Brief History of Milwaukee

For several thousand years, the area that we now know as Milwaukee was used as neutral ground between several Native American tribes, such as the Menominee, the Ojibwe, and perhaps the most influential of the groups, the Potawatomi. It is believed that the word Milwaukee derives from the Potawatomi word for council grounds, which is pronounced “Mahn-ah-wauk.” These tribes of Native Americans were largely pushed out of their normal living spaces into this area because of rising numbers of European immigrants. By the seventeenth century, these immigrants, largely French and French Canadian, were invading Milwaukee. This perhaps came as no surprise, however, because of the fertile ground and easily accessible water source, in the form of a river.

In 1674, the area of Milwaukee was referenced in writing by Jaques Marquet, a fur trader residing in the area. The fur trade was destroying the Native American way of life, but it was creating a great center of commerce for European immigrants in the area. The first written reference to the actual word Milwaukee comes from British Lieutenant James Gorrell, who was stationed in Green Bay in 1761 and wrote about the area. At first, there were several scattered settlements all over what is now eastern Wisconsin. By 1785, the area was legally established as a trading post by Alexis Laframboise. This makes him the first legal citizen of the area, a French Canadian fur trader.

In 1795, ten years after Laframboise established a legal trading post, fur trader Jaques Vieu built another trading post on the eastern side of the river and did quite well for himself. However, Vieu was a seasonal resident, and in 1818 he left all of his assets to his son-in-law Solomon Juneau. Solomon Juneau built the first ever log cabin in the Milwaukee area. Over the space of approximately twenty years, he helped to establish the area, financially backing projects such as the first hotel, the first courthouse, the first newspaper, and the first streets. By 1837, the area has legally declared a village by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature, largely thanks to the work of Juneau.

Meanwhile, Byron Kilbourn was taking control of the western side of the river, which legally belonged to the Potawatomi tribe. Due to questionable business practices however, Kilbourn was able to take ownership of the area by 1835 and established it as a separate community from the eastern side, where Juneau was leading the way. The two sides, known then as Juneautown and Kilbourntown, were at war with each other until the 1840s, when Wisconsin legislature demanded that a drawbridge be built across the river, to replace a ferry system that was inconvenient for the rapidly growing population. This drawbridge, rather than unite the two opposing communities, exacerbated the issue, and in 1845, Kilbourn drew a line in the sand by dropping his western half of the drawbridge into the river. Mobs formed on the eastern side, and there were threats of violence for weeks after the incident. When peace was finally restored, the two settlements realized that they were better off together, and a city charter was issued in 1846 for the city of Milwaukee. This rivalry cannot be forgotten, however. Even today, when walking the streets of Milwaukee, one can notice that they are crooked. This is because the two separate halves of the city intentionally designed their sides of the streets not to align with each other.

In 1846, when the first city charter was issued, Solomon Juneau became the first city mayor, and the first Common Council took place in a Methodist Church. After a while, the council began meeting in a stable, which was later destroyed in a fire in 1850. The fire would prove to be a continuing issue, preventing a permanent home for city hall until 1889, when a city-wide drawing contest was held for the design of City Hall, and $1.25 million in bonds were issued for the construction. Until this time, different city offices were placed in rented out rooms located in various places throughout the city. The permanent City Hall building was located on Market Street and is still the home of City Hall to this day.

Today, Milwaukee is a huge center of commerce. What began as a huge trading post went on to become a manufacturing powerhouse in the 20th century. Though manufacturing has lost a bit of its luster in today’s world, Milwaukee still holds its own as a center of commerce. It is now a city dominated by the service industry, such as health care, banking, and retail, though the historical value of the city will never be forgotten.

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