Why Did Steven Coerts Come to New Netherland?
by Manning W. Voorhees
(© 2008, Published here by permission of the author.)
Steven Coerts (Coerte, Coerten or another patronymic version) was the common progenitor of the Van Voorhees Family in America. It was usual for Dutch people in the United Provinces of the 17th Century to add a toponym to their name; thus, Steven’s full name became Steven Coerts van Voorhees, or Steven, the son of Coert, from the farm in front of the village Hees. This village was in Drenthe, the poorest region of the United Provinces. There were three contiguous farms occupied by relatives of the same family: Voorhees, Middlehees and Achterhees. These farms continue to be tilled today. When Steven and his family emigrated to New Netherland, he rented a farm known as Pols erve, or the area around Pols’ farm, in Ruinen, which is near Hees.
We most likely will never know definitively why Steven Coerts van Voorhees emigrated to New Netherland in 1660. Thoughtful presumptions have been made and will continue to be made, but there is no generally recognized documentation that can be used to support any one presumption over another. While information can always be uncovered in a dusty archive that will reveal
Grandpa’s thinking, it would appear that the odds of this happening are remote. Nonetheless, there is a rationale that can be constructed from an assessment of probable influences. The danger, of course, is that we will apply our 21st Century rationale to Steven’s 17th Century decisional process.
The critical question is why would a sixty-year-old man with a sizeable family leave his accustomed surroundings, board a small, crowded bouncing ship and embark on a two-month voyage to the wilderness?1 Steven had some wealth, at least relative to his neighbors in the poorest area of the United Provinces (then the Netherlands), and probably could have enjoyed a life that was known to him for the balance of his time on earth. Can you imagine uprooting like this? Today, it would be comparable to shedding our American way of life and departing to start over in a fourth world country — oh yes, leave behind all of your possessions, credit cards, medications, television programs and the cell phone.
Steven Coerts was not the only emigrant to the New World with his attained age and family responsibilities. However, a large number of settlers, say in New England, came for religious reasons. Steven did not emigrate for religious freedom. The Dutch Reformed Church (the "DRC") was the acknowledged form of Christianity in both the old country and New Netherland, and Petrus Stuyvesant was a vigilant supporter of the DRC in Steven’s new land. The Classis of Amsterdam controlled the church in New Netherland. In this sense, Grandpa was "right at home" when he disembarked at New Amsterdam. Indeed, he was a faithful adherent of Dutch Calvinism in New Netherland and passed this faith to his children. Religion was very important to our forebears.2
Steven Coerts probably shared a motivation common to most immigrants to the New World, namely "better opportunity" for him and his family. A strong ingredient in this "better opportunity" scenario began on October 31, 1517 when Dr. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony, protesting against the evils that he perceived in the then practices of the Roman Catholic Church. This historical watershed launched the Protestant Reformation and resultant religiously oriented civil and economic upheaval and organized warfare.
"People from all walks of life, some of them hungry, others variously dissatisfied, and all affected by a grave economic crisis, vented their anger on the [Roman] Catholic Church in an unparalleled iconoclastic fury. The rebellion traveled like a heathland fire from western Flanders to Groningen in the northeast of the Netherlands."3 The Catholic Spanish King, Philip II, ruler of the low countries, appointed the infamous Duke of Alba "to stamp out heresy. ... He set up a Council with the authority to indict and judge all participants in the recent events. Over twelve thousand Netherlanders of every station in life were victims of this ‘Council of Blood’ as it was known to its enemies."4 Philip II recognized the severity of Alba’s rule and replaced the Duke in 1573. Earlier, however, in 1568, the Dutch revolted against their Spanish rulers5 and Drenthe supported the uprising in 1580.6
War raged, and in 1592 Maurice of Nassau succeeded in capturing "Steenwijk and Koevorden."7 The city of Groningen, in the province of the same name, also fell to the States army in 1594 as well as cities in the neighboring province of Overijssel in 1597.8 The Dutch uprising against the Spanish ran until 1609 and termination of the Thirty Years War, which was partly religious in scope, ended the warring scene for the moment in 1648.9 Drenthe was obviously a battlefield during much of this long period of conflict. "Only from 1627 onwards the situation improved little by little, and after 1630 Drenthe was completely safe again."10 Remember when reading these dates that Steven and his two brothers were born in the latter years of the 1500's — Steven being the last in either 1599 or 1600.
An example of the religious animosity can be seen today in Mariakirk (St. Mary’s Church) in Ruinen, which is town nearest to Hees. Steven Coerts was probably baptized in Mariakirk in 1599 or 1600. 11 The congregation dates from the 12th Century and became DRC in 1598. A plaque in the sanctuary today lists the many pastors of Mariakirk, but includes only the Dutch Reformed domines starting with 1598. The earlier Roman Catholic pastors are not mentioned. Reformation sensibilities are still evident today.
