Belgian Americans

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by Jane Stewart Cook


Belgium, whose official name is the Kingdom of Belgium, is a densely populated country not much larger than the state of Maryland. It covers an area of 11,781 square miles (30,519 square kilometers), bounded on the north by The Netherlands, on the west by France, and on the east by Germany. The tiny nation of Luxembourg lies to the south. This strategic location has earned Belgium the sobriquet, "crossroads of Europe." Brussels, its capital city, is just a three-hour drive to The Hague, the capital of The Netherlands, and Paris, and the capital of France.

The country is divided into three regions: Northern Lowlands, Central Lowlands, and Southern Hilly Region. Its highest point is the Botrange Mountain (2,275 feet), and its major rivers are the Schelde, the Sambre, and the Meuse, which are important transportation routes. Approximately ten million people call Belgium home. The Flemish, those residing in Flanders, the northern half of the country, speak Dutch. They make up the majority of Belgium's population. Wallonia, the region closest to France, is occupied by the French-speaking Walloons. About one percent of the population speaks German, principally those who reside near the former West German border. About 98 percent of Belgians are Catholic. Protestants and those of the Jewish and Muslim faiths make up the remainder. Belgium's political system is that of a constitutional monarchy, with the monarch having limited powers. The national flag, adopted in 1830, is a vertical tricolor of black, yellow, and red.


From approximately 57 b.c. to a.d. 431, Rome ruled over Gaul, an area of what is now France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. The land was then inhabited by independent tribes of Celtic origin. Julius Caesar's account of his efforts to subdue the area gives us the first written record of what came to be called Belgium. The Romans looked on Belgium as a defensive barrier to the Franks, Germanic tribes that eventually settled in what is now Flanders. Language patterns followed the settlement patterns. Germanic speech evolved into Dutch in the north, and the Latin of Rome developed into French in the south. These language patterns, which were established by the third century, a.d., have altered only slightly up to the present day.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the Franks held sway for more than 550 years. With the death of Charlemagne in 814, the country was divided into France, the Holy Roman Empire (Germany), and the "Middle Kingdom," a buffer state comprised of the Lowlands and Belgium. Feudal states developed, and in the later Middle Ages the dukes of Burgundy ruled the Low Countries. In 1516, Belgium became a possession of Spain and remained so until 1713, when the country was given to Austria as settlement in the War of the Spanish Succession. Belgium was annexed by France in 1795, and placed under the rule of The Netherlands after Napoleon's defeat in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. In 1830, Belgium declared its independence, adopted a constitution, and chose its first king, Leopold I. He was succeeded in 1865 by his son, Leopold II.


During World War I, Belgium was overrun by Germany. More than 80,000 Belgians died. Under the personal command of their "soldier king," Albert I, Belgium managed to hold on until the arrival of the Allied forces in 1918. History repeated itself in World War II when Hitler bombed Belgium into submission and took its king, Leopold III, prisoner. The arrival of Allied forces in 1944 was followed by the Battle of the Bulge, which would decide the war's outcome. Belgium rebuilt its war-torn country, became a founding member of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and by the 1960s was enjoying a prosperous economy. Belgium has been a leader in the movement toward European economic integration, and in 1958 became a founding member of the European Economic Community.


It is said that when Henry Hudson sailed up the New York river that now bears his name, three Flemings were aboard the ship. Certainly the Belgians participated in the early settlement (seventeenth century) of what is now Manhattan. Many historians believe that Peter Minuit, who acted as purchasing agent for the West Indian Company when Manhattan Island was bought from the resident Native Americans, was a Walloon, or at least of Belgian heritage. And it is known that his secretary, Isaac de Rasiers, was a Walloon.

Henry C. Bayer, in his book The Belgians, First Settlers in New York and in the Middle States, discussed Belgian settlements at Wallabout, Long Island, and Staten Island, as well as in Hoboken, Jersey City, Pavonia, Communipaw, and Wallkill, New Jersey. These place names are derived from both the Walloons who settled there, as well as from the Dutch version of Walloon words used to describe a locale. For example, Hoboken is named after a town in Belgium. Pavonia got its name when a Fleming, Michael Pauw, purchased land on the Jersey shore. Translating his own name, Pauw (which in Flemish and Dutch means "peacock") into Latin, he got "Pavonia." Wallkill is the Dutch word for "Walloon's Stream." Elsewhere, the Walloomsac River in Vermont derives its name from the Walloons who settled on the east branch of the Hoosac River in New York. Belgian settlements were also established during the seventeenth century in Connecticut, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. These were settled primarily by Walloons, many of whom came to America on ships owned by the West India Company, whose founder, William Usselinx, was Flemish.

A notable name connected with America's early history is Lord Baltimore, whose family were prominent aristocrats in Flemish Belgium. Belgian officers also fought during the Revolutionary War. To note a few: Charles De Pauw, a Fleming who accompanied Lafayette to America; Ensign Thomas Van Gaasbeck, Captain Jacques Rapalje, and Captain Anthony Van Etten, all of New York; and Captain Johannes Van Etten of Pennsylvania.


