Holland history: The brief, turbulent relationship between settlers and Indigenous Americans

Dale Wyngarden
We are tempted to think European immigrants settling in the Midwest were moving into a vast empty nation, simply waiting to be settled. In fact, this nation has been occupied for some 26,000 years or more by various tribes of Indigenous people, mistakenly called Indians by European explorers looking for a trade shortcut to India.

Estimates of the population of Indigenous Americans when Columbus first set foot on a Caribbean island range wildly between 20 million and 100 million. In fact, no one knows. What we do know is that populations dropped drastically once Europeans arrived. Explorers and conquistadors brought a myriad of diseases for which natives had no immunity, decimating native populations. Conquest, war, enslavement, and displacement added to the decline.


The Indians living in Holland, Mich., when van Raalte arrived in the mid-1800s, were members of the Odawa Tribe that populated much of Michigan and the Great Lakes region. They were known as traders. The name Odawa is derived from that activity, and gave us the anglicized name Ottawa that settlers applied to a county, a beach and a street in the area. Their small band in Holland, numbering a couple hundred, lived on a 5-acre parcel of their ancestral land that they had purchased from the federal government. The reason goes back some 400 years.

In 1452, as the age of European exploration and conquest was just beginning, Pope Nicholas V sanctioned the conquest, exploitation, and appropriation of non-Christian lands and peoples. Together, religion and royalty in Europe embraced this as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Forty years later, Columbus claimed the islands and lands he set foot on in the name of Spain. French missionaries traveling from New Orleans up the Mississippi claimed a vast swath of North America in the name of France. Much of the East Coast was claimed by England.


Such claims changed hands in the course of war. Claimed originally by the French, the Northwest Territories, comprising what would become Michigan and the surrounding upper Midwest states, was lost first to England in the French and Indian War/Seven Years War and then again to the United States following the Revolutionary War.

Though the Doctrine of Discovery had origins with European royalty and the Christian church, it was readily embraced by the young United States. When challenged, it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823. The native peoples had no land records, no surveys, and no deeds. Native people could enjoy rights of occupancy, said the court, but held no right of ownership. What had been claimed first by the French and then the English was now ours. The local native villagers, wanting to own their land, had to purchase it.

So it was that the first settlers of Holland arrived to lands sparsely developed, but not pure wilderness. The village of native Americans sat roughly under what is now the Heinz pickle plant. The land van Raalte purchased and platted adjoined to the east. Beside the Odawa village, there was a Christian mission established on the southeast side of town. George Smith had arrived as a church-sponsored missionary to the natives in 1839, After a few years in a log cabin, he built a permanent home in 1844. Eventually known as Old Wing Mission, it still stands today on 147th Avenue, southeast of the city, and is recognized on the registry of historical places.


In 1846, the State of Michigan was just shy of ten years old, but poised for rapid growth. Detroit was approaching 20,000 people. Grand Rapid, begun as a trading post in 1802, had grown to about 1,500 people. Though the Odawa villagers first welcomed the Dutch settlers who arrived in 1847, the relationship soon became strained. The first year, the natives left for their traditional summer fishing grounds in the Leelanau area. The Dutch thought they had abandoned their village, and ransacked it, stripping it of anything resembling firewood.

The natives also returned to a swelling immigrant population. Within just the first year, immigration to the area was approaching 2,000 people. The Odawa sensed their culture and way of life would soon be overwhelmed by the growing city. Their final fear was a state-wide smallpox epidemic in 1848. That year, Chief Peter Waukazoo and Rev. George Smith, the mission leader, decided to sell the village land to the new immigrants, and moved the entire village by canoe and boat to the area of Northport on the Leelanau peninsula. Today, place names such as Waukazoo and Ottawa give recognition to the presence of Indigenous people when the Dutch settlers arrived. In reality, however, the two-year relationship was marked by cultural conflict, and was short-lived.

The relationship between white European settlers and native Americans was often marked by subjugation, violence or forced displacement. Providentially, that wasn’t the case with the settlers of Holland. Unfortunately, the clash of cultures and overwhelming influx of immigrants worked against a tranquil co-existence. While the settlers’ relationship with the native people is nothing to be ashamed of, neither is it something to be held up as a source of pride. Simply put, it was just brief. And then it ended.
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