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Luxembourgers in America

Historical Overview & Selected Bibliography

Luxembourgers in the New World. By Nicholas Gonner, original translations by Gerald L. Liebenau and Jean-Claude Muller (Esch-Alzette: Éditions-Reliures Schortgen, 1987). Library of Congress General Collections.

Over the centuries many factors have contributed to Luxembourger emigration to North America. Economic circumstances created both a push and a pull with regards to emigration. Hardship at home pushed many to consider venturing abroad, and this coupled with letters and reports to the homeland from immigrants abroad popularized an image of paradise — or at least a higher standard of living overseas. While the Homestead Act of 1862 certainly permitted even the poorest to acquire property, closer scrutiny has left some doubt about the significance of these letters in terms of the number received and how influential they really were (both being difficult data to ascertain.) Technological developments like the steamship in the 19th century made transatlantic passenger travel easier as well. This in turn made an Atlantic voyage not only safer and faster, but also cheaper. There were the common causes such as food shortages due to poor harvest and the resulting famine, and yet another factor was the disinclination of young men to serve in the military. Luxembourg being a small country, young men were often conscripted for military service in what felt like foreign armies. This led still more men to emigrate to America to avoid being drafted to fight for the Dutch, Belgian or Prussian Armies. And lastly, we cannot entirely dismiss the draw, however romanticized, of straight-up wanderlust.

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has an extremely complicated history. Due to its proximity to the great powers of Europe, it fell victim to the feuds, wars and resulting treaties between Spain, France and the Austrian Habsburgs. While Luxembourg was able to avoid some of these conflicts (most notably, the Thirty-Years War of 1618-1648), the chronic upheaval of shifting boundaries and rulers brought hardship and created resentment for much of the population. Luxembourg's independent status was finally settled with some degree of certainty with the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.) But even as William I, King of the Netherlands, was given control over the "Grand Duchy of Luxembourg", it was simultaneously part of the German Confederation (even housing a Prussian garrison in the capital.) About two decades later, Belgium broke out into a revolution against Holland (1831-1840) and Luxembourg sided with Belgium against William I. The European powers of the day (France, Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria) divided Luxembourg — giving the French-speaking portion to Belgium — and leaving the remaining portion with William I. Tucked amidst these powerful countries, Luxembourg was still in a very vulnerable position. The Revolutions of the 19th century did little to establish continuity, though they did bring about some gains in autonomy. In 1866 the German Confederation was dissolved and Luxembourg became a sovereign nation that would retain neutrality, more or less, until it was occupied by the Germans in 1914.

Throughout these complicated political, and industrial developments, it is not difficult to understand how many Luxembourgers were eager to forge a new life and new identity elsewhere. To see more precise dates and details about Luxembourgers settling in America, please see the chronology. For a thorough work on the entire history of Luxembourg, see The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg: The Evolution of Nationhood 963 A.D. to 1983 by James Newcomer.