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
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
As many as thirty-nine states or territories reported a presence of Belgians in the census of 1860, totaling 9,072.6 A proportion of these were the numerous Belgian missionaries and priests present in the United States, but most were bona fide settlers, who spread themselves around the country. Some of them settled in places that later developed into flourishing Belgian communities. For example, eleven artisans came to Detroit in 1833, and Moline already housed a few Belgians in the 1840s and 1850s. But almost half of them resided in Wisconsin. 7
Partly pioneer spirit and partly “America fever” was responsible for the departure of several hundred Luxembourgers (i.e. Belgians from the province of Luxembourg) to the New World in the 1830s and 1840s. These farmers, settled with their families in Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and New York. They followed the example of the earliest pioneers and tended to settle alone or in fairly small groups. Only a few conglomerations can be found, namely in Sheldon (New York), Leopold (Indiana), and Belgium (Wisconsin). Also, according to some sources, about forty families from Aalst, a town in the province of East Flanders, settled in Detroit during the 1840s.8
“America fever” hit a number of Brabant and Namur towns in the 1850s. Two areas, one Flemish, located south of Leuven, and one Walloon, near Wavre, saw a significant portion of their population leave for Wisconsin. They settled mainly in and around Green Bay, in the Door, Brown, and Kewaunee counties. The state of Wisconsin encouraged this migration through an advertising campaign, which was also buttressed later by the so-called spekbrieven or “bacon-letters” of emigrants and the promotion of shipping agents. This explains the high number of Belgians in Wisconsin in the census of 1860, 4,674, a number which according to some is much too low. Everaert estimates the number of Belgians in Wisconsin to be 7,000 in 1862,9. whereas Schepens believes the number was closer to 7,500.10 The emigration to Wisconsin halted when news of diseases and hardship reached the home country. It was further discouraged by the threat of civil war in America and the crackdown of the Belgian government on unscrupulous shipowners. More emigrants came after the Civil War (1,300 in 1873), but overall immigration did not fully resume until the 1880s.11
A third type of emigration was sponsored by the Belgian government. Looking for ways to relieve misery and pauperism in Flanders caused by the effects of mechanization in the textile industry and several crop failures, the Belgian government showed an active interest in agricultural ventures in South and North America. The three Belgian concerns in Guatemala and Brazil, however, were all failures. In the United States, the Belgian government subsidized colonization efforts in Saint Mary, Pennsylvania and in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1849 the government actually paid for the transport of 147 colonists, but also in this instance results were meager and the colonies were abandoned within a few years.12
Between 1850 and 1856 the government also sponsored the transportation of 630 to 650 ex-prisoners and paupers to the United States where they were left to find a living on their own. A few of these “immigrants” helped build canals and railroads, and others moved inward to settle in one of the Belgian colonies.13
From the literature available, it appears that apart from the transportation of ex-prisoners in 1850s, this early phase of emigration was dominated by families. Most emigrants were farmers or day laborers, who were attracted by the American land boom in the mid-nineteenth century and settled in the north central and the Midwestern states. This set the trend for the later immigration waves.14
Appendix A. Belgian-Born Population in the 1860 United States Census.
Belgian-Born Population in the 1860 US Census.15
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Cite this post
Kristine Smets. “Belgian Immigration to America until 1880,”The Belgian American (https://www.thebelgianamerican.com : accessed [date]), posted 6 March 2019.
- This overview is adapted from Kristine Smets, “The Gazette van Moline and the Belgian-American Community, 1907-1921” (Master’s Thesis, Kent State University, 1994).
- For a more detailed description see Antoine De Smet, “Les belges ont-ils pris part à la fondation de New York?” Bulletin de l’Académie royale de Belgique, Classe des lettres et des sciences morales et politiques, 5th series, 39 (1953): 35-74.
- See Joseph A. Griffin, “The Contribution of Belgium to the Catholic Church in America (1523-1857),” Studies in American Church History, 13 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1932).
- Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; digital image from original negative, Library of Congress, (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017893089/).
- Antoine De Smet, “L’émigration belge aux États-Unis pendant le XIXe siècle jusqu’à la Guerre Civile,” [Belgian Emigration to the United States during the 19th Century until the Civil War] Jaarboeken van de Vereniging van Oudheidkundige en Geschiedkundige Kringen van België 32 (1950); reprint in Album Antoine De Smet, Publications du Centre national d’histoire des sciences, no. 4 (Brussels, Belgium: Centre national d’histoire des sciences, 1974), 460 (page references are to the reprint edition).
