Belgian Immigration to America between 1880 and World War I

Between 1880 and 1920 some towns in Belgium experienced a real “America-rush.” Although alternatives to overseas migration were still available and used by many, Belgians were attracted to the New World in increasing numbers.

Belgian emigration to the United States reached its first peak between 1887 and 1893, a period of economic depression in Belgium. For the first time, the movement included a large number of industrial workers, most of them Walloons from the province of Hainaut (25 percent). Many were glassworkers from Charleroi, skilled laborers attracted by the higher wages in America. Severe strikes of the early 1880s encouraged their emigration and at one point they were financially supported by the Knights of Labor as an act of international workers’ solidarity. Most went to the glass industries of Pennsylvania (Point Marion, Charleroi, Jeanette) and West Virginia (Clarksburg). The Flemish emigrants of that decade primarily went to Moline, Illinois, and Detroit, Michigan, which became the new centers of Belgian immigration. By 1890, smaller Belgian-American conglomerations could also be found in St. Joseph County, Indiana (Mishawaka and South Bend), in Lyon County, Minnesota (Ghent) and in upstate New York (Rochester, Irondequoit, Canandaigua.

After 1893, Belgian emigration to the United States declined as an industrial crisis paralyzed the American economy. But at the start of the twentieth century, the numbers of immigrants rose again peaking at the eve of the First World War. In twelve years more than 23,000 Belgians left the port of Antwerp as third-class passengers, most of them with New York as their destination. United States officials counted more than 50,000 Belgians entering their country. Whatever the exact figure, it is clear that these were the “big” years of Belgian overseas migration. One must also note the growing importance of Canada as the land of destination for Belgian emigrants: thirteen percent during these years.

A sample study of these early twentieth-century emigrants by Ginette Kurgan-Van Henternrijk confirms the nature of this emigration.1 The author used the accounts drawn up by the head of the emigration service in Antwerp between 1901 and 1912. As emigrants were considered all Belgian passengers who were travelling third class, including returning emigrants and excluding those Belgians travelling first or second class, or travelling via other European ports. The results are based on a ten percent sample. Illinois and Michigan received the bulk of the Belgian immigrants: in Illinois 73 percent went to either Moline, Rock Island, Kewaunee or Chicago; in Michigan, 70 percent went to either Detroit (37 percent), Norway, or Gladstone; in Indiana 80 percent went to either Mishawaka or South Bend. In the east, Pennsylvania still attracted a large number of Belgians, but here the immigrants tended to settle in a variety of places, with only a slight preference for Charleroi and MacDonald (21 percent).

The author also indicated the existence of two migratory movements: the first one, a Flemish emigration (60 percent), was dominated by young farmers or day laborers who came with little money and who became unskilled industrial workers in the new world. After being settled, they would return home to find a wife, or, if already married, sent for their families. The second movement originated in Wallonia, mainly in the province of Hainaut, and was dominated by families of skilled industrial workers. They were attracted by the higher wages and better working conditions in Pennsylvania and other American industrial centers. The Walloons tended to be better off than the Flemish, and they tended to continue working in their original profession in the new world.

Frank Vandepitte also differentiated between the Flemish who went to the cities of the Midwest such as Moline, Detroit, St. Charles, and those who went to the east coast. The latter were mostly textile workers in Flanders who found similar occupations in the textile industry in New England. The former were mostly rural workers who became industrial laborers in the mines and steel industries of the aforementioned cities.2

After World War I and its concurrent drop in emigration figures, Belgian emigrants again arrived in large numbers at Ellis Island (6,574 in 1920). The resurgence however was brief because United States’ immigration laws restricted the total Belgian immigration to 1,563 in 1920, and to 512 in 1924.3

Anatomy of a Flemish Marriage Record: An 1832 Example from Kalmthout.

My great great great grandparents, Benedictus Vanhooydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs, were married at Kalmthout on Friday 6 May 1832. He was the son of Adriaan Van Hooydonck and Maria Greefs, and grew up in the Nieuwmoer hamlet of Kalmthout, where his mother managed a small store in the Capelstraat. Maria rented the house, and Benedictus, Maria’s second husband, was a common manual laborer who could not read or write. Benedictus had one older sister and seven older half-siblings.1

Maria Catharina was the daughter of Peeter Jan Greefs and Maria Elisabeth Nuytemans, prosperous farmers in the Vogelenzang at Kalmthout. She had several older siblings.2

Feel free to read along as I transcribe and translate the marriage record of Benedictus and Maria Catharina:3

1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 1)

