Today, about 356,405 people in the United States claim Belgian ancestry, an estimate which appears to be low, especially when compared with the estimated number of Dutch Americans: 4,289,116.(1) Did that many more Netherlanders immigrate to the United States?
Several factors might be able to explain the difference in numbers:
First, three different ethnic groups contributed to Belgian emigration, and each one is easily confused with other nationalities:
- The Flemish, who originate in the northern half of the country and speak Dutch, just as they do in the Netherlands.
- The Walloons, who come from Wallonia, the southern region of Belgium, and who speak French, as in France.
- The Belgian Luxembourgers, who speak Letzeburgisch, a local German dialect, as in the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg.
Second, Belgian-Americans may not have held on to their ethnic identity as long as other hyphenated groups. They were likely to intermarry with other ethnic groups early on, especially Catholics.(2) Consider also that Belgium was still a very new country when some of the immigrants arrived in the United States, and it was created more as a buffer state between Germany and France, than in response to a swell of nationalism. Even today, Belgium ranks as one of the least patriotic countries in Europe, and national pride is something that mostly displays itself on the soccer field.(3)
But most of all, the Dutch had a strong presence in America during the colonial era, and they outnumberd the Belgians in terms of immigration during modern times. The New Netherland Company built Fort Nassau near present-day Albany, New York, in 1614, and Dutch immigration to the United States has been continuous ever since, spurred on by the Netherlands’ commercial expansion during the colonial era, as part of the great migration of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and within the context of the planned immigration following World War II.(4)
In contrast, colonial immigration from the southern Low Countries was sporadic and is not often associated with Belgium. A group of Walloon families built Fort Orange near Fort Nassau in 1624, and there were a few French-speaking Walloons among the first settlers in the Hudson River Valley and Manhattan during the 1620s, but it is unclear whether their descendants ever referred to themselves as Belgian-Americans, considering that the country was not founded until 1830, two hundred years after their departure. The area which now constitutes Belgium also experienced far less economic growth during the seventeenth and eighteenth century than its northern neighbor. Amsterdam had replaced Antwerp as the chief trading center of Europe.(5)
The Belgians were part of the large migration movements of the nineteenth and twentieth century, but they were still outnumbered by the Dutch. Approximately 200,000 Belgians arrived in the United States between 1820 and 1975, whereas the number of Netherlanders during the same time exceeded 300,000.(6)
Do all these factors account for the huge difference between Belgian- and Dutch-Americans? I am not sure, and more research in this area would be welcome. Either way, even though the Belgian-American presence in the United States is small, their contributions to America have been significant.(7) Just consider some of the more famous examples:
The mother of Charles Benedict Calvert (1808–1864), U.S. Congressman from the sixth district of Maryland, was the daughter of a wealthy Antwerp aristocrat. The family of Rosalie-Eugénie Stier (1778-1821) fled the Low Countries in 1794.(8)
The American industrialist Henry Ford (1863-1947) had Belgian ancestors. His mother, Mary Litogot (1839-1876), was likely born in Taylor, Wayne County, Michigan, as the youngest child of Belgian immigrants. Both parents died soon after her birth, and Mary was subsequently adopted by Patrick and Margaret Ahern, an Irish-American couple.(9)
George Washington Goethals (1858-1928), the engineer and builder of the Panama Canal, was born to Belgian-Americans. His father, Johannes Baptista Goethals, immigrated from Stekene, a small town in East Flanders, about 1848.(10)
Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944), the Belgian born chemist who invented Velox photographic paper and Bakelite, was born in Ghent. He visited New York in 1889 where Charles Fredrick Chandler, professor of chemistry at Columbia University, convinced him to remain in the United States.(11)
George Sarton (1884–1956), a historian of science, was born in Ghent, and arrived in the United States in 1915. He is the father of the prolific Belgian-American poet, novelist, and memoirist, May Sarton (1912-1995.(12)
Earl Louis “Curly” Lambeau (1898–1965), founder, player, and the first coach of the Green Bay Packers football team has Walloon ancestors. His grandfather, Victor Joseph Lambeau (1853-1891) was born in Hamme-Mille, a small village not far from Wavre, Brabant, and immigrated to Brown County, Wisconsin during the 1870s. Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin is named after Curly Lambeau.(13)
Karel Bossart (1904–1975), the pioneering rocket designer and ‘father (creator) of the Atlas ICBM, was born in Antwerp. He earned a scholarship to study at M.I.T. and remained in the United States working for various aircraft companies.(14)
Charles Louis Schepens (1912-2006), an influential ophthalmologist, “the father of modern retinal surgery,” was born in Mouscron, Belgium, and emigrated to the United States in 1947.(15)
Jean-Baptiste “Toots” Thielemans (1922-2016), a jazz artist well known for his harmonica play, was born in Brussels, and immigrated to America in 1951. He became a US citizen in 1957 and toured with jazz legends Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson, Billy Evans, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others.(16)
John Vande Velde (born 1948), was a professional track cyclist, whose grandfather immigrated from Flanders to Chicago. John is the father of retired professional cyclist Christian Vande Velde (born 1976).(17)
Jean-Claude Van Varenberg, better known as Jean-Claude Van Damme (born 1960), was born in Sint-Agatha-Berchem, near Brussels. He arrived in the United States in 1982, determined to become an actor. His break-through came with the film Bloodsport (1988).(18)
Cite this post
Kristine Smets. “How Many Belgian-Americans Are We Talking About,”The Belgian American (https://www.thebelgianamerican.com : accessed [date]), posted 7 January 2019.