Belgians came to America in greatest numbers during the nineteenth century. They came for reasons no different than many other Western Europeansfinancial opportunity and a better life for their families. Belgian immigration records do not appear until 1820. From 1820 to 1910, immigration is listed at 104,000; from 1910 to 1950, 62,000 Belgians came to the United States. During the period 1847 to 1849, when disease and economic deprivation were the lot for many in Belgium, emigration numbers of those leaving for America reached 6,000 to 7,000 a year. During this time, most of those coming to the United States were small landowners (farmers), agricultural laborers, and miners; crafts people such as carpenters, masons and cabinetmakers; and other skilled tradespeople, such as glass blowers and lace makers. In later years, especially after the two World Wars, many middle class and urban professionals left Belgium for this country, seeking work in our universities, laboratories, and industrial corporations. Altogether, it is estimated that from 1820 to 1970, approximately 200,000 Belgian immigrants settled in the United States. Each year since 1950, a fixed quota of 1,350 has remained unfilled, and it is calculated that by 1981, Belgians represented no more than 0.4 percent of the foreign-born population.


Nineteenth-century settlement patterns followed work opportunities. For example, the glass industry in the East attracted many to West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Detroit, Michigan, attracted building tradespeople. Door, Brown, and Kewaunee Counties in Wisconsin attracted those seeking farmland. Considerable numbers came to Indiana. Substantial pockets of Belgian Americans can also be found in Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, Washington, and Oregon. Many towns and cities across the United States bear the names of their counterparts in Belgium: Liege, Charleroi, Ghent, Antwerp, Namur, Rosiere, Brussels.

Michigan and Wisconsin have the largest population of Belgian Americans, with the above-named Wisconsin counties having the largest rural settlement in the United States. The Belgian American settlement in Detroit took place mainly between 1880 and 1910. Most of these new arrivals were skilled Flemish crafts people. Detroit's early industrial and manufacturing growth was fueled in great part by their skills in the building trades and transportation. According to Jozef Kadijk, whose 1963 lecture at Loyola University in Chicago appears in Belgians in the United States, approximately 10,000 residents of Detroit at that time were born in Belgium. Taking their descendants into account is said to increase that figure to 50,000. Most of the Wisconsin Belgians were Walloons from the areas of Brabant and Liege, Belgium. They began arriving in substantial numbers by 1853, following the lure of farmland that could be purchased from 50 cents to $1.25 an acre. Here they cleared fields, felled trees, and built rude log shelters to house their families. Writing back home of their satisfaction with their new lives, they soon were joined by thousands of their fellow countrymen. The 1860 census shows about 4,300 foreign-born Belgians living in Brown and Kewaunee Counties.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Belgians are also Western Europeans, and as such, presented a familiar religious and cultural background to others in their new homeland. Stereotypical notions as to traits of character often depict the Dutch-influenced Fleming as reserved, stubborn, practical, and vigorous, while the passion of France is observed in the Walloon's wit, extroversion, and quickness of mind and temper. It is true that whether Flemish or Walloon, the influences of The Netherlands, Germany and France upon their language, religion, and social customs were evident. This helped to make their assimilation easieralthough they sometimes met with a strong anti-Catholic sentiment, which equated allegiance to the Church with disloyalty to America, and was prevalent in many parts of the United States. However, the Walloons who settled in Northeast Wisconsin found their way made easier because of the established French Catholic communities. In general, the Flemings, with higher education levels and sought-after job skills, suffered less prejudice than the Walloons, the majority of whom were poor, unskilled, and illiterate. But through their industry and thrift, these poor farmers soon won the respect of their neighbors. In time, Belgian Americans became admired not only for their industry and down-to-earth outlook, but also for their sociable character and friendly manner. Belgian hospitality and the retention of many old-world customs and traditions gave color and vitality to the communities in which they resided. Another factor which both hastened assimilation and fostered ethnic pride was the tragic experience of Belgium during the World Wars. The sympathy extended to Belgian Americans by others led them to re-emphasize their origins and culture.


It is said that a Belgian, whether Fleming or Walloon, is an inveterate hand shaker. On meeting, greeting, and parting, prolonged handshakes are the rule. This custom is thought to stem from ancient times, when a man's handshake proved he held no weapon. The Belgians' belief in the value of the community and their sturdy outlook on life have helped them recover from plague, famine, two World Wars, and economic depression. Those characteristics have also contributed to the progress and well-being of Belgian Americans. For example, in 1871, a devastating forest fire in Wisconsin (known as the "Peshtigo Fire") destroyed land, farms, and residences in an area six miles wide and 60 miles long. The Belgian communities of northeast Wisconsin were swept away, leaving 5,000 homeless to face the coming winter. It is significant of their determination and resilience that by 1874 these communities were completely rebuilt. An interesting architectural variant can be found in Door County, Wisconsin, as a direct result of the disastrous fire. Up to that time, most homes were built of wood, because it was plentiful and cheap. Red brick homes and buildings began to appearsturdy and square in design, trimmed in white, and reminiscent of the Belgium homeland. Even today, many fine examples of this form of architecture can be found throughout the Belgian farming communities in Wisconsin.

