THE STORY OF
NIJKERK: THE OLD HOME BEYOND SEA
find the home of the successful planters of the northern and best part
of New Netherland, we must look across the Zuyder Zee, in Guelderland.
Here at Nijkerk, or near by, lived the van Rensselaers, van Curlers, van
Twillers, van Schlechtenhorsts, and other families, who sent their young
men and women as pioneers to our shores. From this ancient home came scores
of the ancestors of the people of the Empire State. These hardy sons and
daughters of the Dutch Republic were true Argonauts. They sailed away
to cover the soil of the New Netherland with a golden fleece.
The origin of Nijkerk,
which means New Church, is not fully known, but its story we learn from
Arend van Schlechtenhorsts History of Gelderland, from
page 107 and onward. This author, who wrote his history in 1649, was a
kinsman of Brandt van Schlechtenhorst, commissary at Rensselaerwijk, from
1647 to 1652, who acquired Katskill, Claverack, and the site of the future
city of Troy for his patroon, in whose name, also, he withstood Stuyvesant,
and by him was made prisoner.
Perhaps Nijkerk got
its name when the darkness of paganism had so far lifted that a Christian
house of worship was built here, A. D. 1222. It was given municipal rights
in 1113, and fortified with gates and walls, of which there are now no
trace. In the mediæval wars it was several times besieged and plundered
by border ruffians and militant bishops. After so many people left it
for the New Netherland, Nijkerk dwindled to a village, hut in 1808 was
elevated to the rank of a city by King Louis Bonaparte.
In the Middle Ages,
forests covered not only Holland (wood-land), but most of the Netherlands.
Then deer were plentiful, and the place called Rensselaer meant the deers
hiding-place, or the stags lair. The estate, which lies about three
miles south of Nijkerk, was given for service in war and. thus became
a Riddergoed, that is, a manor, or knights property. Its
ownership conferred a title upon the head of the family, and also called
for military service of the tenants in support of the lord, or patroon.
Thus the name Van Rensselaer means from the deers lair.
The family has died out in the Netherlands, and the ancient manor house
now belongs to a farmer. The last of the name was buried at Nijkerk, April
11, 1819. The weathervanes on the gabled houses of the old estate long
bore the crest of the van Rensselaers. In the struggle for independence
from Spain not a few of the men gave their lives for their country. Other
names in Nijkerk church and cemeteries are the same as those we read on
the gravestones in Schenectady, Kingston, Yonkers, and Tarrytown.
One might as well
attempt to write the history of Japan and leave out Mikadoism as to essay
the story of Netherland, either Old or New, and ignore the Reformed Church,
for the Church was before the State, and the Reformation preceded the
Republic. When the rule of universal spiritual government from one city
in Italy was abolished, national churches sprang up. Instead of prayers
in Latin, the new worship and praise were enjoyed in the peoples
own language. At the same time the customs in daily life and on Sunday
were changed, and the Bible in the language of home became a household
The Reformation came
to Nijkerk in 1593. Before that time, church and worship were in harmony
with the spectacular features of feudalism, and were very impressive to
the eye, ear, and to the senses generally. Incense, lights, vestments,
and genuflections gave way to a much simpler ritual, consisting of prayer,
psalm-singing, Bible-reading, and the sermon instead of the mass. The
church interior was made almost bald in its plainness.
and political improvements gave the Netherlands modern statehood. Most
striking was the new system of popular education. The public schools were
separated from the Church, though much of the teaching was still doctrinal
was a typical Dutch town. What went on here was accomplished, sooner or
later, in every community in the Republic. We thus learn what habits and
ideas the emigrants brought to New Netherland, better than from any modern
authors or after-dinner speeches. Instruction in the public schools sustained
by taxation was free to all children, girls as well as boys, until the
ago of twelve. At Harderwijk, a few miles distant, Dutch, French, German,
and Latin were taught at the High School, founded in 1375, and given a
new edifice in 1614. At Nijkerk, the common branches, reading, writing,
and arithmetic, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, or the Twelve Articles
of the Christian Faith, prayers, catechism, music, singing, and manners
were taught. Meals were eaten early. School began at six oclock
in summer and seven in winter, and the hours of instruction were from
six to eight, nine to ten, twelve to two, and three to four; plenty of
play alternating with work in school. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons
there was holiday from one oclock.