- See Appendix A.
- De Smet, “L’émigration belge aux États-Unis,” 445; and Arthur Verthé and Bernard Henry, Vlaanderen in de wereld [Flanders in the World]. (Brussels, Belgium: D.A.P. Reinaert Uitgaven, 1972), 450.
- Arthur Verthé, 150 Years of Flemish in Detroit (Tielt, Belgium: Lannoo, 1983), 30.
- J. Everaert, “Antwerpen als emigratiehaven: de overzeese landverhuizing naar Amerika (1830-1914),” [The Antwerp Port and Emigration to America (1830-1914)] in L’Expansion belge sous Leopold Ier (1831-1865): Receuil d’études (Brussels, Belgium: Académie royale des sciences d’outre-mer, 1965), 63.
- Luc Schepens, Van vlaskutser tot Fransman: Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis van de West-Vlaamse plattelandsbevolking in de negentiende eeuw. [From Flax-Peddler to Frenchman: Contribution to the History of the West-Flemish Peasantry in the Nineteenth Century] Westvlaams Economisch Studiebureau, 22 (Brugge, Belgium: Westvlaams Economisch Studiebureau, 1973), 161-62.
- The Belgian emigration to Wisconsin has received a lot of attention. For the Flemish, consult Jeanne Rentmeester and Leo Rentmeester, Vlamingen in Wisconsin = Flemish in Wisconsin (Wisconsin: By the Authors, 1985); For the Walloons see, Françoise Lempereur and Xavier Istasse, Les Wallons du Wisconsin: nos cousins d’Amérique ont émigré il y a 150 ans … = The Walloons in Wisconsin: They Left Belgium 150 Years Ago … (Jambes, Belgium: Syndicat d’initiative de Jambes et environs, 2012); Mary Ann Defnet, et al., From Gréz-Doiceau to Wisconsin: contribution à l’étude de l’émigration wallonne vers les États-Unis d’Amérique au XIXe siècle [Contribution to the Study of the Walloon Emigration to the United States of America in the 19th Century] (Brussels, Belgium: De Boeck-Wesmael, 1986); Antoine De Smet, “ La communauté belge du nord-est du Wisconsin: ses origines, son évolution jusque vers 1900.” [The Belgian Community of Northeastern Wisconsin: Its Origins, Its Evolution until 1900]. Wavriensia 6 (1957), 65-129; reprint, in Album Antoine De Smet, 461-506.”
- These government attempts are discussed in De Smet, “L’émigration belge aux États-Unis,” 448-55; in Ginette Kurgan-Van Henterrijk, “Aspects de l’émigration belge (1830-1844),” [Aspects of Belgian Emigration (1830-1844)], in L’expansion belge sous Léopold Ier (1831-1865): Receuil d’études (Brussels, Belgium: Académie royale des sciences d’outre-mer, 1965), 444-75; and in J. Everaert, Antwerpen als emigratiehaven.
- This transportation was halted after a diplomatic dispute with the United States. See R. Boumans, “Een onbekend aspect van de Belgische uitwijking naar Amerika: de gesubsidieerde emigratie van bedelaars en oud-gevangenen (1850-1856),” [An Unknown Aspect of the Belgian Emigration to America: The Subsidized Emigration of Paupers and Ex-Prisoners (1850-1856)] in L’expansion belge sous Léopold Ier,476-575.
- Jules Jehin De Prume, Nova Belgica: la contribution belge aux États-Unis [Nova Belgica: The Belgian Contribution to the United States] (Montréal, Quebec: A.P. Pigeon, 1924), 48-49; Jean Puissant, “Quelques témoignages sur l’émigration hennuyères, 1884-89,” [Some witnesses to the Hainault Emigration, 1884-1889] Bulletin des séances de l’Académie royale des sciences d’outre-mer 3 (1973): 444; Frank Vandepitte, “Belgische immigranten in de Verenigde Staten,” [Belgian Immigrants in the United States (1850-1920)] licenciate’s thesis, Rijksuniversiteit Gent, 1987-1988, 78-81, 86; Jean Stengers, “Les mouvements migratoires en Belgique aux XIXe et XXe siècles.” [Migratory Movements in Belgium in the 19th and 20th Centuries] in Les migrations internationales de la fin du XVIIIe siècles à nos jours (Paris, France: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1980), 301-2.
- U.S. Department of the Interior, Census Office, Population of the United States in 1860: Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eleventh Census (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1864), 620.