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.
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.
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.
That every immigrant story is unique is demonstrated in Mariette Smith-Six’ memoir Visiting the Past: A Memoir of a Belgian-American. Economic and political “push- and pull” factors play a role, as does “chain migration,” but in the end, specific events in an individual’s life are what drives the immigrant’s decision to leave home, family, and all that is familiar, and depart for the unknown. For Mariette’s parents it was the disappointment with their landlord and their feeling of betrayal. Her parents’ dream of owning the house, which they had painstakingly remodeled to make it into a flourishing store, collapsed. Letters from her father’s cousin in Canada, brought promises for a new future. What happens next is recounted in a personal way by Mariette, who was 15 when her family departed for Canada in 1951. The story is one of heartbreak, hard work, and dogged determination, as well as friendship and support found among the Belgian-American community in Detroit, Michigan.
Goethals, Jozef J. and Karel Denys. Searching for Flemish (Belgian) Ancestors. Baltimore, Maryland: Printed for Clearfield Co. by Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007. 81 p. : ill. ; 28 cm. ISBN-13: 978-0-8063-5342-5
This excellent guide to genealogical research in Flanders was produced in 2007 by Jozef Goethals, in collaboration with Karel Denys. It was the first book of its kind published in English since the arrival of the internet, and one to which I will refer often while I am writing this blog. A lot has changed since 2007—many more records have been made available online—and as a result the guide is slightly outdated when it comes to how to access digital images of the records. But the work remains extremely valuable because of its detailed description and analysis of the Belgian records, especially the civil and parish records, and its useful appendices.