Reprinted with permission from a brochure of the Ministère de la Région Wallonne, Brussels, Belgium. Printed in English In September 1852, two Belgian families from Grez-Doiceau in Brabant Wallon, decided spontaneously to emigrate to the United States. We do not know whether it was the saga of these two families or the example of their Luxembourg compatriots which set off the movement of emigration from Brabant and Hesbaye to the New World; the sources, and particularly the oral traditions, show an exemplary discretion on this subject. However, it was also from Grez-Doiceau and its immediate neighborhood that, in May 1853, the first mass departure for the United States was organized. 81 Brabantines embarked in an old American threemaster, the Quinnebaug. After having braved several storms, they landed at New York on 5 July 1853, after a voyage lasting almost 50 days.
According to the American tradition, the Belgian emigrants had hardly decided on thelr destination when they left the port of Antwerp. It was only during the Atlantic crossing that they decided to accompany the Dutch voyagers to Wisconsin. They settled to the northeast of Green Bay, where the forests of the peninsula began, and there they established the nucleus of their future Belgian colony. Today, the Belgian population extends over a triangle formed by Bay Settlement, Sturgeon Bay and Algoma, covering Door, Brown and Kewaunee counties.
From September 1853 onwards, and probably before they were able to receive any reassuring news on the establishment of the first pioneers, other families embarked for the United States. From now on, the movement was launched, and it seemed that nothing could stop it, not even the pious warnings of some Belgian politicians on the malpractices of transatlantic emigration. This emigration expanded considerably in 1855 and 1856, involving in particular the populations of the East of Brabant Wallon (the cantons of Jodoigne, Perwez and Wavre) of the Namur region of Hesbaye (the cantons of Eghezée and Gembloux) and, to a lesser extent, those of the Hesbaye liégeoise. To sum up, it is estimated that between 5,000 and 7,500 Brabantines and Hesbignons answered the call of the New World from 1852 to 1856. What were the causes of this movement of emigration? A situation of economic affliction generally provides a context that is favorable to mass emigration. The emigration of the Brabantines and the Hesbignons is no exception, and belongs to the food and industrial crisis of the mid-19th Century.
Although Belgium experienced an early industrial development, in the middle of the XlXth century agriculture still provided employment for 50% of the active population, and had to feed a population which had not ceased to grow since the first quarter of the century. The Brabançon landscape, as described by the cadaster and the census of 1846, shows us a soil that is cultivated up into the remotest corners and parceled up to an extreme degree. The peasants could not gain a decent living from the products of their land alone. So many of them found additional sources of income in rural industries (distilling, brewing, sugar milling, etc.) and home activities (cutlery, straw plaiting, nail-making).
It was quite obvious that this rural universe based on small holdings and the cumulation of agricultural and proto-industrial activities was at the mercy of the least vagaries of the economic cycle. Belgian peasants became cruelly aware of this when in the middle of the XIX century, from 1845 to 1856, several scourges mingled their devastating effects. The potato disease, with several years of disastrous harvests, spread consternation among the most disadvantaged classes, not only in Belgium but in the whole of Western Europe. Food prices climbed in proportions it is difficult to imagine nowadays, sometimes by more than 100% from one year to another, while there was practically no readjustment of wages. Morover the industrial revolution was gaining ground day by day and was pitilessly imposing its economic conditions and constraints. Technological development and the competition from the "new industry" on the one hand, the development of the means of communication and urbanization, on the other hand, tolled the knell of the home industries and the rural industries. The battle was too unequal, and it ended in their disappearance.
This avalanche of misfortunes was enough to upset a precarious balance, transforming into starving and uprooted beggars peasants who, so far, had just been able to eke a living from the products of their land. The famine and the epidemics of cholera and typhus which arrived in its train were accompanied by great surges of mortality. Rather than swell the ranks of the poverty stricken and the victims of the crisis, some of the rural work force preferred to abandon the earth of their ancestors and to search elsewhere for more prosperous conditions of existence. It is in this way that emigration to the United States constituted a last hope for a good number of country families. These were essentially poor peasants, day-labourers and sharecroppers, accompanied by their wives and children, and sometimes even by their forbears, who swelled the flood of emigration to the United States. Their numbers also included weavers, hat-makers, cutlers, carpenters and others fleeing from the unequal competition imposed on them by the "new industry".