We shall hear further
of the New Church folk in America, for hundreds of them came to settle
on the enormously large van Rensselaer manor and in the Mohawk Valley-
and elsewhere. More than any other place in the old country, does Nijkerk
deserve to be called the mother town of New York State. More Americans
of Dutch descent are descended from the Guelderland emigrants than from
those hailing from any other community in Patria. Furthermore, the two
men who embodied antagonistic ideas, the Old World notion of feudalism
and the principle to which the New World is consecrated, full personal
freedom, were natives of Nijkerk. They were Kilian van Rensselaer
and Arendt van Curler.
Other folks from
the New Church town, who became famous in the cradle days of the Empire
State, will be spoken of hereafter, in the proper place. The van Twillers,
the van Rensselaers, and the van Curlers intermarried during many generations,
and on the 9th of March, 1656, in the fine old church, already rich in
organ and sculptured tombs, was placed a storied window richly dight,
containing the names and the coats-of-arms of the three families. This
custom, of presenting stained-glass windows containing the family arms,
by patroons and prominent families, was a very ancient one, and was afterward
continued in the American Dutch Reformed churches, after the manner
The good people of
Nijkerk were diligent, industrious, and fond of the Church and the market.
They hated laziness and dirt as the worst forms of original sin. They
loved schools and genuine religion, alternated work with play, and were
ready for what the world might bring them. They turned to the right, as
their statute law and that of most Dutch towns then did direct and still
The ruts of their
wagons, after long litigation and through the influence of New Yuck State,
have become the gauge of standard width in the United States, bringing
order out of confusion. They set the gable end of their houses fronting
the street so that they might save the rain water for washing and that
the snow in winter might fall into their own yards, and not on the people
in the streets. They enjoyed, with abounding delight of body and soul,
even as they rigidly observed, the Kermiss, New Years Day, Easter,
Whitsuntide, and other holy anniversaries and seasons, closing the twelfth
month with two festivals, one of St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, on December
6, and the other of Christmas, on December 25.
At church they always
gave money in two collections, which were taken up by the deacons in velvet
bags hitched to the end of long poles. They worshiped in a two-hour morning
service, and were scandalized if it were shorter. They listened to the
hour-long sermon, delivered in two parts, didactic and practical, and
invariably divided by a collection in between. Of the two almsgivings,
one was for the Church, the other for the poor. They fed and dressed comfortably.
When born, they were baptized at the font in the church. When mature,
they were married in their homes, taking up a collection for the poor.
At the communion table, they were cheered and warned in the words of the
noble liturgy of the Reformed Church, duly established in the Netherlands
in 1568, and soon growing by expansion in other lands and continents.
There were scores
of Dutch churches in Asia, Africa, the West Indies, and South America,
long before there was one organized in New Netherland, in 1628. These
were governed by a consistory composed of the reverend Domine, elders,
and deacons, and further officered by a fore-singer, Scripture-reader,
Comforter of the sick, or churchmaster, one and all, as the case might
be, or, as in some instances, with every one of these officers. In Dutch
Formosa was the largest foreign missionary station then known to any national
or free church in Europe, and the first, on a great scale, in modern times.
The Classis of Amsterdam was in itself the greatest missionary society
in Europe, and, in fact, the general agent of Protestant Europe, and helped
many thousands of people, British, German, French, and Walloon, besides
Netherlanders, to get to America.
