Who Were the First Milwaukeeans?

Indigenous people have been here much longer than 175 years – and are still making the city’s history today.

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The first Indigenous residents of the place now known as Milwaukee were drawn here by its abundance of fish and wildlife, its proximity to Lake Michigan, and the other waterways that acted as a natural highway for travel. They lived off the land, lived with the land, respected its natural features and gave thanks for its gifts.

The first people in this area, millennia ago, were the Mound Builders. This mysterious civilization is believed to have scattered or joined other Indigenous peoples who came into southeastern Wisconsin sometime between 800 and 500 BC. Foremost among the newcomers were the Menominee and Ho-Chunk, and by 1701, the Potawatomi had established permanent villages here, along with groups of Sauk, Ottawa and Ojibwe.

Native life in Milwaukee changed forever after the first contact with Europeans following Jean Nicolet’s arrival in Green Bay in 1634. French explorers developed a peaceful and close relationship with the Indigenous residents, trading goods for animal furs and intermarrying with them.

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The tribes, though, were drawn into French wars and killed by the thousands by European diseases such as smallpox, to which they had no immunity. The fur trade greatly reduced the animal population, with beavers in particular nearly going extinct in the area.

As the United States grew west, a series of treaties reduced Native lands, and by the time of the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the American Indian people of Milwaukee were removed – the Menominee and Ojibwe to northern Wisconsin, the Ho-Chunk to Nebraska and the Potawatomi to Kansas, although some returned to northern Wisconsin later in the century. 

This is often where histories of Native Milwaukee end, but American Indian people continued to shape the city’s history and economy.

It would be over 100 years after the Treaty of Chicago before American Indian people returned to Milwaukee in sizable numbers. Many came during World War II because of the plentiful jobs in industry and manufacturing. By 1953, there were 1,000 American Indians in Milwaukee, and the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 brought their number to almost 3,000 by 1960.

Banners from state tribes on display at the Indian Community School during a 2019 pow wow. Photo by Lacy Landre

By the 1970s, American Indians in Milwaukee had formed nonprofits and social service organizations, mainly on the South Side, to serve their growing population. They joined the Civil Rights Movement and formed a Milwaukee branch of the American Indian Movement. Those activists took over an abandoned Coast Guard station near McKinley Marina on the lakefront in 1971 and used the space to house the Indian Community School, a K-8 school exclusively for American Indians in Milwaukee. A beautiful new $50 million school building opened in Franklin in 2007.

More than 7,000 American Indians lived in Milwaukee County in 2010 – many from the 11 federally recognized tribes based in the state of Wisconsin, some from tribes of other states. There are at least 20 organizations that serve American Indians in areas of health, culture and education.

Negotiations between leaders of American Indian activist groups and the Wisconsin National Guard during the groups’ 1971 seizure of a vacant Coast Guard station in Milwaukee. Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Station

From 1987 to 2018, we had one of the largest American Indian cultural events in the country with the Indian Summer Festival. Milwaukee is also home to Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, one of the only off-reservation casinos in the country and a critical funder of the new Indian Community School and its continued operation.

American Indians are an often-forgotten part of Milwaukee’s past. But we are still here, and we will continue to be for the next 175 years.


Why Is Milwaukee Called the Good Land? 

THE MOST COMMON TRANSLATION of “Milwaukee” from its Native origins is “the good land,” a reference to its rich soil. But it is not the only one. Early attempts to fix a meaning resulted in such less-than-flattering terms as “stinking river” or “fire water,” but eventually the “good land” definition took popular hold. According to UW-Milwaukee professor Margaret Noodin, the name could have derived from either an Anishinaabe word, “Mino-akking,” (good land) or the Algonquian “mahn-a-waukee” (gathering place).


Antonio J. Doxtator is author of American Indians in Milwaukee (2011, Arcadia Publishing).


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

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