Did you know that, just like the Germans, Italians, and other ethnic groups in America, the Belgians created and maintained their own ethnic press? The two best known Belgian-American newspapers are the Gazette van Moline, which appeared from 1907 until 1940 in Moline, Illinois, and the Gazette van Detroit (Detroit, Michigan), which was first published in 1914, published its first online issue in 2006, went completely digital in 2015, and, sadly, was discontinued in December 2018. In addition, there were several other more short-lived publications. Most were written in Dutch, yet at least two were issued by Walloons, and therefore were composed in French.
The nineteenth-century civil records for Belgium were microfilmed by The Church of the Latter-Day-Saints, and have since then been digitized. They are freely available at FamilySearch.org. Indexing of the records however is very sparse. You will need to browse the records, so it is helpful to have a general idea of time and place before you start.
In this example, we will look for the birth record of my paternal great-grandfather, Constantinus Smets, who was born in Borgerhout, now part of the city of Antwerp, in 1870.
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?
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 A lot has changed since 2007—many more records have been made available online—and as a result the guide is slightly outdated when it comes to how to access digital images of the records.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.
Here is the good news for Americans who are tracing their ancestors in Belgium: unlike the United States where some states did not require civil birth, death, or marriage records until the end of the nineteenth century, vital records have been meticulously kept for about 225 years in Belgium, and they contain a wealth of information.
Today, 7 January 2019, is the birthday of The Belgian American, a new virtual resource center for the Belgian American immigrant history and experience.
A lot of information is already “out there,” scattered on the internet, in books and journals, and in sundry brick-and-mortar repositories, but finding it (and keeping track of it) is a full time job. The Belgian American will do just that. Some of it is familiar to me—I am a genealogist, librarian, and historian—but I anticipate uncovering a whole lot more as I embark on this journey. Why not join me for the ride?