Many Belgian Americans lived long distances from hospitals or doctors; many could not afford medical services. Therefore folk remedies and home cures were common. A poultice made of flax seed and applied to the chest was thought to help with fever and colds. "King of Pain" liniment for aches and sprains, "Sunrise Herb Tea" for constipation, and cobwebs placed on wounds to stop bleeding were other remedies used.

Every ethnic group that came to America in the nineteenth century could not help but be influenced by other cultures. As ties with the old country weakened, these groups became more and more "Americanized." And, for the most part, they were eager to do so. But all groups, to some degree, kept land-of-origin customs and beliefs alive through religious and social practices. Belgian Americans have been very successful in preserving their secular and religious traditions.


In the early days, rural populations tended to remain homogeneous, separated mainly by distance from other communities. They relied on others of their own group to help them survive. Strong identification with one's own kind gave comfort and protection to those sharing a common language and heritage. Because of proximity, urban populations began to interact with other ethnic groups (mainly Catholics) earlier than those in rural areas. In time, greater access to transportation, employment and education, and the settlement of other nationalities nearby caused the sociable Belgians to seek interaction with others outside their group. Proud of their heritage, they have used it to enlighten and enrich their encounters with others.


Belgians have a love affair with food and revere the act of eating. To rush through a meal is thought to be uncivilized behavior. Belgian food is hearty and rich and often accompanied by beer. Indeed, there are more than 300 varieties of beer brewed in Belgium and the amount of beer consumed, per capita, is second only to Germany. Although many dishes in Belgian cooking are the same for the Flemish and the Walloons, there are differences. For example, Flemish cooking features sweet-salt and sweet-sour mixtures (sauerkraut and pickles). Nutmeg is a favored spice in Flemish cooking. Walloon cuisine is based on French techniques and ingredients. Garlic is a favored seasoning. As in Belgium, a typical Belgian American family meal begins with a thick vegetable soup, followed by meat and vegetables. Pork sausages made with cabbage and seasonings are called tripes à l'djote (or Belgian tripe); boulettes are meatballs. Djote, or "jut" is cooked cabbage and potatoes seasoned with browned butter, pepper, salt, and nutmeg, while potasse is a dish of potatoes, red cabbage and side pork. A homemade cottage cheese called kaset is often included with the meal. This spreadable cheese is cured in crocks and used like butter. For dessert, there is Belgian pie, which is an open-faced tart filled with custard or cottage cheese, then topped with layers of prunes or apples. A pastry called cougnou and shaped like the baby Jesus is a special Christmas treat for Walloons. A waffle-like cookie called bona or guilette is made with a special baking iron and is also served by Walloons at Christmas. The Belgian waffle, called gället, although a traditional food eaten on New Year's Day, has been Americanized and is commonly found on restaurant menus. Some traditional Flemish foods include: geperste kop, or head cheese, which is not cheese but the renderings from a pig's head, ears, and stomach made into a jelly-like product; olie bollen, a raised doughnut made with apples, and advocaat, a liqueur made of grain alcohol, vanilla, eggs, milk, and sugar.

Belgian women are known for their expertise in bread baking. Long ago, huge outdoor ovens were used for baking. The bakehouse was made of masonry and fieldstone, with walls two feet thick. The oven protruded from one end, and was also made of masonry and stone. The bakehouse chimney and interior of the oven were red brick. These whitewashed structures were often trimmed in green and their walls supported grape vines, whose fruit was used for making jelly. Their large ovens could bake as many as 50 loaves of bread at one time. And, after the bread was finished baking, the oven was just hot enough for baking pies. Some of these picturesque ovens still exist in rural Belgian American communities, although few of them are still in use.


Wooden shoes called sabots (Walloon) or klompen (Flemish) were traditional footwear for men, women, and children. Like the people of Belgium, they wore these shoes outdoors; they were left by the door when entering the house. Some immigrants brought the knowledge and the tools for making wooden shoes with them from Belgium. Belgian Americans who could afford them wore wooden shoes decorated with carvings of leaves and flowers. Children sometimes used their wooden shoes as skates or sleds. The early immigrants were usually clothed in homespun cloth and caps. Belgian lace, the fine handwork which originated in sixteenth-century Flanders, was often used to trim religious vestments, altar cloths, handkerchiefs, table cloths, napkins, and bed linens. This fine art was practiced by Belgian immigrants in every area of settlement in the United States. When celebrating the Kermiss, which is a Belgian harvest festival, the organizers of the Kermiss wore red, white, and blue sashes while leading the people of the community in a procession to the church to give thanks.


At the Kermiss festivities (described below), revolutionary songs of the old country were sung, such as the Brabanconne and the Marseillaise. During the procession to the church, a dance called "Dance of the Dust" would be done on the dirt road. This dance honors the soil from which the harvest is reaped. At social get-togethers, drinking songs such as the Walloon song, "Society of the Long Clay Pipe," and songs of Belgium towns and cities, such as "Li Bia Bouquet," which honors the province of Namur, are sung. The local band, which usually consisted of cornets, slide trombone, violin, clarinet, and bass drum, played at weddings, festivals, and other social occasions, offering waltzes, quadrilles, and two-steps.


