The Dutch Door To America


Petrus Stuiffsandt was a minister’s son born in the northern province of Friesland, who forsook his studies for the military. Appointed governor of Curaçao in 1641, he lost his right leg after being shot while leading a campaign against the Portuguese. When the wound wouldn’t heal, he was advised to leave the tropics. He was appointed director general of Nieuw Nederland in 1646 and created quite a stir as he walked down the gangplank in Nieuw Amsterdam upon his arrival there in 1647, his reputation as a fierce disciplinarian having preceded him and his wooden peg leg capped with a silver tip. As director general he oversaw Holland’s infamous slavetrade role of ferrying Africans to the Caribbean from Angola, where the West India Company had a monopoly.

Franklin Roosevelt was always very proud of his Dutch roots; Eleanor didn’t share his affection. She referred to the Roosevelts as “my husband’s family.”

Today the halls of the Westindisch Huis are used for weddings and banquets. It also contains apartments for the elderly, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and writers, and the offices of the John Adams Institute. This nonprofit organization named for America’s second President and first ambassador to Holland was established in 1987 to promote cultural exchange between the two nations. The institute sponsors popular lectures and readings by prominent authors from America and elsewhere. The next headquarters of the West India Company, built in 1642, also survives, as an imoressive erouo of buildines with blue shutters and yellow trim on Prins Hendrikkade at S’Gravenhekje. They now hold an interior design collective made up of twenty firms.

From this part of the harbor, you can follow the Singel, one of the horseshoe-shaped canals that ring the heart of the city, to number 460, where in 1782 Ambassador John Adams requested and received from the Van Staphorst Banking House the first of thirty million guilders in loans to help bankroll his young nation. Today the red stucco Van Staphorst building houses the very popular Odeon Diskotheek.

Adams had arrived in Holland on his fund-raising mission in 1780 and appealed to Dutch vanity by declaring, “One nation is a copy of the other.” In November of that year Friesland put forth a plan supporting America’s sovereignty, and Adams said: “Friesland is said to be a sure index of the national sense. The People of that Province have been ever famous for the spirit of liberty.” Friesland’s vote in February 1782 was followed by an accord signed in Philadelphia that made Holland the first nation to recognize America.

In 1982—both the bicentennial of official Dutch-American relations and the centennial of Franklin Roosevelt’s birth—the Roosevelt Study Center was established in the medieval city of Middelburg. Franklin, Eleanor, and Theodore Roosevelt all had Dutch ancestors. This wasn’t the first time the province of Zeeland had become involved in the Roosevelt saga. In the 1930s a group of Dutch provincial ministers sponsored a competition to claim the roots of the American Roosevelts, and numerous mayors commissioned local archivists to prove that the family was descended from their town.

The winner was the village of Oud Vossemer, where Roosevelts were living in the 164Os (Klaes Martsensen van Roosevelt emigrated to Nieuw Amsterdam in the 1650s). A house in the town featured the family coat of arms until it was demolished about fortv vears ago, and a surviving coat of arms still adorns a mantelpiece in the village hall. “FDR was very interested in his Dutch roots; Eleanor was a different story,” says Hans Krabbendam, a historian at the Roosevelt Study Center. “She would refer to the Roosevelts as ‘my husband’s family.’” The center, the first presidential library outside the United States, has become a leading European institution for the study of twentieth-century American history.

The war over which Franklin Roosevelt helped preside has strongly reinforced the relationship between the two countries. The Dutch invest enormous effort in honoring their war dead. There are nearly two thousand monuments dedicated to those who died during World War II. Bent propellers mounted on chunks of concrete, statues, the Anne Frank House, and many resistance museums keep memories alive while also offering programs on such contemporary issues as racism and migration. Of Holland’s sixteen cemeteries consecrated to its allies, only one is an American burial ground, but it holds nearly ten thousand graves. It lies in Margraten, east of Maastricht, which was liberated by the 31st Infantry on September 14, 1944.