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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.
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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.
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