Robert Swierenga, probably more than any one else up to the present time, has recorded the history of the nineteenth and twentieth century experience of the Dutch Americans in the U. S. A., but especially the history of the Dutch Americans in the midwest. He has done that during his academic career, and to this day is still active. For these accomplishments he certainly deserves to be listed among the prominent Dutch Americans.
Robert Swierenga was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1935. Chicago, to this day, has a large Dutch American population numbering as many as 250,000. At the time of Swierenga’s birth, the Dutch of the Reformed tradition had their own churches and schools, and as a result, when Swierenga grew up in Chicago, he grew up in a Dutch American environment, even though many of the Dutch Americans were second, third and fourth generation Dutch Americans.
Following high school, Swierenga attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and earned his B. A. Degree in History in 1957. He then transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, to do graduate work in history. From there he earned his M. A. Degree in history in 1958. Instead of pursuing further work in history, he decided to go to work, and took a high school teaching position, teaching history, in Pella, Iowa, another Midwestern Dutch American stronghold. He taught there for three years until 1961, when he was offered a one year visiting lectureship at Calvin College, his Alma Mater. He accepted the offer. The following year, in 1962 he was accepted to the doctoral program in History at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. From the University of Iowa he was awarded the Ph. D. Degree in History in 1965.
Upon graduation from the University of Iowa, he was offered an Assistant Professorship in History at Calvin College. He accepted and stayed there until 1968, at which time he received an offer to be on the History Faculty of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. He accepted the offer and remained at Kent State University until 1996, the year of his retirement. The A. C. Van Raalte Institute of Historical Studies at Hope College, Holland, Michigan, then offered him the position of Research Professor of History, a position which he accepted and still held at the beginning of 2007.
Professor Swierenga’s scholarly output, almost entirely devoted to the Dutch in America, is quite substantial. He has written more than a dozen books and well over 100 papers on the subject. His most noteworthy recent book is entitled, “Dutch in Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City”, published by Eerdman’s Publishing House in 2002. The book covers the period from the 1840’s to about the 1980’s, and is mainly about the Dutch Americans who adhered to the Reformed tradition and had their own churches which retained the Dutch language, at least on a partial basis, for a considerable period of time. The Dutch formed their enclaves in the Chicago area, moving from the city to the outskirts as dictated by the encroachment of other ethnic groups into their space. The common work activity of most of the early settlers was market gardening for those living farther away from the city, and garbage collection and garbage hauling for the city dwellers. By the 1930’s the Dutch had a near monopoly on garbage hauling in the City of Chicago. The book contains over 900 pages and is a must reading for any one interested in the history of the Dutch Americans in the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, in the Chicago area or elsewhere.
Other books written by Swierenga are: “Belief and Behavior: Essays in the New Religious History”, in 1991, “A Bilateral Centennial: A History of Dutch American Relations, 1782-1982”, in 1982, and “Pioneers and Profits: Land Speculation on the Iowa Frontier”, in 1968.
In the year 2000, Professor Swierenga was honored by his former students with a festschrift, a volume of essays, written by his former students and colleagues, entitled, “The Dutch American Experience: Essays in Honor of Robert P. Swierenga”. The other honor bestowed on him in the year 2000 was being named, “Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion”. This honor was conferred on him by the Dutch Consul General in Chicago on behalf of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.
Swierenga was married to Joan Boomker in 1956, and the couple had five children, including three daughters, Sarah, Celia and Suzanna, and two sons, Robert Jr. and Daniel.
Robert P. Swierenga ’57, www.calvin.edu/publications/spark/2003/fall/swierenga.htm
New and Recent Books, www.hope.edu/vri/publications/books.html
A Tale of Churches and Waste Haulers, Book Review of “Dutch in Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City”, www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=274341068285347
Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America #42: Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City - Amazon
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