U.S. Cities - City-Data Homepage  
City-Data Forum
City-Data.com Homepage

Milwaukee: History


Tribal Meeting Place Draws Permanent Settlement

Mahn-a-waukee Seepe, a Native American word meaning "gathering place by the river," was the name given to the land next to the natural bay where the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic rivers flow into Lake Michigan and where a number of tribes met to hold counsel. The Potawatomi was the largest of the local tribes and they, along with the Menominee, were under French control in the seventeenth century. As white traders moved into the territory, the Native Americans withdrew into the wilderness. The Menominee gave up land east and north of the Milwaukee River in 1831, and the United Nation of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi signed a treaty in Chicago in 1833 that relinquished a large section of land south and west of the Milwaukee River.

In 1835 three men bought the first land holdings in Milwaukee at a land auction in Green Bay. French trader Solomon Juneau had operated a trading post near the Milwaukee River since 1818, and he purchased the land between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan that he named Juneautown. Byron Kilbourn named his western tract Kilbourntown, and George H. Walker claimed a southern section. Juneau accrued great wealth through his trading business; he also served as an interpreter and peacemaker between the Native Americans and white settlers. Juneau sold some of his land, and he and the new investors established a village that they named Milwaukee. The first population wave took place when Irish and New England settlers and German immigrants arrived. In 1838 the Potawatomi were relocated to Kansas.

A feud called the Bridge War, notorious in Milwaukee history, began in 1840 when the villages of Juneautown and Kilbourntown, which were consolidated in 1839, disputed payments for river bridges required by the legislature. This feuding continued for five years and in 1845 erupted in violence. The Bridge War was finally resolved when the legislature ordered that costs be shared equally between the two founding communities. The next year the city charter was ratified, and Solomon Juneau was elected the first mayor of Milwaukee.

By that time the city's population numbered 10,000 people, half of them German and a higher percentage Catholic. John Martin Henni was appointed bishop of the new diocese, becoming the first German Catholic bishop in America. In 1848 the arrival of the "forty-eighters," German intellectuals forced to flee their homeland after their rebellion failed, helped to influence the direction of Milwaukee history. These men wanted to establish a free German republic but settled for improving the cultural and political life of the city by creating theaters and musical societies, and generally upgrading Milwaukee's intellectual life. Between 1850 and 1851 Milwaukee's population more than doubled to 46,000 people. The economy prospered during the Civil War as local industries grew rapidly and filled in the gaps created by the closing of southern markets.

Progress Continues Despite Setbacks

Several disasters threatened Milwaukee's progress. In 1867, the city's first major labor union, the Knights of St. Crispin, was formed in the shoe industry. As the economy expanded so did the labor movement, which received a setback when state troops fired on labor demonstrators in 1886, killing five. Almost 300 people drowned in 1859 when the Lady Elgin collided with the Augusta; Milwaukee again mourned when a fire at the Newhall House in 1883 took at least sixty-four lives. Both events were commemorated in popular ballads. In 1892 sixteen residential and business blocks between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan were destroyed by fire. Despite this tragedy, the decade of the 1890s in Milwaukee was described as the "golden age," marked by the flourishing of German theater and musical societies.

The rise of Milwaukee's brand of socialism dates from this period, when Socialist leader Victor L. Berger forged an alliance with labor, bringing the Social Democratic party into existence. Emil Seidel was elected the first Socialist mayor in 1910 and Berger became the first Socialist in the U.S. House of Representatives. The "bundle brigade" delivered campaign pamphlets in twelve languages to rally votes. In addition to Seidel, Daniel W. Hoan and Frank P. Zeidler later also served as Socialist mayors. In keeping with anti-German sentiments during World War I, the statue of Germania was removed from the Brumder Building and Berger was convicted of conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act. This decision was, however, reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1921.

Milwaukee has been a shipping center and industrial giant in the Midwest, noted in the nineteenth century for wheat and then in the twentieth century for manufacturing, primarily the metal trades, meat packing, tanning and leather goods, brewing, and durable goods. Milwaukee industry has contributed to national and international progress with steam shovels to dig the Panama Canal, turbines to harness Niagara Falls, and agricultural equipment to farm the world's land. Today Milwaukee maintains its status as a leader in manufacturing technology and practice while it makes the transition to a service-based economy. Milwaukee boasts good schools, a diverse economy, a strong work ethic, a high quality of life, and a beautiful location on the western edge of Lake Michigan in the rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine. The city has also become a cultural leader, with a world-class symphony orchestra, 20 performing arts groups, a ballet, two opera companies, a zoo, six professional sports teams, several major universities, and Summerfest, the world's largest music festival.

Historical Information: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 910 N. Old World 3rd St., Milwaukee, WI 53203; telephone (414)273-8288


Discuss this city on our active forum.