Archery clubs, pigeon racing, and bicycling clubs were forms of organized recreation for many Flemish Belgians. Gradually these organizations died out, but some existed until the 1960s and 1970s. Bowling, music societies, and drama clubs were formed by both Flemish and Walloon communities. Bowling is still a favorite form of recreation. A card game called "conion" was a popular pastime in taverns. The men fished, trapped, and hunted. Informally, women met to socialize and do needlework and sewing. Their work took on an additional aspect during World Wars I and II, when they supplied the Red Cross with articles of clothing and other needed materials for the war effort. Children skated, sledded, and played ball. Both boys and girls enjoyed games of chase and hide and seek. For rural children, berry picking in the company of their mothers was also recreation. Women enjoyed the preserving of fruits and berries, often gathering together as they did with their sewing groups.


The festival of Kermiss (also Kermis or Kermess) celebrates the abundant harvest. It generally lasted for six consecutive weeks. It is said that the first Kermiss in America was initiated in 1858 by Jean Baptiste Macaux, a native of Grand-Leez, Belgium. Masses were held to give thanks, and there was much feasting, dancing, and singing. Games were playedamong them the card game called "conion" and a greased pole climb. The celebration of Kermiss has persisted to the present day in rural Belgian American communities.

Assumption Day on August 15 honors the Virgin Mary and her ascension into heaven. In the rural areas, a field mass was part of the celebration. This holiday celebration began in the morning, with clergy clad in white vestments and a choir singing Gregorian chant.

On the last Monday in May, people gathered to petition the Virgin for her blessings on their new plantings. This solemn holiday is called Rogation Day. A procession would be made to the church or shrine honoring the Virgin Mary. Young girls dressed in white with long veils would strew flowers along the way.

Belgian Americans celebrate traditional religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter. They also celebrate St. Nicholas Day, which comes on December 6. In the early days, men of the community would dress up like St. Nicholas (the Dutch version of our Santa Claus) and go from house to house, leaving candy and small presents for the children. Today, for many Belgian Americans, this holiday marks the beginning of the Christmas season.


There are no documented physical or mental afflictions that affect Belgians any more than affect the general population. They have access to health and life insurance through their employers, or at their own expense. However, in the early days, beneficial societies were formed to provide this coverage, usually for a nominal monthly fee. These benefits often exist in some form today, to the extent that membership is held in various Belgian fraternal and religious organizations.


In Belgium, geographic circumstances determine which language is spoken. Those residing in northern Belgium speak Flemish, which is derived from Dutch and German. Those Belgians from the south speak Walloon, which is a French patois derived from Latin. Because of their proximity to France, Walloons hold the French language in high regard, using it as the standard for their own. On the other hand, the Flemings share many of the customs and beliefs, as well as the Dutch language, with the people of The Netherlands. A minorityabout one percent of Belgium's populationspeak German.

Because of geographic and cultural circumstances, a natural language boundary exists in Belgium. In the past, attempts to force an official adoption of either French or Dutch by towns along the language boundary caused great dissension among the people. To settle these disputes, laws were passed in the early 1960s making the language boundary permanent. As a result, both Dutch and French are the official languages, and two distinct cultures flourish side by side. Many Belgians switch back and forth between the two languages, using their native dialect with family and friends and either Dutch or French in public or formal situations. But even though both Dutch and French are the official languages of the country, they are still not regarded by Belgians as equal in value. The following proverbs illustrate how the two are viewed: French in the parlor, Flemish in the kitchen; You speak the language of the man whose bread you eat; It is necessary to cease being Flemish in order to become Belgian. Flemish proverbs include: Stel niet uit tot morgen wat je heden kunt doen (Delay not until tomorrow what you can do now); Wie hierbinnen komt zijn onze vrienden (Those who enter here are our friends); Avondrood brengt water in de sloot (Red sky at night brings water in the stream); Beter een half ei dan een lege dop (Better half an egg than an empty shell); Zwijgen en denken kan niemand krenken (Silence and thinking hurts no one).

Belgian immigrants in the United States used the primary language of their homeland in Belgium. The Flemish and Walloon languages were commonly used by first-generation Belgians until World War I. Gradually, most Belgian Americans lost the ability to speak either Walloon or Flemish. Immigrant parents were eager to have their children learn English, and today few retain more than a word or two in the old language. Individuals who were at least 50 years old in the middle 1970s spoke the Walloon language in a family environment but had to speak English in school. Punished by teachers when they did speak Walloon, they raised their own children to speak English and spoke Walloon only with Belgians of their own generation (Françoise Lempereur in Belgians in the United States ).


The following greetings and expressions are in Dutch or French, depending upon whether the Belgian speaker is Flemish or Walloon. Dutch: Goedemorgen ("ghooderMORghern")Good morning; Goedemiddag ("ghooderMIddahkh")Good afternoon; Dank u ("dahnk ew")Thank you; Ja/Nee ("yaa/nay")Yes, No; Vrolijk Kerstfeest ("VROAlerk KEHRSTfayst")Merry Christmas; Veel geluk("vayl gherLURK")Good luck. French: Bonjour ("bohng-zhoor")Hello, good day; Au revoir ("ohrvwahr")Good bye; Bonsoir ("bohng-swahr")Good evening; A demain ("ah duh-mahng")Until tomorrow; Eh bien ("ay b'yahng")Well; Très bien ("treh b'yahng")Very well; Voilà ("vwah-lah")Here you are; Bon ("bohng")Good

