Baron Frederick Eugene de Beelen-Bertholf arrived in Philadelphia on Tuesday 9th September 1783 along with his wife Jeanne-Marie Therese, daughter Clemencé Auguste and two sons Frederick Eugene Jr. and Constantine Antoine. Their new home, the capital of the new republic, convulsed under the ‘Fall Fever’ which at its height that autumn claimed the lives of thirty people per day. Less than twenty-four hours before their arrival, Richard Bache described the dreadful effects of these “more frequent changes to Hot and Cold [which] were never known in America” in a letter to his father-in-law back in Paris. Weakened by the transatlantic crossing and now in the midst of a foreign epidemic, the Baron soon fell gravely ill. It was an inauspicious start for the first Habsburg representative in the United States.
After his fortunate recovery, which was largely thanks to his wife’s care, the Baron Frederick set to work. His entrusted mission from the Emperor and his ministers in Vienna was vitally important to building relations between the two nations and laying the groundwork for a possible Treaty of Commerce. Beelen was entrusted to,
- 1) act as the official representative for all Habsburg merchants and trade with the United States;
- 2) to connect with American ministers for procuring the potential Treaty;
- 3) to relay any and all information relating to the commercial connections between the Habsburg lands and the young United States.
As a result Beelen compiled regular quarterly reports which he sent back to his superiors at the Court in Vienna. These voluminous papers are remarkably detailed and would be of great interest to historians of the early United States. For example, Beelen listed every foreign ship to arrive in Philadelphia and eventually every major port along the Eastern seaboard, from Boston to Charleston, as best he could. His reports included newspaper cuttings, price lists, details of foreign duties, and discussed new ordinances from each related to international trade.
Beelen’s papers also detailed the trading houses connected to merchants in Trieste and the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium). More interesting perhaps were his social commentaries about the Early Republic such as his contact and fascination with Native Americans, the fashion taste of women, and the success/failure of other diplomats from Europe. He also delivered the first copy of the new constitution into Habsburg hands.
In all his reports amount to thousands of pages and are held to this day in the archives in Vienna. He sent detailed information drawn from first-hand inquiries, careful selection of material and the painstaking collation of these facts and figures into long, but concise, memorandums. In short, more information flowed from his pen than any other European correspondent in this period meaning the Habsburg Monarchy was the most well-informed of the European powers on the political, domestic, international, and economic developments of the early United States. In sum, the Beelen-Bertholf papers are a window into the founding of the American Republic, its early commercial connections, and a rich historical view from foreign eyes on the ground quite unlike any other. They deserve to be fully published and utilised by historians of the eighteenth century.
Until now I have used the papers for my main research into US-Habsburg relations, but someday I hope to expand this into a fully edited version. An earlier version of the papers has already been published by an Austrian archivist in the nineteenth century, but, according to my calculations, his selection of material means only one-third of every year is published.
In addition, the familial story of the Beelen-Bertholfs in the New World is similarly unexplored. The relocation split a family; two daughters remained in Brussels whilst the youngest three moved with their parents to the United States. After the end of the mission in 1789, Beelen felt too sick to return across the Atlantic and the family eventually settled in Pennsylvania. The youngest son, Constantine Antoine anglicised his name to Constantin Anthony, became a US citizen, joined the militia, and later became one of the leading industrialists in Pittsburgh.
The Beelen family in America, as well as the descendants in Belgium, have many more illuminating tales to be told. I hope to follow this story as closely as possible and with an eye to future publications soon.
Please feel free to contact me about any potential research enquiries, leads, or collaboration. I have already covered portions of the Beelen story in my publication “175 or 235 Years of Austro-American Relations? Reflections and Repercussions for the Modern Day.“