One hundred and eighteen years ago, one line of my family tree immigrated from the Netherlands to America. This weekend, I will reverse family history and return to the Netherlands as an American expat.
In 1896 my ancestors took a ship from Rotterdam across the Atlantic and then a train across the plains and mountains to Utah. They did so to follow their new-found Mormon religious beliefs and in the hope of a brighter future.
My own small family has taken a circuitous route from Utah to Seattle to Zhuhai to Cambridge to Hong Kong and now to the Netherlands. We’ve done so for adventuresome and economic reasons.
Did my own Dutch ancestors ever imagine that some distant descendant would return “home”? And that she would return by airplane as a non-religious, science-oriented person with the wealth of the world’s knowledge available at her fingertips by smartphone? Or that she would waste her magically fast journey time re-watching The Lego Movie and Grand Budapest Hotel while drinking Californian red wine?
How did they themselves feel about their long journey to a New World? How did they feel when they arrived?
In the paragraphs below, I focus on their imagined moment of arrival in Ogden, Utah. I imagine their arrival from the perspective of Jacoba, the family matriarch (and I imagine it far too cynically). Most of the details are based on real events gleaned from family records, but the mental outlook of Jacoba is utterly and completely fabricated.
Jacoba Arrives in Utah
Jacoba lifted the hem of her long dress and stepped down from the train. Looking toward the mid-summer, dead-dry mountains she thought, Shit, it’s the height of lush green summer in Holland. And here I am. In Ogden, Utah.
For a week they’d been on a train from New York City. Before that they’d been on a ship from Rotterdam for ten days. Ten days she’d spent heaving into buckets while everyone else joined in group prayer sessions led by Elder Baker or in community chores organized by Sister Baker. She wept when she saw the Statue of Liberty. Not out of a new-found patriotism, but because it meant she’d soon be off that damn ship.
New York itself was busy. Too busy. Though Joseph could have continued his shipping career at the port there. Who knew what Joseph would do in Utah. He’ll pray that our Heavenly Father has a plan for him, she thought, pray it by mumbling right into his cap, just like he insists on doing before and, bloody after, every meal.
Once headed west, her view from the train window revealed welcoming farms spread across the plains and she had been hopeful. The mountain passes after Denver were terrifying to her, a woman used to flat Holland, but she had been assured by their Mormon guides that their destination in northern Utah was a place of broad valleys and agriculture.
Seeing Utah now with her own eyes, she finally understood in the depths of her soul: it was desert. From the train platform she could see some orchards and a bit of farming, but it was dry. The rain had not “followed the plow” and only obviously irrigated areas were green.
Shit, she murmured again, and thought of the one hold-out daughter who remained in Holland and who was still running the family dry goods store, maybe I’ll go back.
“Mother, are you feeling alright?” her husband Joseph asked. Her cluster of daughters and their husbands looked at her with concern and ushered her to an iron bench on the platform. She felt gravely ill, but said “I’m fine Father, just a little travel weary and dusty.” It’s the rest of you who aren’t alright.
Six years earlier, her second oldest daughter, Diena, had been taken in by the Latter Day Saints. The missionaries convinced her that the Mormons practiced the Christian faith as Jesus had originally intended it. Diena looked into the missionaries’ earnest American eyes and believed them. Joseph initially told Diena he’d rather she were a prostitute in Rotterdam, than belong to the devil’s church, but as three daughters and their husbands fell before this new American version of Christianity, so did he.
While Jacoba had been staring into the middle distance and feeding the ache in her soul, a guide from The Church had arranged for their belongings to be delivered to temporary housing. She and her daughters were ushered into a carriage and the men followed in an open wagon. As promised, it did seem that they would be taken care of as they settled into their new life and Jacoba was prepared to thank God for the mercy of that.
From the carriage she saw a side of this new place that surprised her: a rough, long string of brick and wooden storefronts that reminded her of the seediest parts of home. The carriage driver mentioned that 25th Street, being near a major railroad crossroads, was where the “gentiles,” or non-believers, worked and lived. She stared into the saloons, card rooms, and boarding houses and darkly thought, Maybe Joseph will get his wish for Diena after all.
Then her curiosity shifted to the many “Celestials” about. For a block, they passed clusters of Chinese men with long braids down their backs. She’d never seen so many in person or all at once. Looking up she saw a sign for the “Wong Lee Laundry” and heard the carriage driver mention that there were at least three Chinese laundries on this section of the street alone. . . .
Does Jacoba jump into intensive English lessons and join forces with Chinese immigrants to launch a giant laundry monopoly that rules 25th Street?
A story to be dreamt up another day.