From the Belgian Countryside to the Midwest ...
The initiative to hold an exhibition about Belgian emigration to
the United States, both in Washington D.C. and Belgium, was taken by Minister
Bourgeois who entrusted the organisation of this event to the Agricultural
Counsellor in Washington, J. Van Mullem. Thanks to the generous support of the
Belgian-American private sector this project became a reality during the last
week of July 1996 in Washington D.C..
BELGIAN EMIGRATION TO THE UNITED STATES
The current exhibition contains the exhibits shipped from
Washington D.C. to the Castle of Bouchout to which have been added newly
collected pieces describing the contribution of the Belgian immigrants to
The immigrants brought with them a small piece of Belgium when
they came to America. They created, especially in the Midwest, typical ethnic
enclaves where the Flemish or Walloon languages are still spoken, where churches
and organisations play their part as social or religious centres, where farming
techniques, architectural elements, recipes, folklore and entertainment are
expressions of their heritage.
Many of those who left for the "New World" were hardy and
experienced people. Their ability to make do with very little during times of
hardship made them stayers.
From the Belgian Countryside to the Midwest... illustrates a page from our
history and carries the following message : "The emigration to America of
Belgians (Flemish and Walloons) during the 19th and 20th century was a success
thanks to the immigrants' unwavering attitude towards work, their professional
skills, down-to-earth approach, feel for organisation and adaptation, qualities
which can still be found in Belgium today. This proves that during difficult
periods in our economic history, there existed courageous men and women who were
willing to travel across the globe and dedicate their lives in areas where their
capabilities have performed wonders." The exhibition mirrors the
cooperation of many organisations and institutions, as well as the efforts of a
great number of individuals on both sides of the Atlantic.
From the Belgian Countryside to the Midwest ...
As a result of demographic and industrial revolutions during the 19th
century, agriculture in Europe, the "Old World", quickly lost its
dominant position as means of existence. Belgium too experienced a large labour
surplus in the rural workforce. Initially home and seasonal labour, as well as
employment in the budding industries, managed to limit final overseas
Circumstances which help to stimulate emigration (so-called "Push" factors)
and others which stimulate immigration ("Pull" factors) are the
foundations of a Belgian emigration to America which started halfway the
previous century and ended about one hundred years later. Walloon and Flemish
farmers settled for the most part in the American Midwest.
The decision to emigrate is influenced by the perception of
available information and the network of sea transport.
The Belgian contribution to American agriculture is highlighted in two
Belgian-American agricultural settlements. The first started during the 1850's
with Walloons settling in "Door County", Wisconsin. A second followed thirty
years later during the 1880's with a few farming families from West Flanders
putting down roots in "Lyon County", Minnesota.
"PUSH" FACTORS : THE BELGIAN PROBLEM
The Belgian population doubled in number between 1846 and 1947
and grew from 4.3 to 8.5 million people. During this same period the
agricultural population dropped by 62 % from 1,075,031 to 412,026 head.
In contrast to what was happening in our neighbouring countries
Belgium was still characterized by small unproductive farms which were not
always able to ensure an adequate food supply.
A continuing fragmentation of the farms meant that the farming
lots become smaller and smaller and the variety of the crops larger. Many
members of large farming families could no longer find employment on the farm,
thus causing a considerable surplus in the labour force.
During the 19th century the potato became the staple food of the
people as it helped to fill empty stomachs better than bread. In the months of
July and August 1845, aided by damp weather, an extremely virulent form of the
fungus Phytophtora Infectans, resulted in a very unpredictable harvest, first in
Belgium (around Kortrijk ?) and The Netherlands, followed by the rest of Europe.
Estimated losses amount from 1/4 to 1/2 of the crop. In the provinces of West
and East Flanders this figure reached more than 90%. The disease reared its head
again in July 1946 and turned the crop black in two to three weeks time. The
disaster became complete when the barley crop also failed.
People in Flanders and parts of Brabant, Namur and Luxembourg
were faced with famine, something which had not happened since the Middle Ages.
The looting of a bakery in Brughes on 2 March 1847 gave the starting shot for a
famine riot. In 1848 35 % of the population in West Flanders had to rely on
public welfare. The exhausted people of the closely populated provinces of West
Flanders, East Flan-ders and Brabant became easy victims for the rapidly
spreading typhoid epidemic of 1847-48 and cholera in 1848-49 and the most
devastating epidemic of 1866.
