Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Flemish in Chicago

A few days ago a Flemish friend of mine – a man not only well informed about the Flemish in North America, but an author of 32 books on the Flemish in East Flanders no less – startled me with the remark that he never knew there were any Flemish in Chicago. As a Chicagoan and an American of Flemish descent, I can assure you Frans, there are Flemish in Chicago!

Flemish color guard, Belgian-American Club, Independence Day celebration, July 4, 1965

Not only do Flemish exist in Chicago, but the presence of Flemings in Chicago, while not unbroken through time, stretches back to colonial times. Indeed, before the birth of the city of Chicago itself.

Flemish Chicago – Origins and Historical Record

The earliest recorded Flemish visitors to the area that would one day become ‘Chicago’ were part of Robert Cavelier de La Salle’s (1643-1687) exploration party attempting to reach the Mississippi in 1679. These included not only famed Flemish Recollet priest Lodewijk Hennepin but also the Flemish Recollet priests Zenobe Membre and Gabriel Ribourde (see Parkman, p.92). In addition, several of the voyageurs with LaSalle were part of the "motley crew of French, Flemings and Italians" (Parkman, p.88) that were the bulk of the expeditions' manpower and fighting force.

Although the reason why so many Flemings accompanied this trip has gone unremarked upon by historians, there may have been a reason in the background of the expedition's leader, LaSalle. Perhaps the affinity that LaSalle had for the Flemings derived from his mother, Catherine Geest, who was reputedly of Flemish ancestry (Parkman, p. 3 n.1).

Fr Loedewijk Hennepin

The possibility that there were Flemish visitors at Chicago even before LaSalle is suggested by the fact that Hennepin literally stumbled into 3 fur trappers in the forests of upstate New York speaking Flemish (see the English translation of Fr. Hennepin's "A Description of Louisiana", p.24)! These Flemings begged Fr. Hennepin to visit that the other Flemish Catholics at Nieuw Nederland (of which I will write more about later).

Fr. Hennepin's Map of the New World, 1683. The first to accurately show the Great Lakes Region and Chicago.

Chicago, at the time of LaSalle's and Hennepin's visits in the 1670s was of course part of New France. New France covered a swath of territory that bracketed water ways running from the North Atlantic fisheries off of Newfoundland through the St. Lawrence Seaway, into the Great Lakes, and through the waterways that fed into the Great Lakes, to the Mississippi River. The Mississippi of course empties into the Gulf of Mexico, just below New Orleans. And Chicago's growth and genesis rests in part on its locale at the junction of North American waters that flow alternately eastwards and westwards, off of the continental divide. In an era of poor footpaths and no roads, the complex of rivers and lakes served as water highways on which to conduct commerce. The commerce of New France was furs and agriculture.

The portage between Lake Michigan's extreme SW point and the Desplaines River. This portage falls within today's Chicago city limits and is memorialized by Chicago's Portage Park neighborhood.

Settlers and fur trappers to the Illinois country usually came from Europe through French ports to Montreal and Quebec. If they ventured to push on to Illinois, they likely followed LaSalle's and Hennepin's waterway down Lake Michigan to the point were it was only a few miles portage between the Chicago River (which emptied into Lake Michigan) and the DesPlaines River (which emptied into the Illinois River and which, in turn, emptied into the Mississippi River). At the juncture of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, near the site of the premier native American city of Cahokia, the French fort and town of Kaskaskia grew to several thousand inhabitants.

Fort Chartres, near Kaskaskia. Flemish soldiers were quartered here and at least several of the Flemish settlers made their way here via the Chicago portage from Montreal in New France

As Professor Natalia Belting of the University of Illinois pointed out in her well-researched "Kaskaskia Under the French Regime", a minority of this substantial French colony were indeed Flemish. As the records clearly state, some of these were soldiers (p.91), others wives of French settlers (like Agnes Marthe Clement - p.118) and still others settlers themselves. One of these settlers, a donne of the Jesuits, is recorded as the first to sow wheat in Illinois (see Belting pp.12-13). Of course Chicago as a city did not exist as a settlement until more than 100 years later when it was unincorporated as a municipality until 1833.

This excerpt from a 18th century French description of the "Illinois Country" claims that the Fleming Zebedee in Illinois was not only the first to plant and sow wheat there but that the yields he reaped were richer than anything in France. Source: p.92 of "French Roots in the Illinois Country" by Carl J. Ekberg (Illinois, 2000).

