trouble and care we had with it on our trip! However, I am surely glad that we have it here. Music is used but little here.

In the meantime, again, farewell friends in Europe and remember never to forget him who again always calls himself,

Your friend,

J. A. Van Der Meer

Notes by James H. VanderMeer, (great grandson of Jelle VanderMeer, grandson of Sietse VanderMeer, son of Theodore VanderMeer.)

Jelle VanderMeer arrived in America on the sailing ship "Naragansett" on July 21, 1848. Accompanying him were four sons, Abraham, Jacob, Seibrand, and Jan. Also in the party was Geertje VanderMeer, Jelle's 22 year-old second wife. Her maiden name was Tolsma. By 1860 Jelle and Geertje had five more children, Tietje, Jetje, Antje, Sietse, and Manktje.

Jacob, Seibrand, and Sietse remained in western Michigan and raised large families. Abraham moved to Detroit. The history of the other children is not known. Seibrand married Janke VanderTol and had six children. Jacob and his wife Clara also had at least six children. Sietse married Josina Rychel, and they had seven children. If you have any information on this van der Meer family, please contact Jim VanderMeer.

Gamber Net | Families home page | contact Dan