The Early Days of Milwaukee

What it was like in Milwaukee before 1860.


As the fight for independence transformed a string of coastal European colonies into the United States of America, the swampy little patch of land that would one day become Milwaukee remained populated by its Native residents, who were occasionally visited by French explorers and missionaries. In 1795, the first permanent white residents arrived to capitalize on the fur trade of what was then considered to be “the West.” It took 40 years for the area to develop as a true European settlement, the Native tribes by then forced out by the federal government, who claimed the area as part of the Michigan Territory. A mid-1830s boom quickly went bust, halving the settlement’s population and leaving behind only the true believers or those with no place else to go. But “Milwaukee” (or “Milwaukie” if you were on the west side of the river of the same name) had too much natural promise to be forgotten. Swamps were filled, a harbor was built, and by the middle of the 19th century, a city had emerged so bustling that its most fervent backers considered Chicago to be little more than a jealous rival.

Freight Feud: Milwaukee vs. Chicago has been a thing just about as long as they’ve been cities. One of our first rivalries was as competing ports, shipping wheat from the Western frontier. Chicago ended up winning out, but for a time Milwaukee shipped more wheat than any place in the world.

See You at the Rum-hole: Bars were never so plentiful in Milwaukee as in 1843, when early historian James Buck tallied 138 Milwaukee taverns – one for every 40 citizens of the village. A common variant was the “rum-hole,” so named because they were literally built into the muddy hillsides of the river.

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

The Other Guy: The jovial and often overlooked third co-founder of Milwaukee was the sugar to the spice of Solomon Juneau and Byron Kilbourn. George H. Walker, who set up a trading post near today’s Water Street Bridge, was known as a bit of a goofball, given to dancing, ice skating and feasting (estimates peg him as perhaps 350 pounds).

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Night Dredging: Milwaukee’s rivers did not always meet the lake where they do today. The harbor’s natural entry point was a mile to the south, but sandbars and narrow channels made for difficult passage. The new and current entry was built in 1842 – done so in a single moonless night to avoid objections from those who favored the more southerly entry.

Hey, Joe: The first recorded African American in Milwaukee was Joe Oliver, a cook for Solomon Juneau who entered the historical record by voting in an 1835 election. It’s likely there were Black residents here working as laborers, trappers or guides – slavery was technically outlawed in territorial Wisconsin – as early as 1818, but their names are lost to history.

Cabin with a Vieau: In 1795, Jacques Vieau set up the first European, albeit seasonal, dwelling in the area – a cabin and fur trading post on the edge of the Menomonee Valley; a historical marker stands in what is now Mitchell Park. And let’s talk Milwaukee power couples, too: Vieau married Angelique Roy, a granddaughter of Potawatomi chief Anaugesa, and their daughter Josette wed city co-founder Solomon Juneau.

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Notable names: Cousins Guido Pfister and Frederick Vogel found Pfister & Vogel, which would become one of the nation’s largest leather producers, 1848.

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Born Elsewhere, Big in Milwaukee: Catholic Archbishop John Martin Henni, 1805  |  Scientist Increase Lapham, 1811  |  Mayor and Gov. Harrison Ludington, 1812  Railroader and politician Alexander Mitchell, 1817  |  Industrialist Frederick Layton, 1827  |  Meatpacker Patrick Cudahy, 1849  |  Journalist Lucius W. Nieman, 1857

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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