The economy of Drenthe suffered during the period of conflict. "Many farms laid waste for years (in 1600 about 33%!)."12 Eventually, the economy entered an improving trend from around 1625 to 1650.13 However, this economy was dominated by a basically monolithic agricultural industry of grains and cattle, and peat extraction. Relative to our contemporary world, there was not a broad diversity of economic endeavors which would have had the potential of spurring economic growth in some sectors while other sectors improved slowly. Further, there was no beneficent government as we have today that could have pumped financial assistance into the economy and created incentives toward economic growth. While "things" improved after 1625, I wonder if this equates to our understanding of really better times. It is probable that economic life was healthier during the twenty-five years to 1650, but how much better was it? Then came a long-term downturn. "The results show a decline starting about 1650 ... The break about 1650 marked the beginning of a long depression lasting until 1750, with declining earnings, increasing costs of production and a growing burden of taxation."14 "The tax burden in Drenthe definitely increased since the introduction of the land taxes of 1643."15
The religious turmoil had a further important impact upon our Family. The Roman church owned extensive farm land in Drenthe and was the landlord for Steven’s father, Coert, and grandfather, Albert. They paid rent for the farm of Voorhees at the Abbey of Dikninge 16 Relatives rented the contiguous farms of Middlehees and Achterhees.17 Their rent was also paid to the Roman Church at Dikninge. One of the results of the Reformation was the secularization of land. "Not until 1598 did ... William Louis, stadtholder of Drenthe, Groningen and Friesland, secularize the Drenthe property of the former orders, which had moved out of the county during the Reformation period."18 Rent continued to be paid at Dikninge, but to the civil authorities. While not totally inconsiderate, these officials exacted high rents and were not overly prompt with building repairs. Steven’s brother, Albert — the oldest of the three sons of Coert — assumed the land lease for Voorhees around the time of secularization and occasionally experienced difficulties with paying the rent. "Time and again Albert requested the governing body of Drenthe for reduction of rent: he did so in 1635, 1645,1647,1653,1654 and 1659. The request of 1659 — remember, this is the year before Steven’s emigration — sent by the steward of Dikninge on Albert’s behalf to Drost and Deputies of Drenthe, shows us the bad state of affairs at Voorhees. Speaking of the farm, the request states: "‘... (that) his house, barn and sheepfold need urgent repairs, before it falls totally into decay ..’"19
Steven Coerts was apparently economically successful, renting a succession of generally larger farms until his emigration to New Netherland. Albert rented the farm of Voorhees. Jan, the middle brother, rented Middlehees until his death in 1637 or 1638, after which his sons rented the farm — the tenant when Steven emigrated was Jan’s grandson, Hilbert. Achterhees was rented by members of the family. Arable land in Drenthe of the 17th Century was controlled by a few large owners with little opportunity for small farmers to own their land. The future for Steven’s sons and the husbands of his daughters would likely be the same as his experience and that of his immediate family: land renter subject to the economic decisions of landlords. They would not be able to own their farms and would probably be limited to renting small farms like their elders. Today, we would call this the inability to accumulate assets.20 Further, Drenthe was still recovering from the long-term affects of the Reformation-stimulated warfare and its economy was not terrific. It was tough to make a living. The dominance of agriculture characterized by a few basic products would probably not lead to strong economic growth. This local environment contrasts with the economic success of the United Provinces, which was the world’s financial power at that time, the wealth of the Amsterdam merchants and the growth of the national economy.
Steven probably took all of the foregoing, stirred several times and decided to emigrate seeking a better opportunity — for himself, perhaps, but certainly for his family. One daughter, Hendrickje (Steven had two daughters named Hendrickje, one with each wife), was married to Jan Kiers, who emigrated with Hendrickje and her father. Daughter Marchien remained in Drenthe and married Roelof Oostinge in 1664.21
They set sail for New Netherland on 15 April 1660 on the good ship de Bonte Koe, or Spotted Cow. According to Dr. Oliver Rink, this was the second of three trips for de Bonte Koe to New Netherland: 1656 from West Africa with a cargo of slaves and 1660 and 1663 with settlers from the United Provinces.22 Ms. Lorine McGinnis Schulze, on the Dutch Colonies web site, added a trip in 1655.23
It is reasonable to assume that Steven Coerts knew about New Netherland, his family’s future homeland. Wouldn’t all of us have given some thought to the fundamental question of what’s what over there? The answer is apparent. In 1650, Cornelius van Tienhoven, Secretary of the New Netherland colony, "published a pamphlet intended to encourage families to migrate thither." There were descriptions of the land, crops, planting times, building plans and so on.24 Five years later in the year of his death, Dr. Adriaen van der Donck’s Description of the New Netherlands (sic) was published.25Van der Donck’s work gave glowing descriptions of New Netherland — it was a paradise. Tales of this wonderland depicted by van Tienhoven and van der Donck must have attracted the attention of farmers and others in Drenthe. (For information about van der Donck’s work, see the Van Voorhees Reading List on this web site.)
