Heritage Village, Vineland, Ontario

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The Niagara area was familiar to the Dutch since the 18th century, when the Holland Land Company financed the establishment of New Amsterdam (now Buffalo) where the Niagara River meets Lake Erie.  This became the western terminus of the Erie Canal, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes in 1826.

The first Germans in the area were conscripted soldiers from Hesse-Kassel, hired by the British in 1776 to defend the colonies, now returning from battle.  Then came the United Empire Loyalists including Dutch and Pennsylvania German Mennonites as refugees, settling in Niagara beginning 1786, after the American Revolution. By July 24, 1788 Upper Canada was 70% German-speaking, when King George III proclaimed the districts of Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nassau, and Hesse.

Subsequent immigration was direct from Europe. Germans arrived from Alsace in the 1830's and again after the German Revolution of 1848 and in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Employment opportunities expanded beyond farming when the first Welland Canal opened in 1829 running from Port Dalhouse, to St. Catharines to Thorold. Three re-routings and widenings to handle larger ships, needed immigrant labour until the current Canal was finished in 1932.

The Canadian census of 1921, indicated that the Dutch-Canadian population doubled in a decade, from 55,961 in 1911 to 117,505. This did not reflect immigration demographics, but rather the political climate.  Many Mennonites, who had registered their ancestry as German in 1911, changed  it to Dutch ten years later to avoid the post-war stigma of German ethnicity. 

This was not really false: most Mennonites were German-speaking but not German nationals.  The pioneers who arrived in Conestoga wagons after 1786 were “Pennsylvania Dutch(Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch).  This was a collective term derived from “Deutsch” or the archaic Dutch “Deitsch” being germanic people from the “The Low Countries” of the  deltas of the Rhine, Scheldt, and Meuse rivers.  The Dutch from west Friesland and Germans from north and east Frisia (also called Friesland) both spoke regional varieties of Plattdüütsch or Plattdeutsch. (low Dutch, low German respectively). 

These ancestors of Niagara pioneers had shared a long  multi-cultural history in the former Hapsburg Netherlands, from 1482 to 1795 but other Mennonites traced their migrations from German communities in Eastern Europe,  Russia and the Ukraine.

During World War II, prisoner-of-war (POW) camps were set up by Americans at Fort Niagara, and by Canada at  Wainfleet.  The Wainfleet camp housed 60 German merchant seamen who were put to work in the Erie Peat Marsh while about 1,800 POWs at Fort Niagara, worked in canning factories and on fruit farms.  Some of these prisoners returned to Niagara, after hostilities ended. 

Post-World War II saw a surge of Dutch immigration with 147,000 choosing Canada.  This only became possible when the Dutch government provided funding to Dutch shipping company Holland-America Line (HAL)  to convert troop ships.  The first ship, the Waterman set out on June 17, 1947 with 900 immigrants followed by the Zuiderkruis and the Groote Beer (photo, circa 1951).

Some 50,000 Dutch chose Ontario. Many of these immigrants came with a Frisian dialect and a farming background, so Niagara was a logical destination.  Some came from the former Dutch colonies of  East Indies (Indonesia). On October 14, 1951 when  Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip stopped their train at Vineland Station, they were greeted by recent Dutch immigrants, already speaking English. By 1954, Koosje Bol was welcomed as the 100,000th Dutch immigrant to Canada

Dutch immigrants with denominational ties to the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands, settled near Smithville in 1951. Part of this congregation later moved from above the escarpment to below the escarpment, selecting Vineland, and holding worship services at the United Mennonite Church at 4012 Victoria Avenue. In 1958, the Vineland group purchased that church building to form the Vineland Free Christian Reformed Church. This same congregation, along with other Reformed churches in 1992 established the Heritage Christian School in nearby Jordan.  Dutch immigration dropped to a trickle after 1958.

  By 1950, Germans were removed from the “enemy aliens” category and by 1952, travel visas were allowed for emigration to Canada. That same year, Club Heidelberg was formed in St. Catharines to provide social support to these newcomers. Several residents of Heritage Village date their arrival in the immigrant bulge of 1953.  Another surge occurred after the October 1956 Hungarian Revolution, when Canada played a major role as safe haven, and the Dutch and Germans alike feared that a Cold-War Europe provided no future.  

Freighters and passenger ships  which carried Dutch and German emigrants to North America include: Alexander; America; Anna Salen; Aquitania; Arosa Kulm (photo below); Arosa Sky; Arosa Star; Arosa Sun; Ascenia; Berlin; Black Gull; Breaverbrea; Beaverbrook; Bremen; Caronia; Castel Bianco; Castel Felicia; Columbia; Duivendijk; Earnie Pyle; Edam IV; Empress of France; Fairsea; Franconia; Greeley; Groote Beer; Gripsholm; Hedel; Homeric; Ile de France; Italia; Johan van Oldebarnevelt; Johan de Witt; Kota Inten; Leerdam II; Maasdam IV; Marine Flasher; Mauretania; Montrose; Nelly; Neptunia; Nieuw Amsterdam II; Noordam IV; Prins Willem V; Queen Elizabeth II; Queen Mary; Rotterdam V; Ryndam II; Sabena; Samaria II; Scythia; Seaven Seas; Sibajak; Skaubryn; Statendam IV; Stefan Batory; Tabinta; Tutonic; United States; Veendam II; Volendam I; Washington; Waterman; Westerdam; Willem Ruys; and the Zuiderkruis.

By about 1958,  the number of immigrants by ship had dropped and  airlines like HLM became the logical  mode of transport.  The old freighters and  troop ships were scrapped, or were converted to tourist cruise ships. 

The demographics of Dutch and German ancestry in Canada is now difficult to define.  Many anglicized their names upon arrival and quickly assimilated into Canadian society. For both groups, less than 10 percent of the second generation and fewer than 1 percent of the third are competent in their ancestral Dutch or German.

St. Catharines in 1951 had 37,984 residents.  The 1951-1961 surge of immigration to the Niagara Region added 36.4% compared to  subsequent decades with growth as low as 0.3%.  Today, of the 427,421 residents of the Niagara Region, some 11.5% consider themselves ethnically German (49,435) and 5.5% declare themselves Dutch (23,805).  They are out-numbered by the English, Scottish, Irish and those who declare they are unhyphened "Canadians".


Further Reading

Mennonite Roots

Albert Vander Mey (1983) To All our Children: The Story of Postwar Dutch Immigration to Canada. Jordan Station.

Frans J. Schryer (1998), The Netherlandic presence in Ontario: pillars, class and Dutch ethnicity. Wilfred Laurier University Press, Waterloo.



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