Flemish pioneers were also among the very first to tread the ground that would become the “Windy City”. Most of these Flemish immigrants did not linger in Chicago but instead, like the legendary Father DeSmet and a large number of Flemish priests in the 1820s and 1830s, either moved south to Missouri, or like Father Charles Nerinckx, onto Kentucky or northward to Door and Kewaunee Counties in Wisconsin (see "Door County Stories").

As such not only was a Flemish bishop, James Van De Velde, head of the Archdiocese of Chicago in the 1850s, but Flemings made multiple contributions to Chicago that placed her ahead of other American cities. For example, Chicago's well-regarded public transportation system, the CTA, can trace its origins to the electric train system was first set up by a Fleming, Charles Van de Poele. Van de Poele, whose company Thomson-Houston Electric Company - which later, in 1892, became what today we know as the General Electric Company - sold part of his interest to a young American whose ancestors included Flemish protestants that came over in the 1600s: Thomas Alva Edison.

Quantifying the Flemish in Chicago

Our ability to quantify the Flemish population in Chicago is limited in many ways. For the most part, firm records in Chicago exist in limited numbers before 1850 and individual census data is of course only available to genealogists 72 years after the date. So the tables below are by definition limited in scope but a partial proof of the early and sustained Flemish presence in Chicago. The table states the official tally of Chicagoans self-identifying themselves as Flemish. Of course, as I have mentioned elsewhere, self-identification is not always the most accurate tally.

Belgians and Flemish in Chicago

Year_________Belgians____ Flemish[1] _____U.S. Born Flemish[2]

1860__________152 _________n/a_____________ n/a
1870__________392 _________n/a_____________ n/a
1880__________484 _________n/a_____________ n/a
1890__________801 _________n/a_____________ n/a
1900_________1160 _________n/a[3]___________ n/a
1910_________2665 ________1578___________ 2377
1920[4]_______3079 ________2308___________ 3649
1930[5]_______4106 ________2999____________ n/a
1940_________3504 ________2340___________ 3100
1950[6]_______2797_________ n/a ____________ n/a
Source: The People of Chicago: Who We Are and Who We Have Been (Chicago: City of Chicago, Department of Development and Planning, 1970)

Although official records put the total number of Belgian immigrants at less than 30,000 in the whole U.S. by 1900[7], those numbers rose rapidly over the coming decade. The Belgian immigrants to the U.S. naturally migrated to those places that had attracted earlier migrations – mainly in the Midwest. This included Green Bay Wisconsin, Detroit Michigan and Moline and Chicago Illinois.

Plat of the City of Chicago 1830

Chicago in particular had a young but thriving Flemish community. The 1900 Federal Census records say that 1160 Belgian immigrants were living in Chicago and did not differentiate between Flemish and Walloon. But according to a study conducted by University of Chicago professor of linguistics Carl Darling Buck in about 1902, “1000-2000” Chicagoans were native Flemish speakers – and rapidly growing.

A 1907 Chicago Tribune article claimed there were 3,000 Belgians in Chicago by the end of that year and that they were “widely scattered” around the city. Between 2500 and 3500 Belgians were migrating to the U.S. each year in the early 1900s. By comparison, however, and if later ratios are any indication, between 55% and 75% of all the Belgian emigrants to the U.S. were Flemish. So by 1910 the Federal census recorded 1576 foreign-born and 2,376 children who claimed Flemish heritage in Chicago.

St. John Berchman's Catholic Church, Chicago 2005. The church was built by and for the Flemish immigrant community in Chicago in 1907 and for 70 years massses were said in Flemish for the Flemish catholics of Chicago. St. John's was named for the Flemish Jesuit and was one of the ethnic churches permitted for only 17 different nationalities in Chicago.

There are several points worth noting here concerning the Flemish population of Chicago. Although the Flemish Catholic Church, St. John Berchman (Logan Square Boulevard and Maplewood Avenue, dedicated December 15, 1907) and the nearby Belgian American Club at 2625 W. Fullerton Avenue (cornerstone laid in 1921) acted as centralizing influences, the Flemish community never really occupied a ‘neighborhood’ in the same sense as other ethnic groups in Chicago. As the Chicago Daily Tribune explained in 1907, “The 3000 Belgians in the city are widely scattered, so the boundaries of the [St. John Berchman's] parish [usually the focal point of Chicago’s Catholic ethnic enclaves] are made to coincide with the boundaries of the diocese.”8]

To place those demographics in a national perspective, the 1910 Federal Census recorded 49,397 Belgian-born residents
[9] of whom were 42,722 foreign-born Flemish speakers that year[10]. It also recorded an additional 39,867 second generation Flemish-Americans. In other words, there were 89,264 Flemish residents in the U.S. in 1910. Of these, Illinois claimed the largest share, in a belt that stretched east to west, from Chicago to Moline. Percentage-wise then, nearly a quarter of all residents of the U.S. with Flemish ties resided in Illinois and perhaps 10% of the national total resided in Chicago alone.

