The Netherland Halsemas

by James “Jim” J. Halsema

These inhabitants of a group of islands in the frigid and stormy North Sea were notorious for the fierce bravery of their men, the beauty of their women and the stubbornness and independence of both sexes. The Romans never succeeded in conquering this nettlesome Germanic tribe which occupied an area along the “Mare Frisicum” ranging from what are now the Netherlands provinces of Friesland and Groningen through the East Friesland region of Germany to the North Frisian islands off Denmark. From the fall of the Roman empire until the end of the 14th century the Frisians defended their separate kingdom and maintained their language. After Charles Martel, who stopped the Muslim advance into France in 732, failed to subdue the heathen Frisians, he sent Saint Boniface to convert them to Christianity. The missionary was murdered for daring to interfere with their customs. Even the Emperor Charlemagne was compelled to recognize them as a free people. Later missionaries succeeded and by 1040 the Frisians recognized the spiritual leadership of the Bishop of Utrecht. Yet in 1256 the Frisians killed Count William II of Holland when he tried to subdue them. To this day they make clear that while they are Nederlanders they are not Dutch. Most family names end in -ma or -ga, making descendants of Frieslanders easy to identify.

Frisian is a Germanic language related both to Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon and manhg of its words sound familiar to an English speaker. An example is the sentence: “Good butter and good cheese is good English and good Fries.” German, particularly the dialeclt spoken in East Friesland, is generally understood. Today most people learn English in school. 

Frisian women have a reputation for blonde beauty. Until the last century they wore a characteristic head dress like a skill camp of gold or silver gilt fitting tightly to the temples and finished with leaf-like ornaments. The men are noted for strlength, bravery, independence–and stubbornness. 

Born and raised in the province of Flanders–and fearing the spread of Protestantism in his Holy Roman Empire–the Austrian-Spanish Hapsburg Charles V forcibly united all the provinces of the Netherlands, incorporating Friesland in 1515 and Groningen in 1536. Despite his efforts, many of the Dutch and particularly the Frisians, turned to Calvinism, Lutheranism and other Protestant sects. In 1568 when the Dutch Protestant Prince William of Orange in 1568 began the eighty year struggle that resulted in the expulsion of the Spanish and the rise of the Netherlands into a world power with colonies from the East to the West Indies, the Frisians were his loyal allies. Halsema’s forebears, who were church-goers as early as 1370, steadfastly remained loyal Catholics in a largely Protestant area.

Over the centuries the Frisians with great effort and several disastrous setbacks slowly pushed back the sea with dykes, using windmills and canals to drain land below sea level to form a fertile but monotonously level plain. Low summer temperatures and frequent fog favored dairy farming over grain production. Both for convenience and warmth, houses and barns often were connected. Like other Germanic tribes living in an area of little sunlight, the Frisians usually had blonde hair, blue eyes and light complexions. Lacking vehicles, villagers walked (in winter boys often skated on the canals) and seldom ventured forth even as far as the provincial capital of Groningen. As among Filipinos during most of the Spanish era, they knew each other so well that few ordinary country people had family names. Thus the earliest record in the provincial archives dealing with the Halsema family–that for the baptism on Nov. 20, 1730 in Kloosteburen to Jan Gerts and Aagten Julles of their son Julle [Jans]–does not include a last name.

Julle (sometimes called Jans or Julius) married Lyzabeth Freericks Feb. 27, 1754 in Hornhuizen, a hamlet only a kilometer (0.62 mile) to the west. Their son Eyse Julles, baptized June 14, 1770 in Kloosterburen, m. Martje Jans Smit of Uithuizen, a town 19 kms. (12 miles) northeast, on Aug. 10, 1794. Both were buried in Kloosterburen, she on April 2, 1822, he on Nov. 9, 1825.

Their son Julle’s generation was the first to Officially adopt a family name. It was not a matter of choice: Napoleon, who had subdued the Frisians along with the rest of the Netherlands to create a brief-lived sham Batavian Republic before incorporating it into the French empire in 1810, levied heavy taxes on his subjects. He decreed that everyone had to adopt a family name to ensure compliance and assist police surveillance.

On Dec. 10, 1827 Julle Halsema m. Gezina [Hermannes] Boerema in Leens, 2 kms. (1.2 mi.) southwest. She had been born in Uithuizen to Harmannes Jans Boerema and Geeske Hybels and baptized in Usquert March 12, 1805. The couple lived in Kloosterburen, a cluster of houses and a windmill on the sides of a drainage canal seven kms. (4 mi.) southeast of his native village and 14 kms. (9 mi.) northwest of the provincial capital. They produced a large family. The parish records show only Eusebius, b. in 1835; Luurt Julles, b. Feb. 2, 1837, Lambertus, b. in 1838 (at Den Hoorn) and Johannes, b. in 1843, but a family tree kept by two modern day Halsemas who were farmers in Groningen in 1982 added Hermannus Julius, b. in 1828, Martha, b. in 1831, Eisse, b. in 1833, and Gezina, b. in 1846. Two others died as infants.

[John Ketelaars quotes Julle Halsema of Leusden saying that a son Johannes was born in Eenrum Dec. 20, 1834. He married Anna Beernick in Leens July 6, 1874. She was born in Uithuizen in 1831. Their son Bernardus Julianus Alphonsus b. Den Hoorn March 9, 1876 d. April 1, 1876.]

Nineteenth century life in the rural northern Netherlands was difficult. Although the farm land is fertile, to ensure against fragmentation of ownership only the eldest son inherited his father’s estate, the other children having to fend for themselves. During a seven decade period four per cent of the population of Groningen province (in some towns 33 per cent) emigrated to North America in a search for land or jobs. The majority were “Gereformeerden”–members of the Dutch Reformed [Protestant] Church, as were the Germans of New Bremen, Ohio. Some were Roman Catholics. They all settled in level praries that reminded them of home: Lafayette, Holland, Michigan; Pella and Orange City, Iowa; and Emden and Pease, Minnesota. At least three Halsema sons went to the United States, three choosing west-central Ohio.

James J. Halsema: U.S. Foreign Service officer with overseas information and cultural programs 1949-1979, serving in Washington, DC and posts at Singapore, Manila, Bangkok, Cairo, Santiago de Chile plus inspections of U. S. Information Service posts in Belgium (+NATO & EU), Ecuador, Poland, Romania,.South Vietnam. Retired April 1979. Property owner and legal resident Wallace Township, Chester County, PA since 1949. Follow this link for the biography of James J. Halsema.