Family and Community Dynamics

Belgian immigrants who arrived in America during the nineteenth century were immediately concerned with survival. Those who settled in the Midwest often came with only a few meager possessions. Often, they set down in what was then wilderness, and they needed all their mental and physical resources to make it through their first winter. The fact that there was no way for them to return to their homes in Belgium, and the comfort and assistance of the Catholic clergy pulled them through. These early families set to work clearing the land, building shelters, and planting crops. Men, women, and children all worked in the fields and tended the animals. Others, who lived in cities, took work where they could find it to support their families. The most fortunate were those that came with craft skillsa growing America needed these workers, and they readily found employment. As they became established in their new country, they began to form organizations to help the sick and poor among them. They also maintained ties with those they left behind in Belgium. As a result, many more came to join their friends and relatives in the new land. As years went by, the crude homesteads and rocky fields became productive family farms; job opportunities in the cities led many Belgian Americans to become business owners or to enter a profession.

Belgian American families tended to be large. There were strong social and religious taboos against divorce. Rural women were expected to work in the fields as well as in the home. Traditional roles for men and women were observed, and any deviation was often censured. Even though it was not uncommon for widows to carry on their deceased husband's occupation, especially that of farming, it was frowned upon if women assumed a community leadership role, except on a social basis. Children also had chores to do at an early age, and gender-based chores were commonly assigned. On farms, they also helped with planting and harvest, and as a result, were often absent from school during those times of the year. However, these early immigrants respected teachers and education. Parochial schools were established, but they also sent their children to the public schools. While most second-generation young women attended elementary school, most did not go on to high school. However, teaching was an approved vocation for women.

Belgian American populations are heavily concentrated in the Midwest. Whether rural or city dwelling, the second and third generations tended to carry on the work traditions of their forebears. Detroit, for example, has many Belgian descendants employed in the building and related trades. Well-kept Belgian farms dot small Wisconsin communities, even though many farmers may work second jobs at paper mills or at other occupations for their main source of income. As with most ethnic groups that arrived here during the nineteenth century, Belgian Americans have taken advantage of what America had to offer, combined it with their own unique talents and strengths, and enriched it with their contributions. Today, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of nineteenth-century Belgian immigrants have assimilated fully into the educational and occupational roles of twentieth-century society.


The young bride (16 to 20 years was a common marrying age) prepared for her wedding by filling her hope chest with hand made quilts, tablecloths, and linens. Her friends often gave her a bridal shower. It was taken for granted that she would marry within the Catholic religion. Rural communities often held twilight wedding masses so the men would have time to be out of the fields.

A typical wedding celebration lasted all day and all night. It was common for 300 to 600 people to be invited. In the old days, the wedding couple went from house to house, extending a personal invitation. Once held in the bride's family home, the celebration is now often held at a local hall or country club. It was customary for neighbor women to help prepare the food, and preparation took many days. A very festive atmosphere surrounded the entire event. The guests ate and drank all day, and in the evening there was a wedding dance. The gift opening took place after the wedding dinner, and gifts were displayed for all the guests to see. Money was rarely given as a gift. Many of these same customs apply today, especially in the more homogeneous Belgian communities.


Religious instruction for young people begins early. Catechism studies prepare children for first communion, which usually takes place at age 12. Children study under the guidance of a priest for about three years, and are confirmed in their teens. Boys often served as altar boys when they became communicants. Today, girls are allowed this privilege in some Catholic churches as well. These religious rites of passage are celebrated by family and friends with parties and gift-giving.


After announcement of a death, a wake is held for friends and family. It is customary to have an open casket for viewing of the deceased. The body is taken to the church for a Catholic mass the following day. Funeral masses in memory of the dead person are held throughout the year, having been paid for by relatives and friends. A funeral dinner is held for all mourners. The dinner is usually put on by a group of church women, whose special task is supplying this service to members of the church. It is customary for friends and neighbors to send food to the home of the deceased. Other funeral customs from the past still persist in some form today. The rosary is still said at the wake. A procession of vehicles from the church to the cemetery is a usual occurrence. The wearing of dark, or black, clothing is observed today by only the most traditional mourners, but once was an expected ritual for the family. This usually went on for at least one year. During this time family members did not attend festive or social events. Tying a purple or black ribbon on the door of the dead person's home and the wearing of a black arm band by men in the family were other mourning customs of an earlier time.


The majority of Belgian Americans are of the Roman Catholic faith, although some are Presbyterians and Episcopalians. By 1900, Belgian religious orders were thriving in 16 states. The Sisters of Notre Dame, from Namur, Belgium, were successful in establishing bilingual schools in 14 of those states; the Benedictines built missions in the western part of the country, and the Jesuits, who founded St. Louis University in 1818, were able to expand the reach of the University through the use of Belgian teachers and benefactors. But Belgian immigrants often were without churches of their own, mainly because they assimilated at a faster rate in the more populous areas, attending Catholic churches founded by other ethnic Catholics, such as the German or French. However, two of the more homogeneous groups, those in Door County, Wisconsin, and those in Detroit, Michigan, were successful in establishing churches of their own.