The 1920 Federal Census recorded a dramatic jump in numbers. 63,236 residents claimed to be Belgian born and a further 59,454 were the American-born offspring. Of those 122,690 87,890 claimed Flemish as their ‘mother tongue’[11]. Illinois again topped the states in terms of Belgian-born population with 11,329 of the 62,686 recorded residing in Illinois[12]. The next closest state was Michigan (10,501) distantly trailed by Wisconsin (3,444)[13].

Flemish Chicago Today

Chicago may be home to a smaller and more geographically dispersed group of Flemings than in years past but if the integrated metropolitan area of Cook County and the surrounding collar counties are included, Chicago is still home to more than 7,000 Belgian-born Flemings and uncounted tens of thousands of descendants of the earlier "Belgians" of Flemish origin. Today the vast majority of those claiming Belgian descent are – if attendance at ‘Belgian’ functions, membership in ‘Belgian’ clubs, and subscription rates of ‘Belgian’ publications are any indication –overwhelmingly of Flemish ethnicity[14].

Source: Marie Bousfeld unpublished paper, "Belgians in the USA" April 23, 2007 p.11.

The Cultural and Social Glue of Flemish Chicago

Like other ethnic groups, the Flemish had a strong loci for the Flemish community itself in Chicago, centered around cultural and religious activities. St. John Berchman’s church was one locus around which the Flemish settled. On major holidays (such as Memorial Day) the Flemish would gather at the ‘Belgian Hall’ and parade in formation to St. John Berchmann’s for Mass in Flemish.

After Mass we would parade back to the Belgian Hall, another center for some of the 13 different Flemish clubs in Chicago during its heyday in the mid-twentieth century. Often our parade marched back with a police escort and often lead by a colorguard. Back at the Belgian Hall, we ate frieten and great ham sandwiches smothered in strong mustard. The men - and women too - drank good Belgian beer while playing cards, shooting plastic-tipped arrows in the hall at feathered and mounted 'birdies' on a competition stand, and reconnecting.

Many of the Flemish in Chicago were connected not only through religious and cultural ties, but also through work. A high percentage of the Flemish had become flat (as in apartment building 'flats' of 2 or 3 stories) janitors. This lead to the ubiquitous term "Belgian janitors" and as an ethnic force, the Flemish janitors had unionized (perhaps a legacy of the guild tradition of Flanders), establishing the Flat Janitors Local #1, today represented by the Service Employees International Union or SEIU.

Belgian Bow and Arrow Club members in the Belgian Hall in Chicago in the 1960s

The head of the union local was often the head of the social tempo for the Flemish of Chicago. So for the first half of the twentieth century - at least for the period 1915 to 1960s - first West Flemish immigrant Gus Van Heck and then his American-born son Ray Van Heck headed both the Chicago Flat Janitors Union Local #1 as well as the Belgian-American Club of Chicago. From the 1960s through the 1980s not the union but certainly many of the Flemish Clubs in Chicago were lead by the dynamic and charismatic Vrasene native Arnold Van Puymbroeck (who is still active today). The current Flemish community in Chicago is lead by the tireless Deinze native Bart Ryckbosch.

Arnold Van Puymbroeck, long the leader of Flemings in Chicago, and the Flemish American at the 2008 Belgian American Picnic in Chicago

Today the Flemish in Chicago - like our family - still gather annually in August for the "Belgian" picnic (as you can see from the picture below). Most are no longer janitors, nor members of the the "Belgian" Flat Janitors Local #1. Today the term "Belgian-American" has become a synonym - as ironically as it may sound - for the Americans of Flemish descent here in Chicago. The Flemish in Chicago, even generations removed from the last landverhuizer to leave Flander's coast, maintain not only their ancestral ties to Flanders but preserve some relic of their roots in the cultural customs of the Flemish community in Chicago.

Three generations of a Flemish American Family in Chicago at the "Belgian" picnic, 2006


The Midwest generally, and Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin specifically, have long been recognized as the center of the strongest Flemish immigration to the U.S. While Chicago's Flemish population has not only moved to the suburbs in many cases but also intermarried with other hyphenated Americans, it retains a strong historical and cultural claim as a center of Flemish settlement in the U.S. The scattered silos of Flemish-affiliation within driving distance of Chicago of course remain linked with Chicago and include: the Quad Cities area around Moline, IL; Green Bay WI; northern Indiana (especially Mishawaka); and finally suburban Detroit. As the largest city in the Midwest, Chicago not only is and has been a focus for Flemish immigrants to America. It has also been a center to which the other Flemish communities in the Midwest US have been connected to.

