Flat, fertile, and constantly managing an overabundance of water. Chicago was a bustling frontier town similar to the Netherlands when its first Dutch immigrants arrived in the 1840s.
The city grew rapidly over the next two decades, and the Dutch community of abolitionist farmers, urban tradespeople, and religious congregations grew along with it. By the 1860s the region’s growing Dutch community, tired of traveling to the Dutch Consulate in St. Louis for consular services, demanded representation of their own.
The consular system of the period differed considerably from the present one. At that time, the Dutch Minister-Resident in Washington supervised a mostly unpaid or honorary consular service of roughly 15 employees, comprised mainly of local merchants.
These consular officials had expansive jurisdictions on paper, but much of this territory would have been unknown or inaccessible to them. It was a system in constant flux, with jurisdictions, personnel, and consular focus frequently changing.
Meeting the needs of the community
To address the Chicago Dutch community’s request for representation, B.B. Haagsma, the Dutch Consul in St. Louis, appointed a consular agent in Chicago in 1863. Consular agent Henry S. Haas would assist with consular activities in the region so that the local community no longer needed to travel.
Perhaps initially overlooked in the confusion of the Civil War, that arrangement would last two years. However, Consul Haagsma in St. Louis had not consulted the Dutch envoy in Washington, Roest van Limburg, about the appointment of Mr. Haas as a consular agent.
The envoy in Washington refused to appoint “a mere shopkeeper” as vice consul, bringing an abrupt end to the first Dutch consular presence in Chicago before it officially existed. That situation wouldn’t last long, however, as the city boomed after the war, drawing thousands of Dutch citizens in the process.
A quirky service
One quirk of the consular service at the time was that, since these consulates were one-person, unpaid operations, the location of a consulate would sometimes follow the business and the life of the appointed consul.
Johan P. Voswinkel Dorselen was one of these consuls, appointed in 1859 as the Dutch Consul to Portage City, Wisconsin with an area of jurisdiction that included Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.
When Voswinkel Dorselen relocated to Winona, Minnesota, in 1866, the consulate moved with him. Already based in the Midwest and well-connected in the Hague, relocating Voswinkel Dorselen’s post to Chicago was a natural choice when the decision was made to establish a consulate in the city.
A permanent consulate
On March 16, 1870, King Willem III signed Royal Resolution No. 13, which officially established the Dutch consulate in Chicago. Chicago, a city on the rise, had arrived on the world stage.
Within 18 months of the founding of the consulate, Chicago would come to international attention for an entirely different reason: the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871.
The fire devastated the city, killing hundreds, leaving thousands homeless, and destroying the entire central business district. Chicago wasn’t the only city that burned that night. High winds exacerbated fires in cities across the Midwest, burning down the Dutch community of Holland, Michigan, among others. The damage was immense.
In sympathy, the Dutch royal family donated 1,100 guilders to the recovery efforts in Holland, and another 500 guilders to the victims in Chicago.
Chicago rebuilt bigger and bolder than before, blossoming into an international economic powerhouse. The Dutch community flourished as well, making their homes in Roseland, in Englewood, and on the Lower West Side in what was called the Groninger Hoek. They even had their own Dutch-language newspaper, Onze Toekomst.
A professional service
As the consulate’s jurisdiction expanded and the Dutch community grew, a succession of honorary consuls – Lobertus J.J. Nieuwenkamp, George Birckhoff, and John Vennema – struggled to keep up with increasing requests for consular services.
A professionalized consulate was needed, but Vennema was unsuccessful in petitioning Washington for funding to hire professional staff. That would change with the outbreak of World War II, as Dutch consular missions took on additional responsibilities around recruiting for military service, raising special taxes, and paying allowances.
In 1944 Jan Izaak Noest was sent to Chicago to professionalize the consulate, and shortly thereafter Jan Albert Schuurman was appointed the first career consul general of the Netherlands Consulate in Chicago.
Since then, 16 consuls general and their staff have served in Chicago, working to strengthen the relationship between the Netherlands and the Midwest. The importance of that bilateral relationship has remained constant even as the Consulate’s work has changed over the last 150 years.
While we still perform some consular services for Dutch citizens, engage in cultural promotion, and organize royal visits, the consulate’s focus is increasingly economic. The economic partnership between the Netherlands and the Midwest has been an engine for shared prosperity, creating billions of dollars in yearly trade and investment that supports tens of thousands of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.
After 150 years of close cooperation and shared success, the Netherlands Consulate General in Chicago looks forward to what the next 150 years will bring.