Between 1830 and 1844 about thirty thousand Belgians left for
France, The Netherlands or Germany. About one in ten left Europe altogether. It
is no surprise that the emigration to the United States only really got moving
after the food and flax crises.
Belgium, just like Great Britain, soon turned to industrial
development. During the period 1856 to 1870 industry gradually replaced
agriculture as the main activity.
On the tiny family farms the agricultural revenues were
ridiculously small. In order to survive additional income had to be found and
the rural population tried to earn something extra by working from home. This
lasted until 1842 when the linen industry in Flanders became mechanized and the
production of home-made linen ground to a halt.
Work outside the farm was another possibility to ensure some
extra income during a few months of the year. Many Flemish people left the
countryside to work in Northern France especially, where the textile and
coal-mining industries were experiencing a growth period. The people found work
in the brick ovens, chicory and flax industry, beet and hop fields.
In the meantime the Belgian agricultural sector became stagnant.
The growing imports of grain from the United States after the American Civil War
at first helped to support the failing production. However these imports soon
took on the appearance of an Agricultural invasion . During the 1880's almost
100,000 people left farming and more than 20,000 left for America.
Towards the end of the 19th century independent farmers and
tenant farmers did not need to leave their land. They were still able to offer
employment to labourers who worked the land on a day to day basis.
During the crisis years of mid-19th century the authorities
attempted to bring some order to emigration. They saw emigration as a possible
solution to the unbearable burden placed on social welfare. Indeed, it appeared
that subsidizing emigration to North America would be less expensive than having
to pay welfare for one year. However not a single project got off the ground.
During the following decades the government wisely refrained from intervening
directly in the emigration and limited itself to passing on information on
emigration possibilities or dishonest practices.
"PULL"-FACTORS : "THE AMERICAN DREAM"
The abundance in America of good and, more importantly, cheap
agricultural land, which in addition required very little capital investment,
had an especially strong attraction for the European farmers. To become owner of
a vast tract of land is the ultimate dream of every small tenant farmer. A dream
which could be realized thanks to the American legislation which offered each
immigrant a number of incentives to purchase land.
After Wisconsin was admitted to the Union in 1848 the State
organised a large scale publicity campaign to promote the sale of its
inexpensive farming lands, even in Belgium.
Another important motivation were the letters which immigrants sent to family
and friends in Belgium. Because of the frequent exaggerations these letters are
often described as "come-on" letters. One letter from a Belgian immigrant in
Wisconsin reads as follows "In America it is easy to save money, the food is
better, there is no military service, taxes are lower, employer and employee are
equal and the way of life is easier and healthier"
THE BELGIAN EMIGRATION TO AMERICA 1821-1975
Between 1820 and 1975 about 200.000 Belgians emigrated to the
United States. Up until 1840 Belgian emigration to the U.S. remained limited.
From 1830 to 1840 some 300 farmers from Luxembourg left for mainly Ohio and
Michigan. Emigration reached a first peak in the 1840's and the period
1850-1856, when thousands of Belgians left for Wisconsin. The largest
Belgian-American settlement around Green Bay, Wisconsin dates from this wave of
Between 1861 and 1880 Belgian emigration fluctuated around 7,000
people per decade. From 1880 to 1893 some tens of thousands of Belgians left for
the United States - Walloon weavers and glassblowers to Pennsylvania and Flemish
farmers to Minnesota, creating a settlement around Ghent in South West
Minnesota. The Belgian exodus to the United States reached a peak in 1892 with
The Belgian trek to America reached its height between 1901 and
1913 with approximately 3,472 people leaving each year. More than two thirds of
the emigrants between 1901 and 1913 are from Flanders, mainly from the
provinces of East and West Flanders. About 25% came from Wallonia, the rest from
The 1980 census showed 360,277 people of Belgian origin living
in the United States. Of these 122,814 were persons with single descendance and
237,463 with multiple descendance. The largest concentration of Belgian
immigrants can be found in the Upper Midwest. 31 % lives in just two states :
Michigan and Wisconsin.