© 2008 by David Baeckelandt


[1] The percentages of those claiming Flemish heritage of all Belgian immigrants in Chicago for 1910 thru 1940 inclusive were 59.21%, 74.96%, 73.04% and 66.78% respectively (author’s calculations). However, I suspect that the example of my own family – where one brother claimed French ethnicity (Joseph Dupon) while another (Edmond Dupon) claimed Flemish – all in the space of 6 weeks at Ellis Island (May 6, 1902 & June 21, 1902) – may point to the fact that the number of Flemish Belgians are understated by the ‘official’ declarations of the Belgian immigrants. A better study would analyze the Venesoen Reports of emigrants during the same period to get a sense of the true ethnic mix coming to America from Belgium during this time.
[2] “U.S. Born Flemish” connotes children born of two foreign-born, Flemish speaking parents.
[3] According to The Daily News Almanac and Year-Book 1904 by James Langland (Chicago: 1903), p.405 there were “1,000 to 2,000” Flemish speakers in Chicago at that time. These figures were attributed to an undated paper by University of Chicago professor Carl Darling Buck titled “A Sketch of the Linguistic Conditions of Chicago”
. By comparison, Moline, Illinois was said to have “4,000” native speakers of Flemish in the 1890s (see
“A private letter from C. L. DeWAELE, shows him to be finely located at Moline, Ill., with every prospect of success. That city claims among its population 4000 Belgians, and that alone will give Mr. DeWAELE an inside tract, as he is perfectly familiar with their language and customs. His friends here will be glad of his prosperity”. Avalanche [Crawford County, MI newspaper] 7 Apr 1892.)
[4] The census question asked for the “mother tongue” spoken in the home for 1920 and 1940.
[5] The 1930 census simply asked the participants birth nationality and thus did not distinguish between Flemish and Walloon. There were 7,886 U.S. born children of Belgian-born parents in the tally. Note that for Cook County, the 1930 census listed 8,837 persons of Belgian nationality, roughly 0.2% of the total population [The Chicago Daily News and Almanac and Year Book 1935 (Chicago: Chicago Daily News, 1935) p.924]. This was the 21st largest nationality in the city and county (the largest, listing themselves as “American”, were 28% of Chicago and 30% of Cook County. German at 12% was the second largest.
[6] The 1950 census did not distinguish between Flemings and Walloons but did indicate that there were 6,402 children of the Belgian born parents. This reckoning of course does not include grandchildren.
[7] There were recorded 29,848 Belgian born residents in the U.S. according to the 1900 census. [The Chicago Daily News and Almanac and Year Book 1907 (Chicago: Chicago Daily News, 1906) p.41].
[8] “Belgian Church Formally Opened” Chicago Daily Tribune December 16, 1907 p.6
[9] [The Chicago Daily News and Almanac and Year Book 1931 (Chicago: Chicago Daily News, 1930) p.425].
[10] [The Chicago Daily News and Almanac and Year Book 1931 (Chicago: Chicago Daily News, 1930) p.426].
[11] [The Chicago Daily News and Almanac and Year Book 1931 (Chicago: Chicago Daily News, 1930) pp.425-6].
[12] [The Chicago Daily News and Almanac and Year Book 1931 (Chicago: Chicago Daily News, 1930) pp.427-8]. I am not sure where the 1,500 count discrepancy in the 1920 census numbers is from. The Almanac does not explain it. That said, the aforementioned Carl Darling Buck noted the frequent discrepancy between school census numbers and official census claims. Mr. Buck suspected that official data were understated and that school census data were a more reliable indicator of ethnicity.
[13] Ibid. Curiously, the 1930 Federal Census numbers lost many of these finer gradations and began, for example, to record the immigration of Dutch-speaking Belgians under the heading “Dutch and Flemish”.
[14] In large part I suspect that this is due to the (historical) relative status between French speakers and Dutch speakers in Belgium. The Dutch-speakers looked down upon by the French speakers; the Walloons’ disdain for the Flemish a reflection of the French disdain for all things ‘Belgian’. Note that the Belgian-American Club of Chicago is almost 100% Flemish. When the club built their ‘Belgian Hall’ in 1921 on West Fullerton Street in Chicago, the cornerstone was engraved with the declaration “All Belgians Are Equal”. See for the most recent U.S. government census data by ethnicity and state.

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