In the middle of the 19th century a distinctive emigration movement hit the villages of Walloon Brabant located in the Wavre-Perwez-Gembloux triangle, as well as of the North of the Province of Namur. This emigration to the USA was characterized by its extensiveness, its short duration, and the fact that the emigrants settled in just one region, the Northeast of the State of Wisconsin. They stayed there grouped, up to a recent time, keeping alive the traditions brought from their home country, even their language. Numerous articles and studies have been published on the subject, but it is only possible here to sum up those events in a few words.
Which were the main reasons for this emigration movement ?
First of all, a reduction of the income earned from farm work. The parcelling out of the land, due to inheritance, as well as its increased prices, no longer allowed young couples to decently raise a family. Industry, increasingly mechanized, was in full expansion, while agriculture's efficiency remained poor, due to obsolete tools.
The severe 1844-45 winter destroyed the winter crops, and fields had to be converted to potatoes. During the very wet 1845 Summer, a parasite developed and the harvest was again destroyed in several European countries. Populations painfully suffered from hunger. Disorders even occured; and in the following years even more problems occured. Typhus and cholera epidemics, striking already weakened populations, caused new ravages. In Ireland, famine killed 800.000 people and forced one million others to emigrate to the USA.
These calamities certainly contributed to the departure of
many families. At the same time, the US Government started an
expansion movement towards the West and therefore the
agricultural development of the huge Middle West plains was
necessary. The State of Wisconsin, admitted to the Union in 1848,
was selling land at low prices and was in search of settlers to
cultivate it. A propaganda campaign was launched and spread to
the villages, helped by recruitment agents and navigation
The first group left Grez-Doiceau in 1853 and was promptly followed, during the main emigration wave from 1855 to 1857, by others from the same region. After a arduous journey followed the concerns of an uncertain arrival and the hard work of tree clearing that was indispensable in obtaining land suitable for farming. It is difficult to imagine the amount of courage required by those first pioneers. However, they were now citizens of a country where they had the right to vote - which their brothers left in the home country only obtained fifty years later -, and they were their own landowners. After having suffered two more tragedies, the Civil War and the "great fire" of 1871, which had a thousand victims and caused considerable destruction, the area was established and created a future for the majority of the descendants of these American Walloons.
Various associations tied links with the descendants of those
pioneers, discovered cousins and organized meetings.
The Internet and today's fashion for genealogical research allow a quick extension of these relations. I could thus find the descendants of several branches of my family, among others those coming from
Jean Baptiste Dewit and Josephine Delfosse
and his cousin
Charles Joseph Dewit and Anne Marie Sambre
who left Tourinnes St Lambert in 1856.