While the vagaries of the economic cycle created a climate favourable to expatriation, this would not have been able to develop without the combined action of two factors. The recruiting agents, in the service of Antwerp shipowners or American colonization companies, made active and effective propaganda for emigration. The appeals from parents or friends already installed in the New World, and their success, were also powerful attractions.
However, all the sources, and in particular the consular reports, denounce the deplorable living conditions of Belgian colonists during the first years of their installation in Wisconsin. Hope rapidly gave way to bitterness. These emigrants, hoping to become rich landowners, found they were faced only by uncultivated lands covered with a dense forest of deciduous and coniferous trees. In spite of the fatigue which racked them, weakened as they were by fevers, dysentery and cholera, they set to work systematically clearing their lands. As the months and years went by, these wild lands were changed into arable land, ready to receive their sowings. The felled trees were transformed into shingles then transported by schooner as far as Green Bay where they were sold for a good price. In 1860, it is estimated that 4 million wooden shingles were despatched from the region of Brussels alone. This very lucrative trade was to permit them to buy a few head of cattle and, later, farming implements and modern agricultural machines.
Soon, they could see springing up here and there family workshops offering work to carpenters, wheelwrights, sawyers and blacksmiths, while others, profiting from the winter, travelled up to Michigan to work in the sawmills there. Roads, schools, churches and shops were built. The Walloons of Wisconsin, who had become American citizens, began to share in the administrative management of their State. Some of them occupied important positions in the State. In a word, life was beginning to be organized everywhere, and the blighted hopes of the first years began to vanish from their memories.
Attracted by the spirit of enterprise of these colonists, American businessmen created industries which rapidly began to prosper. We may quote the case of Gardner who, in a few years, founded at Little Sturgeon a commercial and industrial centre, a shipyard, and a maritime company employing some 400 workers including a hundred carpenters and 150 lumberjacks.
The great fire of 1871, by destroying whole acres of woodland, dried up an important source of income for the Belgians, but did make it easier to convert the extensive woodlands into arable land. From now on, cultivation and stock farming were to become the main occupations of the Belgian colonists.
Farms and properties increased in size, the wool trade developed, and the manufacture of butter, and still more that of cheese, made great strides. In 1884 there were about a dozen cheesemakers. Four years later, their number had doubled, and they were producing from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of cheese a week. In the same way, near Green Bay, market gardening and the production of strawberries assured the prosperity of some colonists; it is said that some of them despatched entire wagon loads of ten tons.
In conclusion: in a few years, the emigrants from Brabant and Hesbaye contributed, by a mighty effort of will, to transforming a wild country into a prosperous farming State. This emigration to the United States, for all its importance, was only ephemeral and can be perceived as a cyclical phenomenon providing the remedy for overpopulation, underemployment and a poverty which had become endemic. This movement was to resume afterwards, but never to the extent observed between 1853 and 1856. It was to be especially the miners, the glassmakers and, to a lesser extent, the metalworkers who were to assure, from the 1860s onwards and up to the dawn of the First World War, the perennity of Walloon emigration to the United States.
US map showing places where Belgians settled.
Belgian settlements in Wisconsin and Illinois
The farm established in Wisconsin in 1881 by Pierre MATHU, of Walloon origin. It is still handed down from father to son.
The tradition of Belgian beer perpetuated in Wisconsin
Inauguration of monument to the Walloons at Robinsonville-Champion, Wisconsin
Monument set up in 1985 at Robinsonville-Champion, Wisconsin at the place where the first Walloon emigrants settled in 1853
The giants of Walhain (Belgium) participated in the inauguration of the monument to the Walloons at Robinsonville.
Belgian-American Club sign, Namur-Brussels, Wisconsin
Page created 9/5/97 revised 2/20/01