The Milwaukee area was originally inhabited by the Menominee, Fox, Mascouten, Sauk, Potawatomi, Ojibwe (all Algic/Algonquian peoples) and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) (a Siouan people) Native American tribes. French missionaries and traders first passed through the area in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Alexis Laframboise, in 1785, coming from Michilimackinac (now in Michigan) settled a trading post; therefore, he is the first European descent resident of the Milwaukee region. The word "Milwaukee" may come from Potawatomi language minwaking, or Ojibwe language ominowakiing, "Gathering place ". Early explorers called the Milwaukee River and surrounding lands various names: Melleorki, Milwacky, Mahn-a-waukie, Milwarck, and Milwaucki. For many years, printed records gave the name as "Milwaukie". One story of Milwaukee's name says,ne day during the thirties of the last century a newspaper calmly changed the name to Milwaukee, and Milwaukee it has remained until this day.
The spelling "Milwaukie" lives on in Milwaukie, Oregon, named after the Wisconsin city in 1847, before the current spelling was universally accepted.
Milwaukee was first settled by a French Canadian called Alexis Laframboise in 1785; it was only a trading post. Therefore, Solomon Juneau was not the first to arrive in the area, in 1818. However, Juneau founded the town called Juneau's Side, or Juneautown, that began attracting more settlers. Byron Kilbourn was Juneau's equivalent on the west side of the Milwaukee River. In competition with Juneau, he established Kilbourntown west of the Milwaukee River, and made sure the streets running toward the river did not join with those on the east side. This accounts for the large number of angled bridges that still exist in Milwaukee today. Further, Kilbourn distributed maps of the area which only showed Kilbourntown, implying Juneautown did not exist or that the east side of the river was uninhabited and thus undesirable. The third prominent builder was George H. Walker. He claimed land to the south of the Milwaukee River, along with Juneautown, where he built a log house in 1834. This area grew and became known as Walker's Point.
By the 1840s, the three towns had grown quite a bit, along with their rivalries. There were some intense battles between the towns, mainly Juneautown and Kilbourntown, which culminated with the Milwaukee Bridge War of 1845. Following the Bridge War, it was decided the best course of action was to officially unite the towns. So, on January 31, 1846, they combined to incorporate as the City of Milwaukee and elected Solomon Juneau as Milwaukee's first mayor.
A great number of German immigrants increased the city's population during the 1840s and continued to migrate to the area during the following decades. The majority of these immigrants were from Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and Brandenburg. The German heritage and influence in the Milwaukee area is widespread.
During the middle and late 19th century, Wisconsin and the Milwaukee area became the final destination of many German immigrants fleeing the Revolution of 1848 in the various German states and in Austria. In Wisconsin they found the inexpensive land and the freedoms they sought. Over the next ten years over a million people left Germany and settled in the United States. Some were the intellectual leaders of this rebellion, but many were impoverished Germans. Others left because they feared constant political turmoil in Germany. One journalist commented in the Houston Post that "Germany seems to have lost all of her foreign possessions with the exception of Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati."
Today, Milwaukee's German heritage carries on in many of its restaurants, neighborhoods, schools and churches. German language is taught at the German Immersion School starting with 4-year old kindergarten students. The school was founded by Milwaukee Public Schools in 1977 and serves as a city-wide school to attract children from all parts of Milwaukee with a German language immersion program. Milwaukee hosts German Fest in July and Oktoberfest in September, annually.
Although the German presence in Milwaukee after the Civil War remained strong, other groups made their way to the city. Foremost among these were Polish immigrants. The Poles had many reasons for leaving their homeland, mainly poverty and political oppression. Because Milwaukee offered the Polish immigrants an abundance of low-paying entry level jobs, it became one of the largest Polish settlements in the USA.
For many residents, Milwaukee's South Side is synonymous with the Polish community which settled here. The group's proud ethnicity maintained a high profile here for decades and it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the families began to disperse to the southern suburbs.
By 1850, there were seventy-five Poles in Milwaukee County and the US Census indicates that they had a variety of occupations: grocers, blacksmiths, tavernkeepers, coopers, butchers, broommakers, shoemakers, draymen, laborers, and farmers. Three distinct Polish communities evolved in Milwaukee, with the majority settling in the area south of Greenfield Avenue. Milwaukee County's Polish population of 30,000 in 1890 rose to 100,000 by 1915. Poles historically have had a strong national cultural and social identity, maintained through the Catholic Church. A view of Milwaukee's South Side skyline is replete with the steeples of the many churches these immigrants built, churches that are still vital centers of the community.
St. Stanislaus Catholic Church and the surrounding neighborhood was the center of Polish life in Milwaukee. As the Polish community surrounding St. Stanislaus continued to grow, Mitchell Street became known as the "Polish Grand Avenue". As Mitchell Street grew denser, the Polish population started moving south to the Lincoln Village neighborhood, home to the Basilica of St. Josaphat and Kosciuszko Park. Other Polish communities started on the east side of Milwaukee and Jones Island, a major commercial fishing center settled mostly by Poles from the Baltic Coast.
Milwaukee has the fourth-largest Polish population in the U.S. at 57,485 (9.6% of the city's population), ranking behind New York City 213,447 (2.7%), Chicago 210,421 (7.3%), and Philadelphia 65,508 (4.3%). The city holds Polish Fest, an annual celebration of Polish culture and cuisine.
In addition to the Germans and Poles, Milwaukee received large influxes of other European immigrants from Lithuania, Italy, Ireland, France, Russia, Bohemia and Sweden, which included Jews, Lutherans, and Catholics. Italians number in the city at around 40,000 but, in Milwaukee County they number at 110,000. The largest Italian American festival Festa Italiana is held in the city. By 1910, Milwaukee shared the distinction with New York City of having the largest percentage of foreign-born residents in the United States. In 1910, whites represented 99.7% of the city's total population of 373 857. Milwaukee has a strong Greek Orthodox Community, many of whom attend the Greek Orthodox Church on Milwaukee's northwest side, designed by Wisconsin born architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Milwaukee has a sizable Croatian population with Croatian churches and their own historic and successful soccer club The Croatian Eagles located at the 30 acre Croatian Park in Franklin, WI. Milwaukee also has a large Serbian population with Serbian restaurants and Serbian churches along with an American Serb Hall. The American Serb Hall in Milwaukee is known for its Friday fish fries and popular events. Many U.S. presidents have visited Milwaukee's Serb Hall in the past. The Bosnian population is growing in Milwaukee as well due to the recent migration after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
During this time, a small community of African Americans who emigrated from the South formed a community that would come to be known as Bronzeville. As industry boomed, the African-American influence grew in Milwaukee.
By 1925, there were around 9,000 Mexican Americans that lived in Milwaukee, but the Great Depression forced many of them to move back home. In the 1950s, the Hispanic community was beginning to emerge. They arrived for jobs, filling positions in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors. During this time there were labor shortages due to the immigration laws that restricted Europeans from immigrating to the United States. Additionally, strikes contributed to the labor shortages.
During the first half of the 20th century, Milwaukee was the major city in which the U.S. Socialist Party earned the highest votes. Milwaukee elected three mayors who ran on the ticket of the Socialist Party: Emil Seidel (1910–1912), Daniel Hoan (1916–1940), and Frank Zeidler (1948–1960). Often referred to as "Sewer Socialists", the Milwaukee Socialists were characterized by their practical approach to government and labor.
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