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

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

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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

[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.

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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

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

How many Belgian-Americans are we talking about?

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?

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