(1) U.S. Census Bureau, “Table B01003, Total Population, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates,” American FactFinder (https://factfinder.census.gov : viewed 7 January 2018).
(2) [Pierre-Henri Laurent, “Belgians,” in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed. Stephan Thernstrom (Cambridge, Mass.: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980), 180.
(3) Cas Mudde, “Can Soccer Unite the Belgians?” Washington Post, 16 June 2014, Web edition (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/06/16/can-the-red-devils-unite-the-belgians/?utm_term=.65397cb985d1 : accessed 9 August 2018).
(4) Robert P. Swierenga, “Dutch,” in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, 284-295.
(5) Emiel L. Lamberts, et al., “Belgium: History,” Encyclopædia Britannia (https://www.britannica.com/place/Belgium/History : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 7 January 2019.
(6) Andreas Stynen, “Belgian Emigration to North America,” Red Star Line, Antwerp, 1873-1934 (Leuven: Davidsfonds, 2013), 127. Also, Pierre-Henri Laurent, “Belgians,” in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, 179-181. Also, Robert P. Swierenga, “Dutch Immigration Patterns in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in The Dutch in America: Immigration, Settlement, and Cultural Change, ed. Robert P. Swierenga (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985), 33. Also, Robert P. Swierenga, “Dutch,” 286.
(7) Pierre-Henri Laurent, “Belgians,” 181
(8) “Charles Benedict Calvert,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Benedict_Calvert : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 1 December 2018. Also, “Rosalie Stier Calvert,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosalie_Stier_Calvert : viewed 7 August 2019), last revised 1 December 2018.
(9) “Henry Ford,” Encyclopædia Brittanica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Ford : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 3 January 2019. Also, Ford R. Bryan, Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford (Dearborn, Michigan: Ford Books, 2002), p. 125.
(10) “George Washington Goethals,” Encyclopædia Brittanica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Washington-Goethals : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 25 June 2018. Also, Jozef J. Goethals, “The Ancestors of George Washington Goethals,” in Goethals 880-1900: The Story of The Goethals Family (Baltimore, Md.: Gateway Press, 2008), p. 107.
(11) Charles F. Kettering, “Biographical Memoir of Leo Hendrik Baekeland, 1863-1944,” Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, 24 (1946), 283.
(12) “George Alfred Leon Sarton,” Encyclopædia Brittanica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Alfred-Leon-Sarton : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 27 August 2018. Also, “May Sarton,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Sarton : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 4 December 2018.
(13) “Curly Lambeau,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curly_Lambeau : viewed 7 Januar 2019), last revised 4 December 2018. Also, “Public Member Trees,” database, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 January 2017), Lambeau Family Tree, submitted and maintained by paul graves.
(14) “Karel Bossart,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karel_Bossart : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 10 November 2018.
(15) “Charles Schepens,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Schepens : viewed 7 August 2019), last revised 14 September 2018.
(16) “Toots Thielemans,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toots_Thielemans : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 29 December 2018.
(17) Gary J. Boulanger, “5 Reasons Why He’s John Vande Velde And You’re Not,” Bike Mag (https://www.bikemag.com/pavedmag/5-reasons-why-hes-john-vande-velde-and-youre-not/ : viewed 7 January 2019), 5 June 2013. Also, “John Vande Velde,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Vande_Velde : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 15 April 2018. Also, “Christian Vande Velde,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Vande_Velde : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 9 September 2018.
(18) “Jean-Claude Van Damme,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Claude_Van_Damme#Early_life_and_education : viewed 7 January 2019), last revised 5 January 2019.