History of Pella
In the summer of 1847, a company of immigrants from the Netherlands settled in Marion County, Iowa, on the divide between the Des Moines and Skunk Rivers. In their own country, they had been persecuted on account of religion, being dissenters from the state Reformed church, and so they called their new home Pella, the name taken from a biblical city of refuge. Upon the seal of their new town they inscribed the words “In Deo Spes Nostra et Refugium," or “In God Our Hope and Refuge.”
In the Netherlands
Holland had long been one of the cradles of religious liberty in Europe. The Pilgrims found refuge there. Earlier, Roman Catholics, Jews, and Anabaptists had found safety there. But the Holland of 1840 was not the same as it was in earlier times. Religious toleration had become intolerance. A state-supported clergy had gradually assumed great power. And those who resisted were persecuted.
The Pella pilgrims in Holland believed in complete separation of church and state. They were opposed to the established church because, in their opinion, it had become an institution of form, instead of being an expression of faith.
Prominent among the persecuted dissenters was Reverend Hendrik Pieter Scholte, or Dominie (meaning “Pastor") Scholte. He was born in Amsterdam on October 25, 1805, and died in Pella on August 15, 1868. His first wife Sara had passed away, leaving him with three young daughters. Soon after he remarried Maria Krantz, some 20 years younger. Maria had been raised in a wealthy family and given an extensive education.
As a minister of the state-established church, Scholte soon fell into disfavor because of his disregard of ritualism and authority. He was first suspended and later arrested.
Under the Napoleonic Code of the day, the government denied the right of the dissenters to assemble in groups of more than 19 people. Scholte’s trial was made a test case of the day. He was found guilty and imprisoned for three weeks.
Over the next ten years, the dissenters worshipped when and where they could. Denied admittance to regular churches, they held their services in homes, barns, under hay sheds, or under the open skies. At one time, Scholte was preaching from a farmer’s cart when soldier came and ordered the people to disperse. When they refused, the soldiers cut the cart into splinters, with Scholte going down with the wreck.
All this time, the conviction grew that these people should establish freedom of worship in a new land. Borneo was considered, but the government was not favorable. Texas and Missouri were rejected because they were slave states.
The majority of these Pella colonists came from well-to-do agricultural classes, who owned their own farms. Over the next year, several meetings were held to organize. The group agreed to receive as members of the colony only “sober, industrious, and moral persons.”
Maria did not want to go to America. She had a beautiful home, an extended family, and all the cultural advantages of living in a large European city. But even she began to realize that the situation for their group was untenable in the Netherlands.
Off to America
Late in April 1847, the group set sail for America. Four ships in all sailed - three from Rotterdam and one from Amsterdam: the Nagasaki, the Catherina Jackson, the Maastrom, and the Pieter Floris. The Catherina Jackson reached Baltimore in 26 days; the Nagasaki, 36; and another almost 60 days later. On shipboard, religious services were held daily, consisting mostly of psalm singing.
The ship’s cleanliness was not to Dutch standards. Almost immediately its inhabitants - both men and women - cleaned the ship from top to bottom. In fact, when landing in Baltimore, the immigrants’ ships were allowed to land without the usual inspections. The captains testified that they had never brought across the Atlantic more orderly or better behaved people.
From Baltimore, the colonists took the train to Columbia, Pennsylvania, where they were herded onto overcrowded canal boats - much different from the canal boats they were used to in the Netherlands! At Pittsburgh, they were transported down the Ohio River to St. Louis.
Here they stayed for several weeks as they decided where to go. Although the colony had lost a few members at sea and four on the trip from Baltimore, many more died in the extreme heat of St. Louis. Adding to their troubles were reports that had preceded them that the colonists were “possessors of great wealth.” Local merchants over-charged them, townspeople came to gawk at them, and the colonists were worried about being robbed. They realized that they needed to find land and move on.
Looking for Land
A committee was set up to go out and explore what land was available. When they got to Fairfield, Iowa, a Baptist pastor, Reverend M.J. Post, was there conducting a funeral. He told the men about a tract of land northwest of Fairfield and agreed to go there with them. Scholte and the rest of the committee bought the claims within the desired tract and then returned to St. Louis, where there was much rejoicing over news of the purchase.
