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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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.

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.

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Ethnic Press as a Historical and Genealogical Resource.

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.

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