No. 11. In het Jaer Een Duizend acht honderd tweeendertig den zesden van de Maend Mey ten vyf uren naermiddag

No. 11. In the year One Thousand Eight Hundred Thirty-Two, the sixth of May [6 May 1832], at five o’clock in the afternoon [5 pm]

is voor ons Borgemeester Ambtenaer van den Borgerlyken Stand der gemeente Calmpthout Distrikt en Provincie Antwerpen gecompareerd

appeared before us, the mayor, Officer of the Civil Registration of the town of Calmpthout [Kalmthout], District and Province of Antwerp

Benedictus Vanhooydonck oud tweeendertig jaeren, drij Maenden vierentwintig dagen handwerker

Benedictus Vanhooydonck thirty-two years old and three months and twenty-four days [32 years, 3 months and 24 days], manual laborer

woonende in deze gemeente, en ook in dezelve geboren den twaelfden Januarius achttien honderd,

residing in this town and also born here on the twelfth of January eighteen hundred [18 January 1800]

1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 2)
1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 2)

bejaerden zoon van Adrianus Vanhooydonck, achten vyftig jaeren oud en van Maria Greefs tweeenzeventig jaeren oud

adult son of Adrianus Vanhooydonck, eighty-five [58] years old, and of Maria Greefs, seventy-two [72] years odl

handwerkers woonende in deze gemeente hier tegenwoordig en in dit houwelyk toestemmende

manual laborers residing in this town, present and consenting to this marriage

En hebbende voldaen aen de wetten op de Nationale Militie gelyk het blykt uyt het Certificaat ten dien eynde afgeleverd door den Heer Gouverneur der Provincie Antwerpen den zeventienden April achttien honderd tweeendertig

And having satisfied the laws concerning the National Militia, as it is shown on the Certificate that was issued to this end by the Governor of the Province of Antwerp on seventeen April eighteen hundred thirty-two [17 April 1832].

1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 3)
1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 3)

En Maria Catharina Greefs, oud zevenentwintig jaeren en zesentwintig dagen, landbouwster

And Maria Catharina Greefs, twenty-seven years and twenty-six days old [27 years and 26 days], farmer’s wife

woonende in deze gemeente, en ook in derzelve geboren den zesentwintigsten Germinal jaer dertien der fransche Republiek (tien April achttien honderd vyf)

residing in this town, and also born here on the twenty-sixth Germinal year thirteen of the French Republic (ten April eighteen hundred and five [10 April 1805])

bejaerde Dogter van wylen Petrus Joannes Greefs overleden in deze gemeente van Calmpthout den zestienden Meert achttien honderd eenentwintig

adult daughter of the former Petrus Joannes Greefs who died in this town of Calmpthout on the sixteenth of March eighteen hundred twenty-one [16 March 1821]

gelyk het blykt uyt den akt van overlyden ingeschreven op de registers van den Borgerlyken Stand dezer gemeente alhier ter Secretary berustende,

as it is shown in the death record registered in the Civil Registration of this town, kept here in the office

en van Maria Elizabeth Nuytemans, achtenzestig jaeren oud landbouwster woonende in deze gemeente hier tegenwoordig en in dit houwelyk toestemmende

and of Maria Elizabeth Nuytemans, sixty-eight [68] years old, residining in this town, present here and consenting to the marriage

1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 4)
1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 4)

Welke Comparanten ons hebben verzogt van te procederen tot het houwelyk onder hun beraemd

Which parties request us to proceed to the marriage devised by them

en welkers afkondigingen zyn gedaen geweest voor de voornaemste Deur des ingangs van ons gemeentenhuys

And of which the announcements were made before the most important door at the entrance of our town hall

te weten de eerste den tweeentwintigsten en de tweede den negenentwintigsten van de Maend van April laestleden, om tien uren voormiddag zynde twee zondagen

that is the first one on the twenty-second and the second one on the twenty-ninth of the month of April last, at ten o’clock in the morning, being both Sundays

geene tegenstryding aen dit houwelyk ons te kennen gegeven zynde

no opposition to the marriage was made known to us

recht doende aen dit verzoek

to do justice at this request

wy hebben

we have

naerdat door ons aen de Comparanten waeren voorgelezen alle de stukken hier boven vermeld alsmede het zesde Kapittel van den Borgerlyke Wet Boek geintituleerd van het houwelyk

after which have read to the parties all the aforementioned records as well as the sixth chapter of the Civil Code entitled about marriage

gevraegd aen den toekomenden Bruydegom en aen de toekomende Bruyd of zy begeêren zich te nemen voor man ende vrouw

asked the future groom and the future bride whether they wish to take each other as husband and wife

ider van hun afzonderlyk geantwoord hebbende dat Jae,

both of them separaretly having answered yes

wy verklaeren in den naem van de wet dat Benedictus Vanhooydonck en Maria Catharina Greefs vereenigd zyn door het houwelijk,

we proncoune in the name of the law that Benedictus Vanhooydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs have been united in marriage