It is noteworthy, in this regard, that Steven probably knew of these opportunities directly from correspondence with his brother-in-law who went to New Netherland before him. We know that the greater family were letter writers by the eleven letters written from Drenthe after 1660 that are reproduced in Through a Dutch Door. (See the section Publications on this web site for information about purchasing Dutch Door.) Jan Gerritszen Strycker was born in 1615 in Ruinen and arrived in New Netherland in 1652.26 His first wife was Lambertje Roelofszen Seuberinge, the sister of Steven’s second wife, Willemtje Roelofszen Seuberinge. Having emigrated eight years earlier than Steven and Willemtje, there was more than sufficient time to relay favorable thoughts about the new homeland back to Drenthe. Jan was a leader with the formation of Midwout or Flatbush in today’s Brooklyn.
Jan Roelofszen Seuberinge was the brother of Lambertje and Willemtje. He was born circa 1631 in Beyle, Drenthe, and arrived in New Netherland in 1658.27 Thus, there was more "family" across the ocean. In addition, Willemtje also had brothers Jacob and Daniel, who had settled in the Raritan area.28
Willemtje must have had a strong desire to reunite with her siblings across the ocean. Was there "pillow talk" about these feelings with husband Steven?
Aside from being the brother of Steven’s wife, Jan joined with another name in our list. He married Adrianna Polhemius circa 166029 the year that Steven and family arrived in New Netherland. Adrianna was the daughter of Domine Johannes Theodorus Polhemius. The domine is an interesting character in our story. Do. Polhemius was a Palatine by birth in 1598. After graduating from the University of Heidelberg in 1620, he became a preacher in Gieten.30 There were doctrinal differences between the domine and his congregation. In 1627, he left Gieten for a pastoral post in Meppel. Difficulties developed again, and Do. Polhemius left Meppel in 1634. The West India Company subsequently assigned him in 1636 to a preaching position in New Holland, Brazil. Time passed, and in 1654 the Portugese evicted the Dutch from mainland Brazil and the domine fled to New Netherland, subsequently preaching in both Midwout (Flatbush) and Nieuw Amersfoort (Flatlands). Adrianna was born in Itamarica, Brazil.31
Meppel is approximately ten air miles southwest of Hees. Steven Coerts probably rented a farm in the Meppel area during at least part of Do. Polhemius’ preaching tenure in that city.32 Steven’s first child, daughter Hendrickje — she married Jan Kiers mentioned above — was born circa 1634. The domine departed from Meppel on 10 February of that year.33 Aaltjen Wessels was Steven’s first wife and mother of Hendrickje.34 We do not know when Steven and Aaltjen married, but it may not have been earlier than a year or two before Hendrickje was born. Thus, there appears to be a good possibility that Steven listened to Do. Polhemius’ preaching in Meppel for at least a few years and perhaps the good domine baptized Hendrickje, although he left Meppel early in 1634. Steven would probably remember him many years later when he heard that his former pastor was now in New Netherland serving the Midwout community where brother-in-law Jan Strycker was an important figure — and so, another personal attraction to New Netherland existed. The Polhemius connection would thicken, of course, when the domine’s daughter married the brother of Steven’s second wife.
Some writers on New Netherland speculate that the West India Company (the "WIC") offered financial incentives for farmers and tradesmen to emigrate and settle in the colony. Settlement was flagging and people were needed. New England was growing nicely, which was discomfiting to the Dutch. The English menace on the contested border with Connecticut was a continuing issue. WIC records are unavailable so it is not known what their incentives were — deferred costs of passage, loans for the costs of passage, loans or aid of some sort for the purchase of farms, or what? Then, maybe there were no financial incentives. "The surprising surge in immigration after 1657 ... may have reflected an all-out campaign by the West India Company and the Dutch government to provide New Netherland with the people it had long needed."35 Steven Coerts surely must have heard this call by the WIC — maybe the WIC sent recruiters into Drenthe. It is noteworthy in this regard that there were two sizeable (for those days) emigrations of Drents to New Netherland: in April 1660 on de Bonte Koe and in 1662 on de Hoop.36 Steven was not the only Drent to decide that the time had come to start again in the New World.
There was a confluence of many factors that motivated Steven Coerts to start over again in New Netherland at the age of sixty. I have concluded that they can be distilled into a single consideration: altruism. He wanted better economic futures for his sons and the husbands of his daughters and he acceded to his wife’s probable desire to be with her siblings. Although Steven was clearly successful in his new homeland, this was probably a concomitant result rather than an objective purely for himself.
