The history of Belgian involvement in Texas goes back to the earliest days of the colonial era. Despite never being among the larger groups of colonists to come to Texas smaller groups of Belgian settlers and remarkable individuals have made their presence felt in Texas history. During the French colonial expedition of 1685 under the intrepid French explorer La Salle three Belgian priests accompanied the French, all from Hainaut; Zenobius, Membre, Maximus le Clerq and Anastasius Douay. Membre and le Clerq died in an Indian attack on Fort St Louis but it was Father Douay who survived the disastrous end of the colony, the mutiny and returned to Europe to tell the French king of the death of La Salle. These three daring Catholic priests were the first Belgians to set foot in Texas.
One Belgian who is almost unknown but who has left a larger mark than almost any other was Juan Banul, a master blacksmith from Brussels when Belgium was part of the Spanish empire. In time he moved to New Spain and in 1719 was living in San Antonio de Bexar, then the provincial royal capital of Texas. Many of the most famous and evocative landmarks in Texas, our most beloved national treasures were in part the work of the Belgian Juan Banul. He accompanied the Marques de Aguayo on his expedition to East Texas, establishing missions and building presidios and Banul stayed until 1723. After moving back to San Antonio he did almost all of the ironwork and many other touches on such iconic landmarks as the mission San Antonio de Valero (better known as the Alamo) and the “Queen of the Missions” Mission San Jose. In 1730 Banul married a Flemish widow named Maria Adriana Garcia and the two actually lived in the Alamo where Banul ran a blacksmith shop and sawmill.
To keep on that setting for a moment, that of the Alamo, the “Shrine of Texas Liberty” everyone familiar with that landmark recognizes the famous curved top on the church façade. Many know that this was not done at the time of the epic battle but was added later, after Texas joined the Union and the U.S. Army occupied the Alamo. What many do not know is that it was a Belgian stonemason named Theodore Van der Straten who helped repair the walls and construct that now famous façade. Another famous name from Belgium was Anton Diedrick who was kidnapped in Antwerp after witnessing a murder and sold as an impressed seamen. Escaping in Texas at Galveston island he was quickly signed up by recruiting agents for the U.S. Army that was recruiting volunteers for the Mexican-American War.
The flustered man could speak only Flemish and when he tried to tell the recruiters his name one cut him off saying, “Ah, he’s Dutch all over” and thus his name was listed as Anton Dutchallover, later shortened to Dutchover. He served as a frontier scout with the great Texas Ranger “Bigfoot” Wallace in West Texas, fighting bandits, hostile Indians and so on but Dutchover liked the area and settled there, operating a sheep ranch near Fort Davis. Changes of authority from Union to Confederate to Union again and Apache attacks never dislodged Dutchover and his descendants still live in the area to this day.
Far south Texans received many Belgians after the fall of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. His wife, the Empress Carlota, was Belgian and many of her countrymen followed her to Mexico and after the fall of the empire and the victory of republican forces the Belgians found themselves very unwelcome and so moved into the Rio Grande valley on the south Texas border. For some years afterward many of the towns along the Rio Grande had small Belgian communities. Others, over the years, came from Belgium and settled in Galveston and Houston but the majority were farmers who moved to the San Antonio area. Other than farming Belgians worked as cooks, bakers, soap or candle makers, restaurant owners and musicians. Such famous Belgian-Texan names as Van de Walle, Van Daele, Persyn and Baeten became very successful at year-round farming and introduced new crops to the area such as cauliflower and kohlrabi while others produced everything from flowers to picante sauce.
Belgians in Texas observed the fall festival, held in mid-August in Texas usually, known as the “Kermess”. They also celebrated the Belgian National Day on July 21 gathering in various areas but especially the Belgium Inn, the Belgian Village and the Flanders Inn in San Antonio. Until fairly recently many played the Belgian sport of bolling and a version of this game is still demonstrated every year at the annual Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio at the Institute of Texan Cultures. Whether it is their agricultural work ethic, deep faith or willingness to stand firm in the face of impossible odds for the principles of freedom and independence there has been much that the peoples of Texas and Belgium have had in common over the years.