1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 5)
1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 5)

waer van wy dezen akt hebben opgesteld in de tegenwoordigheyd van

of which we have recorded this act in the presence of

Franciscus Feyen negenenveertig jaeren oud handwerker halven broeder van den man,

Franciscus Feyen, forty-nine [49] years old, manuel laborer, half brother of the husband,

Gerardus Aerts, dertig jaeren oud hoef smit zwager van den man

Gerardus Aerts, thirty years old, farrier, brother-in-law of the husband

Joannes Greefs veertig jaeren oud landbouwer, Broeder van de vrouw,

Joannes Greefs, forty years old, farmer, brother of the wife,

en Cornelius Greefs tweeendertig jaeren oud landbouwer Broeder van de vrouw,

and Cornelius Greefs thirty-two years old, farmer, brother of the wife,

1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 6)
1832 Marriage Record for Benedictus Vanhoofydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs (detail 6)

alle woonende in deze gemeente van Calmpthout,

all residing in the town of Calmpthout

de welke den tegenwoordigen akt gezamentlyk met ons en de partyen Contraktanten hebben geteekend

who have signed this act together with us and the contracting parties

naer dat den zelven hun was voorgelezen,

after it was to read to them

uytgenomen Adrianus Vanhooydonck en Maria Greefs die verklaerd hebben van niet te kunnen schryven uyt reden van onwetendheyd.

except for Adrianus Vanhooydonck and Marie Greefs who declared they are not able to write due to ignorance.

Belgian Marriage Records: A True Gold Mine.

The first time you encounter a Belgian civil marriage record, your eyes may glaze over, because they tend to be long and contain a lot of so-called ‘legalese.’  But they are worth your close attention, because they are a true gold mine of information.

Since the introduction of the Code Civil in Belgium, most Belgians traditionally have gotten married twice: first at the town hall [voor de gemeente in Dutch], and subsequently in the church [voor de kerk]. The French Revolutionary Law of 20 September 1792 had muzzled the role of the church and from now on the sacrament of marriage, which was made optional, had to be preceded by a civil contractual marriage.  The Code Napoléon of 1804 retained this stipulation, and it became the model for the Belgian Code Civil.1

The marriage had to be celebrated publicly before the officer of civil registration in the town of residence of either bride or groom (Civil Code, article 165).2 Most often this was the bride’s village. No minister was allowed to conduct a nuptial ceremony prior to receiving a marriage record issued by the officer of civil registration (Penal code, article 199 and 200).3

Continue reading “Belgian Marriage Records: A True Gold Mine.”

Belgian Immigration to America until 1880.

The first “Belgian” settlement in America dates back to 1624, when some thirty Protestant families, “for the most part Walloon,” landed at Manhattan island aboard the “Nieuw Nederland”.1 They had fled religious persecution in the Spanish Low Countries (present day Belgium), and sought refuge in the town of Leiden in the Netherlands. There some of them had come in contact with the West India Company, who organized and financed their emigration to the New World.2

Since the seventeenth century, Belgian Catholic missionaries also traveled to North America. They helped explore the country (e.g. Father Hennepin), worked among Indians (e.g. Father Pierre-Jean De Smet), and, in some cases, stimulated colonization.3

Rev. Father Pierre Jean Jan De Smet (1801-1873) Catholic Missionary to Indian Territory, ca. 1860-1865.4

Belgian emigration to the United States began in earnest during the nineteenth century. Three types of migratory movements characterize the earliest phase of Belgian immigration to the United States. First, from the beginning of the nineteenth century onward, individual pioneers ventured into the New World to explore and settle the land. For example, as early as 1816, a small Walloon colony existed in Missouri, called “Nouvelle Liège; nothing was heard of the settlement after 1833.5

Continue reading “Belgian Immigration to America until 1880.”

The Eight Sons of Moeder Cordula.

One of my favorite Belgian singer songwriters, Willem Vermandere, wrote a song that captures the grief and sorrow of a mother who watched all but one of her sons emigrate to America in the early twentieth century.

Acht kloeke zeuns had moeder Cordula
En zeven zijn der naar ‘t vreemde gegaan
Zo wijd over zee daar lag Canada
Moeder Maria, lat dat schip nie vergaan
Lat dat schip nie vergaan

[Mother Cordula had eight stout sons, and seven went to foreign parts. Across the wide ocean was Canada. Mother Mary, don’t let that ship perish. Don’t let that ship perish.]