1 In the Summer/Fall 2000 Nieuwsbrief, the newsletter of the Van Voorhees Association, pp. 19-20, Marilyn Voshall described de Bonte Koe, the ship that carried Steven and his family across the Atlantic.
2 See Firth Haring Fabend, "Church and State: Compassionate Calvinism in New Netherland," de Halve Maen, Spring 2002.
3 Wim Klooster, The Dutch in the Americas 1600-1800, The John Carter Brown Library, Providence, 1997, p. 4. The present day province of Groningen abuts Drenthe to the north.
4 Ibid, p. 4.
5 Encyclopaedia Britannica 2001, Deluxe Edition CD, copyright Britannica.com Inc.
6 D. J. Wijmer, "Steven Coerts His Family and is Dutch Background," Through a Dutch Door, Van Voorhees Association, 1992, p. 4.
7 Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1961 Edition, Volume 11, p. 648. Steenwijk is eleven air miles west of Hees and Coevorden is sixteen air miles east of Hees.
8 D. J. Wijmer, op.cit., p. 4.
9 Encyclopaedia Britannica 2001, op. cit.
10 D. J. Wijmer, op. cit., p. 4.
11 There is no documentary proof of Steven’s baptism in Mariakerk or anywhere else. However, the Dutch Reformed Church was clearly dominant among the population at this time, parents baptized their newly born children as a matter of faith and obligation, and logic would seem to indicate that he was baptized in the Ruinen church because it was the closest congregation. The congregation originated about 1211 as a Benedictine monastery. The monastery moved to Dikninge in 1325 and a congregation comprised of lay people grew thereafter; the building was constructed and reconstructed over the next few centuries. Source of Mariakerk basic data: De Mariakerk te Ruinen, published in Dutch by the congregation in Ruinen, 1991, third unnumbered page.
12 D. J. Wijmer, op. cit., p. 4.
13 D. J. Wijmer, op. cit., p. 49.
14 Ibid, p. 49.
15 J. Folkerts, "Drenthe and New Netherland Two Outer Provinces at the Time of Emigration," Through a Dutch Door, Van Voorhees Association, 1992, p. 107.
16 See endnote 11.
17 Dr. Wijmer raises the possibility that Middlehees and Achterhees were "destroyed and or deserted" in the latter 16th Century as a result of the warfare although they were inhabited again around 1600. See p. 5, op. cit.
18 Historical Handbook, Van Voorhees Association, 1935, p. 14. Dr. H. P. Schaap, on p. 148 of Through a Dutch Door, suggested that secularization in Drenthe occurred after 1603.
19 J. Folkerts, op. cit., p. 109.
20 Assets were also measured in 17th Drenthe as "X horses and Y cattle/cows." Steven Coerts was apparently successful in accumulating a number of animals and thus had some visible wealth. However, substantial wealth and independence came with ownership and control of land.
21 D. J. Wijmer, op. cit., p. 33.
22 Oliver A. Rink, Holland on the Hudson, Cornell University Press, 1986, pp. 163 and 165.
23 Lorine McGinnis Schulze, <Dutch-Colonies -L@rootsweb.com>, 17 August 2002, with hyperlink to <http://olivetreegenealogy.com/nn/ships>. Ms. Schulze acknowledged the contributions of Mr. Howard Swain.
24 Historical Handbook, op. cit., p. 17.
25 Reprinted by Syracuse University Press, 1968, edited by Thomas F. O’Donnell.
26 David M. Riker, New Netherland Vital Records, 1600s, CD 11, copyright The Learning Company.
27 David M. Riker, op. cit.
28 David M. Riker, op. cit.
29 David M. Riker, op. cit.
30 Gieten is about 25 air miles northeast of Hees.
31 Herbert J. Seversmith, "The Dominy (sic) Johannes Theodorus Polhemius of Flatbush, Long Island," National Genealogical Society Quarterly, December 1955, pp. 125-130, CD 210, copyright The Learning Company. Dr. Seversmith stated that Jan Seuberinge married Adrianna Polhemius in 1661 (vs. 1660) in Midwout. Data about Do. Polhemius are taken from Dr. Seversmith’s article.
32 D. J. Wijmer, op. cit., p. 28.
33 Herbert J. Seversmith, op. cit.
34 Florence A. Christoph, Van Voorhees Family in America, Van Voorhees Association, 2000, p. 1.
35 Oliver J. Rink, op. cit., p. 171. Dr. Rink makes no mention of financial incentives.
36 J. Folkerts, "Emigration from Drenthe to America in the Seventeenth Century," Through a Dutch Door, Van Voorhees Association, 1992, pp. 122-125.