In 1853, a Belgian missionary, Father Edward Daems, helped a group of immigrants establish a community in Northeast Wisconsin in an area called Bay Settlement. They called it Aux premiers Belges The first Belgians. By 1860, St. Hubert's Church in Bay Settlement and St. Mary's in Namur were built. Other Belgian churches established during the nineteenth century in Door County were St. Michael's, St. John the Baptist, and St. Joseph's. In 1861, the French Presbyterian Church was established in Green Bay. Small roadside chapels were also built to serve those who lived too far away to attend parish churches regularly. The chapels were named by worshipers in honor of patron saints.

In 1834, Father Bonduel of Commnes, Belgium, became the first priest to be ordained in Detroit. The first Catholic College (1836) was operated by Flemish Belgian priests, and the first school for girls was founded by an order of Belgian nuns in 1834. By 1857, Catholics in Detroit were a sizable group. However, they had still had no church of their own and were, at that time, worshipping with other Catholics at St. Anne's Church. This was remedied in 1884, when the first Belgian parish was established.

With the consolidation of many Catholic parishes throughout the United States, even Belgian Americans in small, stable communities may no longer attend an ethnically affiliated church. As with, for example, the German Catholic and the French Catholic parish churches, many Belgian Catholic parishes have died out or have merged with other parishes in this age of priest shortages and financial hardship.

Politics and Government

At first, little heed was paid to the American system of government. Exercising the right to vote and to have an influence in local affairs came gradually, as Belgian Americans learned the English language and began to establish leadership among themselves. Soon they began to draw upon these leaders for various officestown assessor, justice of the peace, superintendent of schools. As a group, they realized the power of their vote, and as time went on, began to exert great influence in the communities where they resided. Independent of spirit, they were prone to band together politically to solve their problems, rather than passively waiting for outsiders to order their affairs.

On a national scale, Belgian Americans responded as a distinct group to Belgium's tragic experience during the two World Wars. The Flemings, especially, made a strong effort to avoid being associated in people's minds with the Germans. In general, assimilation was hastened by wartime experiences. Belgian American veterans' and fraternal organizations came into being during this time.


Belgian Americans fought in America's War of Independence. The Civil War came shortly after the greatest influx of Belgian immigrants; and as American citizens, many were called to serve. In rural communities this caused great hardship, as women and children struggled to support themselves by working the farms alone. Belgian Americans fought in both World Wars. Their efforts were made more poignant by the fact that, in both Wars, Belgium was devastated by the German army. It is noted that during World War I, Belgian Americans gave so generously to the children who were victims of that war, that an official delegation from Belgium was sent to the United States in 1917 to honor their efforts. In a reverse effort, Edgar Sengier, the director of the Union Mine in Belgium, showed foresight in shipping all of Belgium's supply of radium and uranium ore to the United States. This kept this valuable material out of Hitler's hands. This ore was of tremendous value in the Manhattan projectAmerica's plan to build the atomic bomb. Belgian Americans also served in subsequent military engagements in Korea and Vietnam.


Very few immigrants returned to Belgium, but the tie between the old country and the new has never been severed. From the beginning, letters went back and forth, telling of conditions in America and urging those left behind to join the new arrivals. As years went by, Belgians gradually became "Americanized." But even so, the connection with Belgium remained. The outpouring of aid from Belgians in the United States during World War I and World War II is certainly proof of that. Organizations such as the World War Veterans sent groups to Belgium and also received official delegations from thereoften at the highest political and governmental levels. The Belgian American Educational Foundation grew out of the World War I Commission for the Relief of Belgium. This organization promotes and facilitates exchanges among the academic, artistic, and scientific communities of Belgium and the United States. The religious connection between the two countries remains strong, basically because of the ongoing work of Catholic missions in the United States by such Belgian Catholic orders as the Norbertines and the Crosiers (Holy Cross Fathers). Even more so, the modern-day interest in researching one's forebears has led many Belgian Americans to reconnect with their mother country. Whether Walloon or Fleming, pride in one's ancestry and customs is reflected in this interest. Since the 1970s, librarians across the country, and especially in the Midwest, note the rise in requests for genealogical information in this search for Belgian roots.

Individual and Group Contributions

Belgian Americans have excelled in many fields, especially in music, science, medicine, education, and business. Many are unsung, appreciated, and lauded only by their peers and in their own communities. Others have received national, and in some instances, international, recognition for their achievements. Some of their accomplishments are listed in the following sections.


Charles Raw was an important nineteenth-century archaeologist and museum curator whose career centered on the study of American archeology; in 1881, he was appointed curator of Archeology at the National Museum, where he established his reputation as the foremost American archaeologist. George Sarton (1884-1956) was a brilliant science historian, who traced the cultural and technical evolution of science from its beginnings to modern day. Others who made significant contributions to their academic specialty are economist Robert Triffin (1911-1993) and economic historian Raymond de Roover (1904-1972).


Washington Charles De Pauw (b. 1822) was an industrialist whose method of manufacturing plate glass secured his fortune; much of his wealth was used to benefit the city of New Albany, Indiana, where his plant was located. Peter Corteville (1881-1966) founded the Belgian Press, a Detroit printing company that published a prominent Belgian American weekly newspaper, the Gazette van Detroit, which at one point attained a circulation of almost 10,000.