My English translation cannot do justice to Vermandere’s beautiful lyrics. The song recounts how Cordula prayed to safeguard her son’s journeys. How she never stopped waiting for them to return, met goud belaan [wealthy with gold]. How she treasured their letters. Two sons died early. The five others married and started families. Only one son returned, forty years years later, when he was old and worn. She did not recognize him. In her dreams they had remained young men with beautiful black hair.

So who was mother Cordula? And who were her sons? In a 2015 interview Vermandere revealed the song is based on his great grandmother.1 An exploration in the Belgian civil registration records can help us start writing Cordula’s story.

Continue reading “The Eight Sons of Moeder Cordula.”

Navigating Belgian Vital Records at the State Archives: A Walloon Example.

Searching the Belgian State Archives (Rijksarchief in België, Archives de l’État en Belgique, Belgisches Staatsarchiv) for vital records can be confusing, especially when you are not familiar with the language.  First, there are four possible starting places, depending on your language of preference. But with almost all of them, as you dig deeper, the language in the background switches to either Dutch or French. Second, there is no comprehensive index (although you can always try your luck at https://search.arch.be/en/zoeken-naar-personen), so for now browsing the images town by town is the only way to do exhaustive research, which means you must know the town and approximate date for the vital event. Last, and this very unfortunate, there is no download option, so the best you can do it take screenshots in order to have your own digital copy of the record.

Don’t let this deter you however!  There two very good reasons for exploring birth, marriage, and death records at the Belgian State Archives as well as at FamilySearch.

Continue reading “Navigating Belgian Vital Records at the State Archives: A Walloon Example.”

Some Secondary Resources for the Belgians in and around Moline, Illinois.

No comprehensive work exists describing the Belgian immigration to the Moline, Illinois area. The following is a brief annotated bibliography of works, some more scholarly than others, that include information about this particular Belgian-American community.

Continue reading “Some Secondary Resources for the Belgians in and around Moline, Illinois.”

The Belgians in Moline, Illinois: An Overview.

Sacred Heart (Belgian Church) in Moline, Illinois. (Wikicommons)

Did you know that during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Moline, Illinois,  was the major center for the Belgian immigrants? Not only did the area receive a large portion of the new arrivals, but the city even hosted its own Flemish newspaper, the Gazette van Moline.1

Continue reading “The Belgians in Moline, Illinois: An Overview.”

Visiting the Past with Mariette Smith-Six.

Smith-Six, Mariette. Visiting the Past: A Memoir of a Belgian-American Immigrant. [Port Huron, Mich.: Privately Printed,] 2010. 230 p. ISBN 978-0-615-38969-1.

Smith-Six, Mariette. Visiting the Past: A Memoir of a Belgian-American Immigrant. [Port Huron, Mich.: Privately Printed,] 2010. 230 p. ISBN 978-0-615-38969-1.

That every immigrant story is unique is demonstrated in Mariette Smith-Six’ memoir Visiting the Past: A Memoir of a Belgian-American. Economic and political “push- and pull” factors play a role, as does “chain migration,” but in the end, specific events in an individual’s life are what drives the immigrant’s decision to leave home, family, and all that is familiar, and depart for the unknown. For Mariette’s parents it was the disappointment with their landlord and their feeling of betrayal. Her parents’ dream of owning the house, which they had painstakingly remodeled to make it into a flourishing store, collapsed. Letters from her father’s cousin in Canada, brought promises for a new future. What happens next is recounted in a personal way by Mariette, who was 15 when her family departed for Canada in 1951. The story is one of heartbreak, hard work, and dogged determination, as well as friendship and support found among the Belgian-American community in Detroit, Michigan.

Continue reading “Visiting the Past with Mariette Smith-Six.”

This Change in Access to Belgian Vital Records Will Please Family Historians

In a previous post I mentioned that Belgian vital records less than 100 years old are not open to the public. This is about to change, and genealogists with recent Belgian ancestry should be excited. The new law will take effect on 31 March 2019.1

  • Death records will become public after 50 years. I.e. on 1 April 2019 you will be able to request a transcript of the death record for anyone who died before 1 April 1969.
  • Marriage records will become public after 75 years. I.e., on 1 April 2019 you will be able to request a transcript of the marriage record for anyone who married before 1 April 1944.
  • Birth records remain closed for 100 years.
Continue reading “This Change in Access to Belgian Vital Records Will Please Family Historians”