Contributions of the Walloons

Cravens

Dan Cravens is the regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor in Pocatello.

Walloons: A Relatively Unknown People Who Have Contributed Much to History

For many the name Walloons means nothing. However, this ethnic group located mainly in southern Belgium, has played an important role in Western history and since Belgium is a major political player in the European Union, it is useful to know something about the Walloons who make up one of Belgium’s largest ethnic groups.

Ethnically, the Walloons share much in common with the French. The Walloon language is considered by many linguists to be a French dialect. Walloon was developed by a mixture of the culture of Romanized Celtic Gauls and Germanic Franks who settled the region around present-day southern Belgium. But despite its relationship to French, Walloon is barely comprehensible to most French speakers.

Even though there are more than 5 million people who classify themselves as Walloons, over 4 million of whom live in Belgium, the best known Walloon is a fictional charter — detective Hercule Poirot, a popular character in Agatha Christie mystery novels. Poirot, like many real life Walloons, is proud of his heritage and corrects people quickly who believe he is French.

Walloons gained a reputation is Europe as explorers and travelers. Sizable Walloon communities settled in Sweden. Evidence of Walloon influence even in far away Romania can be found in town names such as Wallendorf and family names such as Valendorfean (meaning Walloon peasant).

Besides a desire to travel, many Walloons were considered valuable members of the workforce in the Middle Ages. Walloonia, the Walloon’s homeland, was noted for its many talented miners and ironworkers. These skilled workers were in high demand all through Europe, and many made their homes overseas.

The Walloons and their homeland have played important roles in history. Many noble Walloons had close familial ties with the famed Merovingian line of early French kings. One famous Walloon, Godfrey of Bouillon, was a leader of the First Crusade. After the fall of Jerusalem Godfrey became the first king of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099.

Another Walloon, Baldwin I of Constantinople, was a leader of the Forth Crusade which captured much of the territory of the Byzantine Empire including its capital Constantinople in 1204.

Peter Minuit was another Walloon who played an important role in the settlement of four U.S. eastern seaboard states. Minuit was the third director of New Netherland, and he is credited for purchasing Manhattan Island from the Native Americans for 60 Dutch guilders worth of goods. In addition to helping establish a Dutch colony in New York, Minuit also was first governor of New Sweden, a colony whose territory included portions of what today is southern New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. The contributions of early Walloon settlers to the American colonies is commemorated with a monument in New York City’s Battery Park.

Many Walloons have made significant contributions to the arts, sciences and business. Examples from the last 100 years include Jules Bordet, who won the 1919 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his discovery of the process white blood cells use to attack bacteria; and Monsignor Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian Catholic priest and scientist who is credited with developing the “Big Bang Theory.”

Idaho U.S. Senator Frank Debois, serving from 1897-1907, was part of a Walloon family who immigrated to America from Canada.

In an effort to preserve Walloon culture within Belgium, the government has appointed a special president-minister for the Frenchspeaking people of Belgium. The current president-minister of the Walloon region is Rudy Demotte.

It is likely that many Americans have some Walloon descent without even knowing it. Common Walloon family names include Lambert, Dupont, Simon, Renard, Denis, Petit, Mathieu, Collard, Henry, Leclercq and Lefebvre.

More information on Walloon history and culture can be found at http://www.walloonheritage.be/.