Catholic missionary-explorers were active across America from the seventeenth century on. Two of the most notable are Father Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan, and Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, a Jesuit. Father Hennepin (1614-1705) joined the 1678 La Salle expedition to explore the Mississippi River; he was the first European to sketch and describe the Niagara Falls. In 1683, he wrote a comprehensive treatment of the Upper Mississippi Valley; 60 editions of this book were published in most of the major European languages. Father de Smet (1801-1873) was a notable pioneer in the exploration of the nineteenth-century frontier. From 1845 to 1873, he traveled thousands of miles in undeveloped Western territory. As a missionary, perhaps his most important work was with the Native Americans, and he played a prominent role in the final peace treaty with the Sioux leader, Sitting Bull.


Georges Simenon (1903 ) is famous for his psychological detective stories and is the creator of the popular Inspector Maigret. He is the author of more than 200 works. He came to the United States during World War II, and later lived in Switzerland.


Father Joseph Damien De Veuster (1840-1889) devoted his life to the care of lepers in Hawaii; better known as Father Damien, he contracted leprosy himself in 1885. He was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1993, 104 years after his death. Albert Claude (1898-1983) was a joint recipient in 1974 of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on the structure of the cell; he was also a pioneer in the development of the electronic microscope. Of more recent note: Charles Schepens (1919 ) has made important contributions in the field of ophthalmology. Emile Boulpaep (1938 ) discovered physicochemical characteristics of cell membranes that provided insight into a number of kidney and heart disorders. He was awarded the prestigious Christoffel Plantin prize in 1992, which honors the achievements of Belgians living in other countries.


Practitioners of the carillon art have flourished in the United States. The carillon is a bell tower comprised of fixed chromatically tuned bells which are sounded by hammers controlled from a keyboard. More than 150 carillons are located across the United States, on university campuses, botanical gardens, parks, and cathedrals. The 52-bell carillon in Ghent, Belgium, is 700 years old and was the largest in the world until it was surpassed in 1925 by the 53-bell carillon at the Park Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. Its present carillonneur, Jos D'hollander is one of the foremost in the country. Other famous carillonneurs were Antoon Brees, Riverside Church of New York and Cranbrook Church in Detroit, and Camiel Lefevre of Bok Tower in Florida. Lefevre was the first graduate of the world's first carillon school in Mechelen, Belgium, which was founded in 1922 and funded by the Belgian American Education Foundation. F. Gorden Parmentier, a Green Bay, Wisconsin native, is a world-recognized composer of symphonies and opera. Robert Gorrin (b. 1898) was a French language poet who lived in the United States during World War II. He created the National Jazz Foundation, and was one of the world's foremost jazz authorities.


Karel J. Van de Poele (1846-1895) is known as "the father of the electric trolley." By 1869, his electrical streetcars were operating in Detroit. He founded the Van de Poele Electric Light Company and invented the dynamo, which served to power American industry in its early days. Jean-Charles Houzeau de Lehaie (1820-1888) has been called the "Belgian von Humboldt" for his work in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, physics, botany, politics, journalism, and literature. He was born in Belgium and arrived in New Orleans in 1857. He was actively involved in politics at the time of the Civil War and campaigned against slavery. Ernest Rebecq Solvay (1838-1922) invented the process of manufacturing sodium carbonate with ammoniac. He built his first factory in a town named in his honor, Solvay, New York. Leo Baekeland (1863-1944) was a chemist who invented the substance bakelite, a synthetic resin which ushered in an industrial design revolution and was the forerunner of the modern plastics industry. He also invented the photographic paper called Velox. Karel Bossart (1904-1975) was called the father of the Atlas missile. His engineering work in the missile field culminated in 1958, when he received the U. S. Air Force's Exceptional Civilian Award for developing the first intercontinental ballistic missile. He was a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Gaston De Groote (b. 1915) was the commander of the Savannah, the world's first nuclear-powered cargo passenger ship. George Washington Goethals (1858-1928) is known as the builder of the Panama Canal. An engineer, administrator, and soldier, he spent seven years overseeing its construction, and was the Canal Zone's first civil governor. Georges Van Biesbroeck (1880-1974) was an astronomer at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. He is noted for verifying Einstein's theory that light is slightly distorted in the area of the solar corona.



Two Flemish newspapers, the Gazette van Moline and Gazette van Detroit, were the largest Belgian publications in the early twentieth century. The Gazette van Moline, founded in 1907, was the first Flemish newspaper in the United States. It ceased publication in 1921. The Gazette van Detroit was founded in 1914, and was still publishing into the 1980s, although at a greatly reduced circulation. In 1964, the year of its fiftieth anniversary, its circulation was approximately 5,000. Newsletters are prevalent among Belgian associations and heritage societies in the United States. Listed below are two examples of the type:

Belgian Laces.

Official quarterly bulletin of the Belgian Researchers, Inc., and the Belgian American Heritage Society. Described as "the link between people of like ancestry and like interest on both sides of the ocean."

Contact: Leen Inghels, Editor.

Address: Fruitland Lane, LaGrande, Oregon 97850.

Telephone: (503) 963-6697.

