The Dutch Door To America

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We are well weaned from the delicate milk of our mother country, and inured to the difficulties of a strange and hard land,” wrote John Robinson and William Brewster in 1617. They were negotiating a land grant in the New World with England’s Plymouth Company, for their followers, the Pilgrims. The strange and hard land they spoke of was Holland, where the Pilgrims were living.

 

We are well weaned from the delicate milk of our mother country, and inured to the difficulties of a strange and hard land,” wrote John Robinson and William Brewster in 1617. They were negotiating a land grant in the New World with England’s Plymouth Company, for their followers, the Pilgrims. The strange and hard land they spoke of was Holland, where the Pilgrims were living.

Dutch-American history officially began in 1609, when the Englishman Henry Hudson, sailing under the Dutch flag, claimed Nieuw Amsterdam for Holland. Eleven years later Dutch ideas about government and daily life reached these shores with the Pilgrims. Those ideas would be instrumental in shaping what would become American culture, and their sources can still be visited all over Holland.

Life in Leiden was agreeable, but Pilgrims worked about the effect of Dutch permissiveness on their children as well as about a loss of their English heritage.
 

The Pilgrims had evaded English persecution through the peculiar tolerance of the Calvinist Dutch, who had given them a religious safe haven upon their arrival in 1608. By 1609 the newcomers had settled in Leiden, whose city fathers declared they could “refuse no honest people free entry to come live in the city.” In Leiden the Pilgrims joined other British exiles amid a population of students, intellectuals, and refugees, including Gypsies, Mennonites, Lutherans, and Muslims.

While in Holland, the Pilgrims attracted some new members from England and from what is now the French-speaking part of Belgium, then occupied by the Spanish. Among the latter were Jean Pesijn and his wife, Marie de la Noye, Walloons from Lannoy, France. Relatives of theirs were passengers on the Mayflower , and in 1621 their son Philippe sailed across in pursuit of a woman, effectively ferrying the surname Delano (as in Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to America.

John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ leader, lived in the Groenepoort (Green Gateway) at Kloksteeg (Bell Alley) 21 in Leiden. The building grew until it took up three sides of the square, providing one-room apartments for twenty-one of the poorer Pilgrim families. Robinson, unable to sail to the New World because of ill health, stayed there until his death in 1625. By 1637, with most of the Pilgrims off to America, the remaining few found it difficult to keep up the Groenepoort. It was soon torn down, but the almshouse built on its site in 1683 still stands in what is now Leiden’s most charming neighborhood, with narrow, cobblestoned pedestrian alleys, antique shops, restaurants, and tiny step-gabled brick houses.

The Groenepoort’s starkness contrasted with the splendor of the still-standing brick Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church) directly across the street. Pilgrims would often wander into St. Peter’s to listen to the organist or the choirs. On the church’s south wall a bronze plaque from the National Council of Congregational Churches of the United States—the Pilgrims’ spiritual descendants—honors them. Inside, where a corner of the church is devoted to Pilgrim history, a stone tablet from the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the United States praises John Robinson’s “broadly tolerant mind.”

The deconsecrated Pieterskerk is now used, like so many Dutch churches, for exhibits, banquets, and seminars. Leiden University even gives exams there. The church always had a secular side; in Pilgrim days Leiden’s prostitutes picked up clients there, and workers taking a shortcut pushed wheelbarrows through the nave.

John Robinson, who was in his thirties, immersed himself in university life, matriculating in 1615 and gaining “scholar’s privileges,” which included a generous allowance of free beer and wine. The other leader, William Brewster, spent his time around the corner, at a printshop on the Pieterskerk Koorsteeg (Choir Alley), from which he ran the Pilgrim’s Press, publishing tracts in English, Latin, and Dutch. Thomas Brewer, who funded the enterprise, lived in Groenehuis (Green House), two doors down from the Groenepoort, but Brewster was less fortunate; he lived on the Stinksteeg, which meant just what it sounds like. Recently the city honored him by renaming the small passageway on Pieterskerk Koorsteeg the William Brewstersteeg.