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History of Dutch Pioneers in Silver Creek
Presentation to the Annandale History Club
November 1, 2010
Arnold Gruys

Arnold Gruys’ grandmother, Gertrude (Braat) Vandergon (1860-1941), came to Silver Creek, Wright County, Minnesota, with her parents in 1867.  Gertrude Vandergon was encouraged by her family to write her memories.  She started writing Our Pioneer Days in Minnesota in June 1940 and finished shortly before her death in December 1941 at age 81.  The book was published in 1949 (link to book).

Gertrude’s parents, Arend H. Braat (1825-1892), an architect in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Johanna (Das) Braat (1826-1895) were well-to-do.  They had a large house and maids.  Nevertheless, they were convinced that moving to Minnesota would be a good thing for their children.  They were misled by land agents about pioneer life. Their relatives in Holland were unhappy about their decision.  Johanna’s wealthy uncle offered them 15,000 guilders if they would stay, and said they would be out of his will if they went to America.     

31 Hollanders left Amsterdam May 9, 1867.  Their first stop was in Liverpool where the ship took on coal and where they had physicals.  Everyone passed.  They sailed second class and had bunk beds in cabins reached by rope ladders. They said the food served on the ship was good. They arrived in New York June 4, 1867.  The train trip to St. Paul took about a week.  They had to sit up on the trains the whole time.  They purchased food at stops.  Fortunately, the Hollanders could speak English.  In St. Paul, they went to a hotel where they were to meet the land agent, Mr. Kloos.   No one at the hotel had heard of Kloos.  The Hollanders waited more than three weeks until the land agent showed up.  Kloos directed them to take the train to Big Lake where someone would take them to their land.  (The St. Paul & Pacific Railroad completed a line from St. Paul to Elk River in 1864 and in 1866 extended the line to east St. Cloud.)  In Big Lake the Hollanders loaded what they could on wagons pulled by oxen.  The Braats brought 16 trunks and an organ with them from Holland (some trunks and the organ were delivered later).  The children rode in the wagons and the rest walked.  The roads were wagon or bridle paths.

The following Hollanders arrived in Silver Creek Township in July 1867.

Arend Herman Braat and Johanna (Das) Braat and four children, Richard (age 17), John (11), Mary (13) and Gertrude (7).

Mr. and Mrs. A. De Leewen and four children, John (15) and son Cornelius (24) and his wife and baby, age 3 months.

Mr. and Mrs. C. DeLeewen and one child, a son (9).

Mr. and Mrs. Peter Myst and seven children, Peter (26), Margaret (24), William (22), Nelly (20), Gertrude (16), Frank (11), Mary (8).

Mr. and Mrs. Gerriet Daubanton (Van Dyk) and two children, Bertha (4) and John (2).

Dr. Kamhout (24)

Charles Van Hakeron (25)

Ed Van Hakeron (27)

Arend Braat had purchased 80 acres in Section 9, Silver Creek Township, and paid a land agent in Holland (Mr. Kloos) five dollars an acre for 50 acres of uncleared land and twenty dollars an acre for 30 acres that were supposed to be cleared and supposed to have a house and two stables.  They expected to move right in.  Peter Myst bought 80 acres adjoining their land. The others planned to choose land when they arrived in Minnesota.  They were told that America was the land of “milk and honey.”  They planned to become farmers, although none of them had ever farmed.  They had no idea of the severe hardships they would face.  Gertrude Vandergon wrote “Mr. Kloos did not tell people the land was wild and unimproved, that the homes were rough log houses and poorly built, and that the Indians had chased people away or burned their homes if they would not leave.”

Note:  The following quote may explain why there was such a strong effort by land agents to recruit people to move to America.

To overcome the chronic lack of capital, the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad like other railroads looked across the Atlantic to the banking houses of London and Amsterdam.  Dutch investors in particular played a large role in the early years of several railroads, but nowhere were they more important than in the St. Paul and Pacific.  Beyond bankrolling the new railroad, Dutch financiers also helped to settle Minnesota.  Through companies like the Minnesota Land Company, headquartered in Amsterdam, the Dutch actively solicited settlers for the woods and prairies of the frontier state.  This helped to ensure a healthy traffic base for the new line.  In early 1878 James J. Hill purchased the St. Paul & Pacific from Dutch interests and went on to reorganize as the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba.  This was the seed of the Great Northern Railroad. – The Journal of Transport History, September 2000, Jeff Schramm

The house on Arend Braat’s 80 acres turned out to be logs that were part of a house at one time.  There was no roof.  The stables turned out to be a couple of small buildings.  Other available properties consisted of unimproved land with remnants of houses left by settlers driven away by the Indians during the Dakota Conflict of 1862.