ANTWERP : IMPORTANT POINT OF EMBARKATION
The improved means of transportation of the second half of the
19th century created a stimulus for the development of Antwerp and the
organisation of emigra-tion. Towards the end of the 19th century the shipping
companies became invol-ved in a price war. The cost of a ticket for a
transatlantic crossing was greatly reduced and became affordable to the less
wealthy. The rapid crossing, the more comfortable journey and the lower prices
made sure that a return to Belgium was possible, just in case the American
adventure should prove to be disappointing. As a result of unemployment in the
States July 1904 saw more people returning to Belgium than leaving.
The Red Star Line transported 2,312,791 people to North America
during the 50 years following its foundation.
THE LARGEST BELGIAN-AMERICAN SETTLEMENT : GREEN BAY
Brother Claude Allouez set up the Saint Francis Xaverius Mission in 1669 for
French-Canadians and half-blood Indians, this became Green Bay in 1839. This
makes it the oldest town in Wisconsin. Nowadays Green Bay is not only known for
its many Belgian descendants who still live there but is also famous because of
its American football team, the "Green Bay Packers" who won the
Super Bowl Championship in 1996. The team dates back to 1919 and was created by
Louis Lambeau, son and grandson of Belgian immigrants who left Waver in about
1870. The stadium which bears his name keeps his memory alive.
On the eve of the American War of Secession the Belgian
emigration ground to a halt. Nevertheless the manner in which the settlement
from Brabant grew into a farming community is an important aspect of the
In 1871 great fires destroyed more than half a million hectares
of forest. The fires also destroyed most of the log cabins. The new houses were
built differently and constructed of wood faced with a layer of bricks, a period
of transition before the houses were built entirely of brick. The use of
construction methods from the homeland came at a time when the settlement was
starting to adopt a more perma-nent character, money had been earned and saved
and families had become larger.
A Belgian farm (1905) was built in Heritage Hill State Park (a living
open-air museum of 20 hectares) using parts of original Belgian farms. The
homestead (built in 1871) and the summer kitchen (1902) are from the farm of
John Baptiste Massart from Rosič re, Wisconsin. A cheese factory
was incorporated in an original structure from 1894 donated by the Zellner
family and brought from Kewaunee County not far from Slovan. Both the interior
and exterior are still exactly as they were in 1905.
A PLANNED SETTLEMENT : GHENT
In contrast to Green Bay, the oldest town in Wisconsin, Ghent in
Lyon County, Minnesota is of more recent age. After the great uprising of the
Dakota Sioux in 1862, when more than 500 white colonists were killed in South
West Minnesota, the Indians were removed from Minnesota. Large amounts of
fertile land became available for immigrants. The Winona and St Peter railway
was laid in 1872 creating a link with Dakota and opening up the markets along
the Mississippi river to South West Minnesota.
The beginnings of the Flemish settlement in Lyon County can be traced back to
a circular from the Catholic Colonization Bureau published in 1880 by the State
of Minnesota, "Catholic Colonization in Minnesota, Lyon County, Southwestern
Minnesota" which also arrived in West Flanders.
In 1881 Angelus Van Hee from Merkem in West Flanders purchased
129.5 ha of land in Lyon County and brought with him to America, 50 young
families whom he had convinced of the many opportunities to be had in this new
Right from the early years the settlement in Lyon County became
a remarkable symbiosis of Flemish people, largely from West Flanders and the
(catholic) Dutch from Zeeland. On the other hand there has always been animosity
between the Flemish and the French Canadians. In 1895, 23 % of the population of
the Township Grand View was of French Canadian origin. Fifteen years later their
number had been reduced to 5%. One may assume that the way of life rather than
farming methods played a role in reducing their number.
Property ownership and for some, large landownership, still
remains a vital element in the farming life of the Belgians , the farmers of
Flemish descent in Lyon County.
Farming life in Lyon County was very soon modelled on the
American way : mechanisation, purchase of material, use of tractors, monitoring
of soil erosion, use of improved grain, suitable cultivation of the land,
popularization. The farmers became specialized in the production of dairy
products and poultry. The school curriculum includes an option : Future Farmers
and Future Homemakers of America.
From the Belgian Countryside to the Midwest ...
BELGIAN EMIGRATION TO THE UNITED STATES
Castle of Bouchout
National Botanic Garden of Belgium
Domein van Bouchout
From October 15, 1997 until November 16,