Every year, the State Historical Society of Iowa presents the Benjamin F. Shambaugh Award for the best Iowa history books published during the previous year. The award’s namesake served for 40 years as the society’s superintendent, taught at the University of Iowa and vigorously promoted state and local history.
This year, Brian Beltman won an honorable mention for “Dutch Transplanters on the Grasslands and the Fruits of Chain Migration” (Amazon, 365 pages). The following review, by Douglas Firth Anderson, was originally published in the Annals of Iowa.
Iowa is often seen as a flyover state, yet aspects of its culture besides politics (the Iowa caucuses) and leisure (RAGBRAI) do sometimes gain attention outside the state. In November 2017, the New Yorker ran a report by Larissa MacFarquhar on Orange City: “Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On.” More recently, as part of a wide-ranging historiographical essay in the Middle West Review on midwestern identity, Jon Lauck urged scholars to “capture the nuances of German Minnesota, Dutch Iowa, Norwegian South Dakota, and Yankee Michigan.”
A nuanced analysis of the formative years of Dutch Iowa, including Orange City and Pella, as well as Dutch South Dakota, is at the heart of Brian W. Beltman’s new book. Beltman is not new to the subject. His book is a reframing and extension of his previous articles — including three in the Annals of Iowa — and a condensing of his book “Dutch Farmer in the Missouri Valley: The Life and Letters of Ulbe Eringa, 1866–1950” (1996). It amounts to a summa of Beltman’s immigration and settlement scholarship. As such, it is an important addition to the quantitative, sociocultural, and intellectual history tradition of Beltman’s acknowledged mentors: Allan G. Bogue, Paul K. Conkin, and Robert P. Swierenga. That the book is self-published reflects the author’s persistence in his retirement to making a substantive contribution to scholarship despite not having had a career as a historian.
The book’s title, which, despite its length, does not specify Iowa and South Dakota, does suggest Beltman’s central argument: From the mid-19th into the early 20th century, in a carefully planned process, Dutch Reformed immigrants collectively transplanted “kith and kin” to the midwestern prairie grasslands of Marion and Sioux Counties in Iowa and Douglas, Charles Mix, and Bon Homme Counties in South Dakota. This series of chain migrations, contiguous “neighborhood” settlement, and endogamous marriage established rural and small-town communities of sociocultural “Dutchness” that persist today and are most readily visible in regional institutions such as Northwestern College, Central College, Reformed and Christian Reformed congregations, and tulip festivals.
The author draws on immigration, census, and land records and provides supportive tables and maps of Dutch settlement in the specified counties in Iowa and South Dakota. Proceeding chronologically in part one, he traces the careful transplanting of Dutch Calvinist families first to Marion County and Pella in the 1840s and 1850s, then to Sioux County and Orange City in the 1870s. Most of the Iowa Dutch supported the Union cause during the Civil War, but Beltman documents how a minority, in part because of memories of war and conscription in the Netherlands, in part because of fear of what losses the war could bring to their families, made a temporary trek to Oregon. Most returned to Iowa after the war. In the 1880s further transplanting from Orange City reached into southeast South Dakota.
Beltman’s approach is solidly quantitative, but he carefully incorporates individual and family accounts along the way. Further, in part two, he focuses on selected individuals and connects their experiences to the larger sociohistorical processes he discusses. First, he analyzes E. J. G. Bloemendaal (Sioux County, Iowa), then he turns to Ulbe and Maaike Eringa (Bon Homme County, South Dakota).
Self-publishing brings its own editing challenges. The book cover is a pen-and-ink sketch of a farmscape, but, without any title or attribution, it seems tenuously tied to the topic. Some of the maps are a bit blurry and hard to read, and attributions are scarce. There are no illustrations, either of individuals or buildings or towns discussed. Beltman ties his material to larger discussions of immigration, migration, ethnicity, and region. Nevertheless, his discussions at times can seem perfunctory or dated, such as “market and community” and region. Regarding region, he is more keyed to connecting his material to the West than to the burgeoning discussion of the Midwest.
The book’s weaknesses are minor, however. Beltman’s writing is clear. His analysis is carefully stated and balanced. He blends quantitative material and personal accounts effectively. He describes in detail how and why Dutch American colonies in Iowa and South Dakota were made and persist: “Ethnic persistence is strongly linked to ethnic territoriality” (342). To the same point, Sioux County colonist E. J. G. Bloemendaal was more colorful in his 1911 memoir: “America is a good land! . . . [Still,] the more Hollanders come, the better I like it, and the better they fare, the more pleased I will be” (288). This is now the best book with which to begin to understand the midwestern Dutch experience west of the Mississippi River.
— Reviewer Douglas Firth Anderson is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, coauthor of the book “Orange City” and co-editor of the faculty research open-access annual Northwestern Review.