The colonists made their way from St. Louis to Keokuk by steamboat, a two-day trip. At Keokuk, a heavy rain was falling. For the journey inland, some purchased wagons with horses and oxen while others hired them. The people of Keokuk were astounded that this group paid for everything in gold, which was seldom seen in the West.
It was a curious procession that made its way to the Des Moines River valley. Almost 800 colonists, in strange garb, speaking a strange language… Some rode in wagons drawn by horses, some in carts drawn by oxen, and some walked. After a journey of several days, during which the houses became farther and farther apart and finally almost disappeared (between Oskaloosa and Des Moines, there were only a few scattered settlers). They arrived, on August 26, 1847, to a place where stood a hickory pole with a shingle nailed to the top, and on the shingle one word: PELLA.
When Maria arrived three months later, having stayed in St. Louis with Scholte’s three daughters, she was perplexed that there was no Pella to be seen. Scholte reportedly said, “We will build a beautiful Pella.” The Dominie’s 4-year-old daughter Johanna could see nothing at all and came to the conclusion that Pella was all make-believe.
Maria took to her cabin and eagerly awaited the arrival of her precious Delft dishes. When it finally came, she eagerly dug through the crates, only to be met with broken pieces of the blue and white pottery. Heartbroken, she made a path of the broken Delft pieces from the door of her log cabin the hundred yards to her new home, a grand mansion that stood as a palace on the prairie.
It is hard to imagine what Pella looked like in 1847. As part of the prairie, wave after wave of grass grew as far as the eye could see, studded with wildflowers of every color. As president of the colony, Scholte and his family occupied a log cabin which stood near what is now the fountain on the north side of Central Park. This had been a “claim cabin” - one established to stake a claim on the land - by Thomas and Nancy Tuttle, whose residence was another cabin about three blocks north and is still standing on what is now Lincoln Street. The Tuttles had owned the land that was sold to the Scholtes and their colony.
In fact, there were several “American” families already living in the area - the Hamiltons, the Clarks, the Warrens, the Nossamans, and others. These families, for the most part, sold their claims to the Dutch group and moved on.
The first house built in Pella by the Hollanders was a long, wooden structure, sort of like a dormitory. Unfortunately, this was built in a low place, and the late autumn rains flooded it. Most of the people spent their first winter in dugouts with roofs made of straw. This area was called “Strooijstadt” or “Strawtown.” It was located in the northwest section of what is now Oakwood Cemetery.
Growth of a City
Pella grew. A post office was opened, with mail delivered three times a week. Several stores opened. Children were born and baptized. The small city was platted and given an unusual grid of religious and patriotic names for the streets (running east and west) and the avenues (running north and south): Columbus, Franklin, Washington, Liberty, Union, Independence, Peace, Entrance, Inquiry, Perseverance, Reformation, Gratitude, Experience, Patience, Confidence, Expectation, and Fulfilling.
The city continued to grow, with churches and schools. Central University was founded by the Baptists in 1853 and eventually sent its entire male student body - 124 students - and one professor to the Civil War. Twenty-four of these young men did not return. Many of the young Dutch men of the colony, who had landed on these shores only 14 years before, were soldiers for the Union Army.
Scholte's three daughters with his first wife Sara married into the community: Sara married Benjamin Franklin Keables; Maria married Pierre Henri Bousquet; and Johanna married John Nollen. Many of their descendants still live in the Pella area.
Scholte died in 1868, having seen his new town thrive. Maria remarried and died in Pella in 1892, never quite having adjusted to living on this raw prairie. In fact, some of her last words were that she was dying "a stranger in a strange land."
Over the years, many of the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren of those original settlers still live in Pella, while others have dispersed throughout the world.
Pella has long preserved its history and is proud to share it with the world through our Tulip Time Festival, through our Historical Village and Windmill, through the Scholte House, and through the many shops and parks that celebrate our culture.