The Young Belonger Family.
The Blongers came from a background of hard labor at a tender age.
Philip Van Cise made a major error in Fighting the Underworld in describing Lou Blonger as a French-Canadian who came to this country in his early boyhood (p. 4). Although Lou's father was either French-Canadian or just plain French, there is no doubt that Lou himself was born in the Town of Swanton, Vermont, about eight miles from the border as were all the Belonger siblings. Lou's obituaries correctly listed Vermont as his birthplace, so it's hard to explain how Van Cise came to the conclusion that he was foreigner. Unfortunately, every mention of Blonger since then has repeated Van Cise's mistake, including one Internet columnist who used him as an example of
why the U.S. should restrict immigration.
The Swinbank Bible is the authoritative account of the Blonger ancestry. Although
not every birth and death date can be verified independently, there is no reason to doubt their accuracy. Census schedules, death certificates, and records from the Town of Swanton back up the data in every respect. Other than the few details in the Swinbank Bible, nothing is known about the ancestry or origins of Simon Peter Belonger and Judith Kennedy.
Lou Blonger's pension file
also includes a document attesting that a different family Bible lists his place
of birth as "Swanton, State of Vermont."
Early Life in Vermont
Little is known about the Belonger family's life in Vermont. The Bible
accounts suggest that the first two Belonger children, Simon and Julia, were
born in Town of Georgia, Vermont, about 15 miles south of Swanton, and that the
family moved to Swanton between 1837 and 1839.
According to Town of Swanton records, the Belongers lived in School District
12, in the southwest corner of the township and southwest of the village of Swanton Falls (now known simply as
Swanton). Swanton Falls straddled a twenty-foot-high cataract on the Missisquoi River, which provided water power to the small community. An 1850 gazetteer described Swanton as "favorable to agricultural pursuits, with the exception of a part bordering the lake, which is low, wet, and cold." The Belongers lived near this part, and it's unknown whether Simon Peter, the father, ever tried his hand at farming. In the 1850 census he is described as a "labourer" with no real estate. Since Swanton was known for its bog iron ore and an abundance of marble, it's possible that Simon Peter was a miner or worked in a quarry. It would certainly fit the picture.
Simon Peter and Judith apparently felt education was important. In Vermont, all their children attended school from an early age, which was not the norm among their neighbors. Of the 11 other school-age children on the same page of the 1850 census, only two were in class.
The Family Name
A family legend has it that Simon Peter Belonger disowned (or at least, was very perturbed with) the sons who dropped the first "e" from their surname. Therein lies an interesting tale.
Whether it was Simon Peter or his father who emigrated from France, the surname in the old country was almost certainly Bélanger. At some point, the spelling was Anglicized to Belonger. But if Simon Peter was obsessed with the correct spelling, he certainly did not communicate it to others. In the Swanton town records it is spelled Belongee, Belonge, Blonge, and most often, Blongee. Three of the handwritten references are ambiguous and the final "e" could possibly have been an "r". But the numerous examples provide clear evidence that both the first "e" and the final "r" were often dropped in pronunciation. The spelling Belonz is found in the 1855 Wisconsin census, which would seem to indicate that the name was still pronounced with the French "zh" sound. Later in Wisconsin we find Boulanger, a common misinterpretation of Bélanger that indicates that the census taker may have known some French or, at least, someone with that surname. The census taker in Stockton, Illinois, in 1870, listed both Joe and Marvin (in separate households) as Belonjah, a spelling that neither brother would ever have given on their own, and thus coming as close to a true pronunciation as we are likely to find.
The form Blonger seems to have taken hold before this. Sam was listed as
such when he voted in Central City, Colo., in 1861, and on a military scrip warrant patent
filed in 1865. He and Lou are Blongers in the census of 1870, and by 1880 all the brothers except Michael are Blongers. Michael, on the other hand, was a Belonger in every census except 1900.
Among the Western brothers, only Joe seemed to vacillate between the original
and adopted spellings later in life.
Did Simon Peter disown his sons? Apparently not, as he died intestate. With an estate of only $100, it wouldn't have mattered. By the time he died, 1883, Simon's sons had their eyes on much bigger prizes anyway.
For our part, we'd like to thank the Belonger boys for altering the spelling, for although there are and were numerous Belongers scattered across the American landscape, Blonger was and continues to be nearly unique as a surname, and in almost every instance applies to one of the brothers, their wives, children or whores.
Voyage to Wisconsin (1853)
The Belonger family left Vermont for Wisconsin sometime in 1853. Six Belonger children were listed in the Swanton school records on January 1, 1853; a year later the family was gone.
So far we can only speculate as to why Simon Peter decided to move his family. Shullsburg was known as a mining center and that is probably why the Belongers headed there. Were they following a relative or friend? That is often the case when a family moves, but there are no facts to work with yet.
Gene Swinbank's brief account gives a memorable, if unverifiable, story of the journey to Wisconsin. At some point in their travels the family took a boat across one of the Great Lakes. Little Mary, who would have been less than a year old at the time, crawled to the edge of the boat and at the last second was saved from falling overboard. The fact that the account says she "creeped" to the edge of the ship helps substantiate that Mary's birth and the voyage both occurred in 1853.
Julia, the oldest daughter, stayed behind and married Horace Revoir of nearby St. Albans in November 1854. They followed shortly thereafter and their first child was born in Shullsburg in August 1855.
Life in Wisconsin
Shullsburg is a picturesque small town near the Illinois border, a few miles from Galena. Widely known today for its cheeses, in earlier years the mining of lead and zinc were principal occupations. Also blessed with limestone in abundance, buildings in the area were often constructed of the soft stone.
The Gene Swinbank account
mentions that father Simon Peter was a "rock fence builder" in Shullsburg, the only such tradesman in the area, and that he spent considerable time in Galena. A trip to this bustling old city reveals the importance of the limestone rock wall; the river valley is steep, and the business district sits on the flood plain, crowded up against the hillsides, and in places immense walls are needed to keep the slopes from washing down into homes and shops. It would not be outlandish to imagine that Simon Peter (and perhaps some of his sons) worked on such walls as Galena grew in the 1850's. Indeed, an owner of downtown Galena real estate such as Ulysses S. Grant's father might well have contracted for such work.
We don't know what kind of a life the family led in Wisconsin. Simon Peter
Belonger owned no real estate, so their existence was not likely one of
comfort. The family already had nine living children when, according to
both the Swinbank Bible and Lou's obituary,
Judith became pregnant for the 13th time and died during childbirth. Judith's
death precipitated the breakup of the family and soon sent her sons in many
Michael and Ulysses S. Grant (1860-61)
If Simon Peter's business took him often to nearby Galena, it would lend credence to the assertion that the Belongers knew Ulysses S. Grant, as noted in the Armstrong account. Grant supposedly proclaimed, on numerous occasions, that Michael was "the best dance-fiddler on earth". Indeed, in 1860 Grant was farming, hauling wood, and working as a clerk in his father's leather goods store in Galena.
In November 1860, the Grant store hosted a Republican celebration in honor of Lincoln's victory. Grant and his brother served oysters and liquor. Might Michael have been invited to play? By April of the next year, Grant was presiding over a public meeting in Galena regarding Lincoln's call for troops. The war had begun. Grant was offered the captaincy of the Joe Daviess Guards, but declined and went on to Springfield. On May 8, Michael Belonger enlisted in the Union Army at Shullsburg.