Gazette Di Waloniye Wisconsin.

A French-language quarterly periodical that serves to connect the Belgian Americans of Northeastern Wisconsin with those in Belgium.

Contact: Willy Monfils, Editor.

Address: 770 Chemin de la Boscaille, B-7457, Walhain, Belgium.


Belgian Radio and Television.

Broadcasts daily and frequency can be tuned in for listening anywhere in the United States and Canada.

Address: P.O. Box 26, B-1000, Brussels, Belgium.

Organizations and Associations

Belgian American Societies exist in areas of Belgian settlement throughout the United States. Most of these associations came into being in the early decades of the twentieth century, and served as social and cultural outlets for those of Belgian descent. In time, these local and state organizations formed regional federations, such as the Federation of Belgian American Societies of the Midwest and the United Belgians Societies. Many of these societies are still active, and the following state organization serves as an example of the type:

Belgian American Association.

Founded in 1945, the association has a membership of 4,000 individuals and firms united to better relationships between the United States and Belgium. Its focus is to foster awareness and appreciation between the two countries. Activities include a cultural conference, roundtable talks, organization of meetings for business people, film showings, luncheons and dinners in honor of important American visitors to Belgium, and organization of trips to the United States. The Association maintains liaison with similar groups abroad, informs members of available travel and education opportunities, operates exchange programs, sponsors fund raising and relief activities, and participates in related legislative activities. The Association also publishes a monthly newsletter.

Contact: Louis Van Refelgham, President. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Ste. 500, Washington, DC 20044.

Telephone: (301) 977-9897.

Belgian American Chamber of Commerce.

Founded in 1925, it has a membership of 500 Belgian exporters and American importers of Belgian products. It publishes the Belgian American Trade Review, a quarterly journal that contains company profiles, information on Belgian products, new members list, and Port of Antwerp news.

Contact: Robert Coles, Executive Director.

Address: Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1322, New York, New York, 10118-1322.

Telephone: (212) 967-9898.

Belgian American Foundation.

Founded in 1920, the foundation has 250 members. It promotes closer relations and exchange of intellectual ideas between Belgium and the United States through fellowships granted to graduate students of one country for study and research in the other. Assists higher education and scientific research. Commemorates the work of the Commission for Relief in Belgium and associated organizations during World War I.

Contact: Emile Boulpaep, President.

Address: 195 Church Street, 10th Floor, New Haven, Connecticut 06510-2009.

Telephone: (203) 777-5765.

Belgian American Heritage Society of West Virginia.

Founded in 1992, has as its purpose the social and intellectual advancement of West Virginia Belgians. Serves as a resource for those interested in Belgian genealogy, history, and culture.

Contact: Rene V. Zabeau, President.

Address: 223 S. Maple Ave., Clarksburg, West Virginia 26301.

Telephone: (304) 624-4464.

Belgian National Tourist Office.

Founded in 1947, it promotes travel and tourism to Belgium. It also provides information services and maintains a speakers bureau and publishes Belgium Newsbreaks five times yearly.

Address: 780 3rd Avenue #1501, New York, New York 10017-2024.

Telephone: (212) 758-8130.

Museums and Research Centers

Belgian Culture Center of West Illinois.

Promotes Flemish history and culture, and provides leadership in perpetuating Belgian heritage and teaching the values of Belgian culture.

Contact: Mary Morrissey, Archivist.

Address: 712 Eighteenth Avenue, Moline, Illinois 61265-3837.

Telephone: (309) 762-0167.

The Belgian Researchers.

Provides books, periodicals, and other materials for genealogical research. Principal objective: "Keep our Belgian heritage alive in our hearts and in the hearts of our posterity." Publishes Belgian Laces, the official quarterly newsletter.

Contact: Pierre L. Inghels, President and Editor.

Address: Fruitland Lane, LaGrande, Oregon 97850.

Telephone: (503) 963-6697.

Genealogical Society of Flemish Americans.

Provides information and library materials pertaining to Flemish genealogical research. Publishes Flemish American Heritage.

Address: 18740 Thirteen Mile Road, Roseville, Michigan 48066.

University of WisconsinGreen Bay Special Collections Library/Belgian American Ethnic Resource Center.

The center is a cooperative project of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and the University of WisconsinGreen Bay. Of special interest in the Center's holdings are materials on persons of Belgian descent, whose families originally settled in Brown, Kewaunee, and Door counties. These materials include family papers, church records, photographs, oral history interviews, and records of school districts and towns.

Contact: Debra L. Anderson, Special Collections Librarian.

Address: 2420 Nicolet Drive, Green Bay, Wisconsin, 54311-7001.

Telephone: (414) 465-2539.

Sources for Additional Study

Amato, Joseph. Servants of the Land: God, Family and Farm, the Trinity of Belgian Economic Folkways in Southwestern Minnesota. Marshall, Minnesota: Crossings Press, 1990.

Belgians in the United States. Brussels, Belgium: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1976.

Bernardo, Stephanie. The Ethnic Almanac. Garden City, New York: Dolphin Books, Doubleday & Company, 1981.

Sabbe, Philemon D., and Leon Buyse. Belgians in America. Belgium: Lannoo, Tielt, 1960.