Mr. and Mrs. James C. Price offered the group refuge.  Mr. and Mrs. Price had a very nice log house with pine floors. (The farm had belonged to Mrs. Price’s parents.  Her father, J. Grant, was a cousin of President U.S. Grant.)  The Price house had a 16 x 20 ft. kitchen and dining room with a living room addition and two bedrooms in the loft.  Arend and Johanna Braat were given one of the bedrooms.  A baby boy was born to them three weeks after arrival in Silver Creek.  The baby lived only one week.  The Hollander women and children slept on the floor in the kitchen and dining room and the men in the living room.  They mixed pancake batter in milk pails.  James Price and other neighbors were good hunters and fishermen, so there was ample meat and fish to feed the large group. 

There were plans to build a house on each of the farms the Hollanders would purchase.  Because of the Indian scare, the group revised their plan to one large house with a joint kitchen and dining room.  Each family would have their own bedrooms.   It took four months to build the 60 x 80 ft. house divided into five apartments. They would call it Fort Lilla, and it was located on the Braat property on a small hill overlooking Silver Creek.  The lumber came from Big Lake.

The Hollanders were homesick. The wives had seldom cooked at home (they planned the meals, but the maids did the cooking).  The men cleared the land.  They depended on neighbors to teach them to farm.  The men had instructions for seeding grain.  They planted eight acres of corn, but spread the seed like wheat instead of in rows.

Water for drinking and cooking came from Silver Lake.  Water from rain barrels was used for bathing, but the men went to the lake to bathe.  Doctors from Clearwater or Monticello were paid by the mile and reimbursement was with whatever was available, as there was no cash.  Hay and grain were cut with scythes.  Cranberries were a cash crop.  They made moccasins for footwear.  

Some Hollander families started to drift away to Clearwater, Monticello and St. Cloud.  Over a period of time, Arend Braat bought out their interests in Fort Lilla until only the Braat family lived in the large house.  In 1872 the Braats built a smaller house east of Fort Lilla on the other side of the road.  They used the lumber from the large house for a barn and milk house.  In 1869 another son, Henry Braat, was born at Silver Creek to Arend and Johanna Braat.

They were not told about the wolves, bears, deer flies, mosquitoes, large wood ticks, and the long severe winters, heavy snowfalls and blizzards they would have to endure.  They survived the grasshopper plague in 1877.  They ordered 1,000 chickens so they had to enlarge the chicken houses.  In the winter the eggs froze before they could get them to market.  In the spring the roads were so bad that the eggs couldn’t be delivered to the St. Cloud market.

Three Vandergon brothers from Holland, John, Hugh and Dick, planned to buy land near Becker, Minnesota, 17 miles away.  They were invited to stay with the Braats. The Vandergon brothers were well educated and spoke four languages.  They made a favorable impression with the Braat daughters.  Nicholas Vandergon was left in Holland with his family to finish his schooling.  In 1874 Nicholas joined his brothers.  Mary Braat married John Vandergon in 1876.  Gertrude Braat married Nicholas Vandergon in 1880.  Nicholas and Gertrude Vandergon purchased a farm in Section 18, Silver Creek Township, by Millstone Lake.

The parents of the Vandergon brothers operated a drugstore in Holland.  In 1881 the parents sold their drugstore and house.  They came to join their sons in Silver Creek and had a house built for their use.  However, after one year they returned to Holland and repurchased their prior residence and store.  The life in America was too strenuous and did not include the many comforts that they enjoyed in Holland.

Other Hollander families arrived in Silver Creek.  The families held worship services in their homes or in the 1892 District 16 schoolhouse.  In 1894 the Dutch Reformed Church was organized and a church was completed in 1904 (see March 2, 2009, History of Silver Creek presentation by Henry Smith (link).   

Nicholas and Gertrude Vandergon were blessed with eight children. Gertrude Braat Vandergon was a charter member of the Reformed Church.  She taught Sunday school for over 30 years.  She was a midwife.  People called on her for her remedies when they were ill. Nicholas Vandergon (1855-1938) farmed.  He and others founded Security State Bank in Maple Lake in 1906, and he worked at the bank for many years.  He was active in township administration, helped establish Lakeview Cemetery, and served on the local Shipping Association and Creamery boards.

Over 100 descendants of the Braats and Vandergons have attended family reunions.  Gertrude Vandergon’s chronicle of pioneer days gives family members greater understanding and appreciation of their heritage.

Notes by Annandale History Club Secretary enH