The first white fur trader to settle in Milwaukee was French Canadian Jacques Vieau of La Baye (Green Bay), who established a seasonal fur-trading post near the Menomonee River in 1795. The post was on the Chicago-Green Bay trail, located on the site of today's Mitchell Park. Vieau married the granddaughter of an Indian chief and had at least twelve children. Vieau's daughter by another woman, Josette, would later marry Laurent Solomon Juneau.
Milwaukee has three "founding fathers," of whom French Canadian Solomon Juneau was first to come to the area, in 1818. Juneau became Vieau's son-in-law in 1820, when Vieau handed down the post to his daughter, the "founding mother of Milwaukee," by selling the business to his son-in-law. The Juneaus moved the post in 1825 to the eastern bank of the Milwaukee River (between the river and Lake Michigan), where they founded the town called Juneau's Side, or Juneautown, that began attracting more settlers.
However, 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 that 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 that 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.
The proximity of the towns sparked tensions in 1845 after the completion of bridge built between Kilbourntown and Juneautown. Kilbourn and his supporters viewed the bridge as a threat to their community and ultimately led to Kilbourn destroying part of the bridge. Over the next few weeks, skirmishes broke out between the inhabitants of the two towns; no one was killed, although several people were injured, some seriously. While this event became known as the Milwaukee Bridge War, the two towns made greater attempts at cooperation.
By the 1840s, the three towns had grown to such an extent that on January 31, 1846 they combined to incorporate as the City of Milwaukee and elected L. Solomon Juneau as Milwaukee's first mayor. A great number of German immigrants had helped increase the city's population during the 1840s and continued to migrate to the area during the following decades. Milwaukee has even been called "Deutsches Athen" (German Athens), and into the twentieth century, there were more German speakers and German-language newspapers than there were English speakers and English-language newspapers in the city. (To this day, the Milwaukee phonebook includes more than forty pages of Schmitts or Schmidts, far more than the pages of Smiths.)
In the mid-1800s Milwaukee earned its nickname "Cream City." The nickname refers to the large amount of unique cream colored bricks that came out of the Menomonee River Valley and were used in building construction. At its peak, Milwaukee was producing 15 million bricks a year, with a third going out of the state.
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 Wisconsin they found the inexpensive land and the freedoms they sought. The German heritage and influence in the Milwaukee area is widespread.
The Milwaukee Bar Association was founded in 1858. It is the fourth oldest of such organizations in the United States and now has over 2,600 members.
May 5, 1886 was the day of the Bay View Massacre in which striking steelworkers who were marching toward a mill in the Bay View section of Milwaukee were intercepted by a squad of National Guardsmen who, under orders from the Wisconsin Governor, fired point blank into the strikers, killing seven.
The late 19th saw the incorporation of Milwaukee's first suburbs. The aforementioned Bay View existed as an independent village from 1879-1886. In 1892, Whitefish Bay, South Milwaukee, and Wauwatosa each incorporated. They were followed by Cudahy (1895), North Milwaukee (1897) and East Milwaukee, later known as Shorewood, in 1900. The early 20th century saw the additions of West Allis (1902) and West Milwaukee (1906), which completed the first generation of so-called "inner-ring" suburbs.
In general, suburbs along the north shore of Lake Michigan were residential and more wealthy and suburbs along the south shore were industrial and working class. The western suburbs were a mixed bag--North Milwaukee and West Allis were primarily industrial, whereas Wauwatosa was primarily residential. Wauwatosa was widely recognized as Milwaukee's first "bedroom suburb," though it developed its own set of social, economic, and religious institutions.
Towards the end of the century, Milwaukee enjoyed worldwide notoriety when it erected its City Hall in 1895. The Hall, at 15-stories, stood as the world's tallest skyscraper for the next four years until the Park Row tower in New York City was completed in 1899. Milwaukee remains one of only three cities in the United States and four in the world which can claim to have ever been home to the world's tallest building.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Milwaukee was the hub of the socialist movement in the United States. Milwaukeeans elected three socialist mayors during this time: Emil Seidel (1910-1912), Daniel Hoan (1916-1940), and Frank Zeidler (1948-1960), and remains the only major city in the country to have done so. Often referred to as "Sewer Socialists," the Milwaukee socialists were characterized by their practical approach to government and labor. These practices emphasized cleaning up neighborhoods and factories with new sanitation systems, city owned water and power systems as well as improved education systems. Although their influence began to dwindle in the late 1950s amidst the "red scare," the legacy of the socialists in Milwaukee is still apparent in the city today as Milwaukeeans have a reputation for being fiercely pro-union and distrustful of big business.
Also during this time, a small, but burgeoning community of African-Americans who emigrated from the south formed a community that would come to be known as Bronzeville. This area which was located on and near what are now known as Old World Third Street and Martin Luther King Drive soon became known as a "Harlem of the Midwest" for its jazz clubs and juke joints which attracted both local and nationally renowned musicians such as B.B. King and Ella Fitzgerald. Bronzeville's significance began to fall off as the heart of Milwaukee's Black community shifted north following World War II after the building of a major expressway which destroyed the geographic continuity of the district. However, the area has been experiencing something of a revival within the past few years as it has seen the arrival of several new businesses, restaurants, condos, coffee shops and night clubs which seek to recapture the prominence the area once had.
Into the late 1950s, Milwaukee, like many northern industrial cities, grew tremendously. Having been home historically to immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Hungary and other central European nations, as well as the northward migration of African-Americans from the Southern United States and industrial workers from Milwaukee's Wisconsin hinterlands and other parts of the United States, the city had acquired an extreme population density in the first half of the 20th century. As Milwaukee's suburbs proliferated and the population of the city center began to disperse, Milwaukee annexed and incorporated the surrounding lands, recapturing a portion of its departing tax base and simultaneously supplying these areas with much-needed city services. The first plan for Wisconsin's highway system, with an aim to improve Milwaukee's worsening automotive congestion, was submitted in 1945, although construction would not begin until the late 1950s.
The construction of Milwaukee's interstate highway system, beginning in 1964 with the completion of its first seven miles of I-94, heralded an age of greater decentralization, as Southeastern Wisconsin suburbs continued to proliferate along interstate corridors, providing an alternative to crowded city living. Nevertheless, a backlash against the freeway in the late 1960s and early 1970s virtually ground Milwaukee's freeways construction to a halt, leaving the city with about 50% of the highways recommended by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's freeway plan.
In recent years the city began to make strides in improving its economy, neighborhoods, and image, resulting in the revitalization of neighborhoods such as the Historic Third Ward, the East Side, and more recently, Bay View, along with attracting new businesses to its downtown area. The city continues to make plans for increasing its future revitalization through various projects. Largely due to its efforts to preserve its history, in 2006 Milwaukee was named one of the "Dozen Distinctive Destinations" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.