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The miners and iron workers who came to Sweden from Belgium were referred to as “Walloons.” The Walloons, or Vallons (Swedish spelling), were an ethnic group which spoke a dialect of French and lived in the southern and eastern Belgium, along with neighboring areas in France. Most of the Walloons were iron workers coming from the Liege and Namur regions, along the Meuse River. Many important families today in Sweden were originally Walloon, including some nobility.
Sweden and Belgium have been trading partners since the 9th century. During the Middle Ages, these two countries became partners through an alliance of the trading cities of the Baltic and North Sea. From the 10th to the 16th centuries, the city of Flanders became one of the most flourishing areas in Europe. It was a region overlapping Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Sweden was still a major agricultural country with a smaller population. From the second half of the 15th century, Sweden’s foreign trade expanded. Textiles coming from Flanders were traded for copper and iron from Sweden.
For centuries, iron remained the center of bilateral relations. In 1595 Duke Karl, son of Gustav Vasa requested the help of his Belgian friend, Wellam de Besche, to help develop the metallurgy industry of Sweden. The members of the de Besche family were the first Walloons in Sweden. At that time, the metallurgy and arms industries of Wallonia were some of the most advanced in Europe. After Karl became king in 1599, many Walloon immigrants arrived in Sweden to help achieve the royals’ dreams of developing the Swedish industry.
Another reason for the Walloon immigration was likely that of a tenuous relationship which Denmark forced Sweden to accept in 1613. Sweden was to pay a large sum of money in exchange for Älvsborg Castle, their only contact with the Atlantic Ocean. Sweden needed to borrow the necessary funds from Louis de Geer, a well-known Walloon financier and banker. In return, he was given mines in Sweden.
Louis de Geer, the so-called father of the Swedish industry, persuaded a lot of miners and iron workers to emigrate from the Ardennes to Sweden to work on his many estates. These craftsmen were brought due to their unique skills. The ironworks business became very successful, prompting others to come. In 1620, Louis de Geer moved to Sweden and took over the Crown’s armament factories. De Geer built a solid industrial empire.
Within the Uppland region, which includes counties of Uppsala and Stockholm, all the necessary raw materials for iron production were available: ore from the Dannemora mines, forests for charcoal, and water for powering blast furnaces and forges. More than thirty ironworks, called Vallon bruks, were established in the region. The name derived from their origin in Belgium’s Walloon region and the word bruk, meaning an area where natural ore resources were available. Many of these Vallon bruks are well-preserved, unique tourist attractions and a few still maintain world-leading metal industries.
Vallon forging was the principal iron-working method in Sweden from the early 17th century until the early 20th century. Their skills prompted trade with other countries due to the fine-quality product. When producing iron, the ore was first smelted into pig-iron in blast furnaces, and then worked into bar iron by smiths in the forges. The bar iron was a high quality semi-manufactured article that was further processed by the customer into finished products.
Some Vallonbruks were large establishments that contained the whole manufacturing process. Others were smaller units with a single blast furnace. The bruks were much more than factories, essentially they were complete miniature societies where many people worked and resided. Working conditions were hard, but the management also took responsibility for the workers’ social welfare. In the beginning, the Valloons, like most immigrants, married within their own group. They spoke French, not Swedish, and were not Lutherans like most of the Swedish were. Later on, they moved to other parts of Sweden where they were sought because of their skills, and slowly started to mix with the Swedes in marriage.
Similar to family stories in American genealogies of bandits, kinship with a famous historical figure, or infamy, many Swedish families laid claim to being descendants of Vallon families. As stated earlier, many of the noble and wealthy families were of Vallon ancestry.
Some Vallons preserved their surnames, while others developed patronymic style names. It is often easy to recognize a Walloon surname, given that they are so separate from Swedish sounds. However, with that, comes the added difficulty of various phonetic spellings. Luckily, there are many resources in print and online to assist. It is recommended to search for the surnames in the Family History Library Catalog, google, and places like Anbytarforum.
With google, try searching the name of the ancestor in quotes.
For example: “Louis de Geer”
If there are too many options, add other qualifiers: a parish or farm name using the correct Swedish characters, another family surname, and a spouse’s name.
If there are too few options, try different spellings. Search for the surname and the parish name. Use a Family History Library Catalog surname search.
Many of the Vallon families became smiths. There is a helpful database available for purchase, as well as at the Family History Library regarding the ancestry of the smith families. For more, see: Smedskivan
Other Resources and References:
- Lindblom, Kjell. Vallonsläkter under 1600-talet. (Stockholm, Sweden. 1989) FHL INTL Book 948.5 F2L v. 1-3 (Genealogies of the Walloon origin in Sweden during the 1600’s, arranged alphabetically.)
- Kilbom, Karl. Vallonerna, valloninvandringen, stormaktsväldet och den svenska järnhanteringen. (Stockholm, Sweden. 1958) FHL INTL Book 948.5 F2K (History of the Walloon immigration)
- Appelgren, Erik. Vallonernas namn : De äldsta valloninvandrarnas fullständiga namn, yrke, årtal och ursprungsort ... (Stockholm, Sweden. 1968) FHL INTL Book 948.5 D4a (A study of Walloon names in Sweden. Listing of earliest immigrants and their places of origin.)
- Ducat, Jean. The Walloons in the U.S.A. (Unknown publishing Information.) FHL US/CAN Book 973 F2dje. (A history of the Walloons in America.)
- Sällskapet Vallonättlingar. Vallon-Skivan 2 : person- och släktuppgifter för vallonättlingar, deras familjer och nämaste släktingar i Sverige. 2008. CD-ROM No. 5081
- Society of Swedish Walloon Descendants, http://www.vallon.se/english.htm