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

  1. Kurgan-Van Henternrijk, “Belgian Emigration to the United States,” 9-49.
  2. Frank Vandepitte, “Belgische Immigranten in de Verenigde Staten,” (Licentiaatsverhandeling, Rjksuniversiteit Gent, 1988), 126-29.
  3. In 1930 the quota was again increased to 1,304; See U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931), 104.

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  1. Enjoyed this article very much and shared with our city fb page as well as our Belgian American Heritage Society of WV. Our city of Clarksburg is now better informed and think many now understand the decline in industry and population with a better picture of it all. Thank you! Vickie Zabeau-Bowden.

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