Another small, unincorporated village, New Amsterdam was founded by a group of Dutch settlers—an ethnic group called Friesians, technically—who endured an epic journey to start a new life on this small patch of prairie near the Mississippi River.
Arriving in Town
County Highway XX will get you into and out of the village.
Contact the Onalaska Center for Commerce & Tourism (1101 Main St.; 800.873.1901 or 608.781.9570).
On February 26, 1853 Oepke Bonnema led a group of 90 Friesians from Harlingen on a journey to a new life in the United States. After a storm-wrought crossing of the English Channel took two days, the group arrived in Lowestoft, England, only to learn that the ship for which they had booked passage was full. They were forced to wait three weeks for the next one, finally leaving Europe on March 22 on the William and Mary.
The ship carried 86 passengers from the Netherlands and 100 from Ireland and England. Early in the voyage, 13 passengers died from disease or storms. On May 2, the crew spotted land, but it was the North Bahamas where there was no port. Captain Stinson risked passing through a channel that was only 20 feet deep (the ship had a 17-foot draw) and, predictably, hit a sandbar. The William and Mary took on water and was blown back to sea. The crew, including Captain Stinson, ditched the ship and her passengers and took as much cargo as they could grab. The captain was hoping to collect insurance on the cargo.
The remaining passengers of the William and Mary continued to man the pumps and tried to signal for help. A big storm on May 4 created some tense moments, but they weathered it. Ultimately, the ship was lost and the passengers lost all their wealth; they had invested their money in goods like blankets rather than bringing cash. At least they had their lives. They were rescued by a group of Bahamians who helped them travel on to Nassau where their story engendered more sympathy. Islanders rallied to outfit them with new supplies and arranged onward travel.
On June 1st, the Friesians boarded a boat for New Orleans (the English and Irish traveled on a different boat) and reached the city one week later. When they arrived, they heard the news that the William and Mary sank and that they were all dead.
A German relief society heard their story and helped the Friesians resupply, even paying for their fare on a steamboat up the Mississippi River. The group reached St. Louis on June 21. They finally reached their future home in Wisconsin on July 15, 1853, nearly five months after leaving home, and bought 800 acres. They were the first settlers in the township, creating a village they initially called Frisia. Many endured their first winter in hillside dugouts (holes were dug and the tops covered with sticks and grass) before building more permanent structures the following spring and attending to the more mundane tasks of building a new life.
In spite of the hard work and sacrifices of those early settlers, the village didn’t grow substantially and never attracted much industry. It has remained a small village with a farm-based economy.
The simple Gothic Revival New Amsterdam Presbyterian Church (N7383 John St.; 608.526.3992) was built from 1873 to 1879. Early services were in Dutch. In 1905, a bell tower and bell were installed; an annex was built in 1916. Art glass windows were installed in the 1930s. The interior has been remodeled several times, most recently in 1995 with the installation of new wood paneling and crosses behind altar, new wainscoting in the rest of the church, and the removal of the barrier between the sanctuary and the annex.
Sports and Recreation
The Van Loon Wildlife Area (Amsterdam Prairie Rd. North; 608.266.2621) is a serene and mystical 4000 acres along the marshy Black River floodplain. The area is best known for the six rare bowstring arch truss bridges built between 1905 and 1908 for McGilvary Road but the peaceful preserve also has good birding and easy hiking. Allow 60-90 minutes to explore it. To get there from the US 53/WI 35 split: Go north on WI 35 for one mile to Amsterdam Prairie Road North and turn right (north); go1.6 miles to the parking lot on the left.
Heading upriver? Check out Trempealeau.
Heading downriver? Check out Midway.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011
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