By Paul Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.
The relationship between the Roosevelt family and the Dutch royal family, known as the House of Orange, is both charming and historically significant. New York and the Hudson River Valley were both originally settled by Dutch pioneers. And the Netherlands was the first country to recognize the United States. In the mid-20th century the diplomatic connections between the two countries became personal. The roots of that special bond can be traced to a farming community on the Dutch coast.
On April 20, 2016 a Roosevelt Information Center opened in the tiny village of Oud-Vossemeer in the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands. Princess Beatrix presided over the activities and cut the ribbon to mark the official opening. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Tony Roosevelt, the grandchildren of FDR, also attended the event, giving a personal family touch to the day.
There is no question that the Roosevelts descended from Claes Martensen van Rosenvelt, a Dutch farmer who arrived in New Amsterdam around 1650 (later renamed New York.) Where Claes Martensen came from is not known, although many have tried to discover his ancestral home.
Inside the new visitor center is an old 16th century map of the area around Oud Vosssemeer It shows a parcel of land between Oud-Vossemeer and Poortvliet called “’t Rosevelt.” This may be the original home site of the family.
The Roosevelts themselves seem to have accepted this version of history. Oud-Vossemeer was visited by a nephew of President Theodore Roosevelt during his quest for information about the family history. Eleanor Roosevelt visited the village in 1950. Film of her visit is available for viewing at the Information Center on iPads that contain a wide variety of images and information about the connections between the Roosevelts and Zeeland.
The strong personal ties between the Dutch royal family and the Roosevelts started during the darkest days of World War II. As the German army swept across Europe in 1939, FDR sent a personal note to Queen Wilhelmina offering sanctuary to her and her family.
“I am thinking much of you and the House of Orange in these critical days, and it occurs to me that in the event of the invasion of Holland you may care to have the Crown Princess and the children come to the United States temporarily to be completely safe against airplane raids. It would give Mrs. Roosevelt and me very great happiness to care for them over here as if they were members of our own family and they could come to us either in Washington or at our country place at Hyde Park.”
In May 1940 the German army invaded the Netherlands. Its soldiers fought bravely, but were no match for the Nazi war machine. On May 17th, during the Battle of Zeeland, the city of Middelburg was subjected to a ferocious attack by Germany bombers. More than 600 buildings were destroyed. Queen Wilhelmina escaped to London and set up the Dutch government in exile.
The Queen’s daughter Princess Juliana and her family came to North America, splitting their time between Canada and the United States. Princess Juliana and her children visited Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and they became close friends. FDR especially adored her daughters, Beatrix, (known as Trixie) Irene, and Margriet.
In the summer of 1942, Princess Julianna moved to Lee, Massachusetts where she and her young children lived for several months. The estate was close enough for the Roosevelts to drive there from Hyde Park for lunch or tea. The Royals also regularly visited Hyde Park.
During one visit the young princesses were having trouble swimming in the pool at Val-Kill. Always helpful, FDR gave Trixie and Irene a set of water-wings to help them swim.
Trixie and Irene sent a thank-you letter to the President for his gift, for the Roosevelts’ hospitality, and their love for FDR’s dog, Fala. This letter is on display at the Roosevelt Information Center in Oud-Vossemeer.
During a radio broadcast in Nov. 1941, Eleanor described a recent visit with the royal family.
“We had a happy time with the Princess and her tiny daughters, Princess Beatrix and Princess
Irene… I became very fond of them…I’m particularly impressed with Princess Juliana’s simplicity
and with the personal care and attention she pays to them. I think we Americans sometimes feel that a mother who is at the same time a Crown Princess does not have the time to devote to her children that an average American mother gives. In this case this is not so.”
In January 1944 Eleanor and Princess Juliana attended a dinner in Washington, D.C. with the Royal Family of Norway. She wrote in her column that “It is always a great pleasure for me to be with this young princess who is so deeply interested in the good of her country.”
Princess Juliana and her family returned to the Netherlands at the end of the war and she became Queen Juliana in 1948. Eleanor visited her in 1948 and 1950 and they often exchanged letters and telegrams commenting on the events of the world. Princess Beatrix also developed a deep friendship with Eleanor, and visited her at Val-Kill. She was an overnight guest there in September 1959, the day before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to visit.
In her autobiography Eleanor wrote “I have a very special feeling about Queen Juliana because… she came a number of times to stay with us at Hyde Park with her husband and children. Franklin was godfather to their third daughter…. As queen, Juliana has worked vigorously to help develop understanding among Europeans…. The pages of history will record that she was a woman who loved her fellow human beings.”
After reigning for 32 years, Queen Juliana stepped down and Beatrix became the Queen in April 1980. Princess Juliana was awarded the first International Four Freedoms Award in 1982 by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. The Institute also founded the Roosevelt Study Center in Middelburg, Zeeland.
Queen Beatrix abdicated in 2013 and her son Willem-Alexander is now the King. Her attendance at the opening of the Roosevelt Information Center reflects her deep affection for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and all that they stood for.