I enjoyed none of
my many rambles in the Netherlands, during seven visits, more than when
I visited Guelderland and the Nijkerk neighborhood. There I saw more intimately,
and visited oftener than elsewhere, the homes of the peasantry and the
common people, noticing how, in the Mohawk and Hudson valleys, the first
settlers copied the models of the home land, in house, church, customs,
speech, and, at first, even in costume, footgear and headgear, any curious
In the twentieth
century Nijkerk has a population of 8124. We may sum up what Terwen said,
in his three-volume album of The Kingdom of the Netherlands, rich in steel
plates, published a generation or two ago:
in the midst of tobacco lands, pretty gardens, and grainfields, three
fourths of an hours walk from the Zuyder Zee, with which it has
communication by means of a good harbor. It is two hours [as the pipe
is smoked, or the feet can carry one] northeast of Amersfoort, on the
streetway from that city to Harderwijk and Zwolle.
In Amersfoort was
born John of Barnoveld, and in Zwolle lived Thomas à Kempis, and
Baron van der Capellen, whose ancestor was a patroon on Staten Island,
and who was himself our generous friend in the Revolution, to whose honor
and memory, on June 6, 1908, the Holland Society of New York reared a
noble bronze tablet.
Nijkerk is moderately
large in its compass, and possesses fourteen streets, a free Reformed
church on the Holker Street, with an unusually fine organ and a handsome
clock tower with chimes and dial; a Roman Catholic church, with tower
and organ; a church of the Seceders (Christian Reformed, now numerous
in Iowa, Dakota, and Michigan); and two synagogues, of which only one
is used. Besides these, are the very imposing new edifice, the Reformed
Church Hospital, and a Home for Old Men and Women, with a building for
the Roman Catholic church community and carried on by Sisters of Mercy,
good provision for public instruction, and methods for the prevention
of beggary, etc. In the neighborhood lies the free open space of Salenstein.
To-day, alert, clean, bright, with all modern equipments, Nijkerk enjoys
daily communication with the outer world by means of post, telegraph,
telephone, bicycles, automobiles, and seventy railway trains daily.
Such are the usual
features of a typical Dutch town, showing ample provision for worship,
benevolence, recreation, and industry, and all these were established
from times remote. Here are the markets for the sale of fish, cattle,
vegetables and grain, live stock of various sorts, cheese, and the products
of the cow. All around are the evidences of that human toil which, after
a thousand years of labor, has made a garden of the old sea-bottom, over
which fish used to feed and disport themselves.
Until both Orient
and Occident revealed their mysteries, neither pipes nor potatoes, tea
nor coffee, sugar nor cheap spices were known in Nijkerk. A new social
era dawned comparatively late in the seventeenth century, when American
tobacco, the Arabian bean, the Chinese leaf, and the Indian tuber were
brought to the dorp. The fried or baked potato, dipped
in gravy, eked out the midday meal, and the earthen coffee-pot simmered
at the window to cheer the tailor, unloosen the tongue, and tap this social
virtues. In time, that is, in the eighteenth century, the Delft ware on
the dresser and tiles at the chimney side were common enough. Tobacco
smoking, never at first allowed in the house, became the luxury of the
men as they sat on the side seat of the front door stoep,
that is, the step, or porchway; but all these novelties were long after
the time of Henry Hudson. Most of them were next to unknown until after
1650. Emigration to New Netherland occupied scarcely forty years, beginning
in 1623 and ceasing in 1663.
Happy was it for
Kilian van Rensselaer, the Patroon of Guelderlands mediæval
acres, that, when he wanted to create a principality in the New World,
his long and happy acquaintance with the sons of the soil and daughters
of his neighbors enabled him to draw upon a reserve of sturdy young manhood
and womanhood. There is a reason why the manor of Rensselaerwijk was the
only successful one in New Netherland.
It may be that some
of van Rensselaers appointments to office as when he raised
his nephew, Walter van Twiller, from being a clerk in the West India Companys
counting-house to be the Director-General of New Netherland were
not happy. Yet most of those selected by him, young as they were, made
an excellent record in the New World. Chief of these was the immortal
Arendt van Curler, whose name the Indians made the title for governors,
kings, and emperors.