Milwaukee is the largest city in the U.S. state of Wisconsin, the 30th most populous city in the United States, and 39th most populous region in the United States. It is the county seat of Milwaukee County and is located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. According to 2010 census data, the City of Milwaukee has a population of . Milwaukee is the main cultural and economic center of the Milwaukee–Waukesha–West Allis Metropolitan Statistical Area, with an estimated population of 1,566,981 as of 2012.
The first Europeans to pass through the area were French Catholic missionaries and fur traders. In 1818, the French-Canadian explorer Solomon Juneau settled in the area, and in 1846 Juneau's town combined with two neighboring towns to incorporate as the City of Milwaukee. Large numbers of German and other immigrants helped increase the city's population during the 1840s and the following decades.
Known for its brewing traditions, major new additions to the city include the Milwaukee Riverwalk, the Wisconsin Center, Miller Park, an internationally renowned addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and Pier Wisconsin, as well as major renovations to the U.S. Cellular Arena. In addition, many new skyscrapers, condos, lofts and apartments have been constructed in neighborhoods on and near the lakefront and riverbanks.
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 the Potawatomi language minwaking, or Ojibwe language ominowakiing, "Gathering place [by the water]". 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,
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.
Milwaukee began to grow as a city as high numbers of immigrants, mainly German, made their way to Wisconsin during the 1840s and 1850s. Scholars classify German immigration to the United States in three major waves, and Wisconsin received a significant number of immigrants from all three. The first wave from 1845-1855 consisted mainly of people from Southwestern Germany, the second wave from 1865-1873 concerned primarily Northwestern Germany, while the third wave from 1880 to 1893 came from Northeastern Germany. In the 1840s, the number of people who left German speaking lands was 385,434, in the 1850s it reached 976,072, and an all-time high of 1.4 million emigrated in the 1880s. In 1890, the 2.78 million first-generation German Americans represented the second largest foreign-born group in the United States. Of all those who left the German lands between 1835-1910, 90 percent went to the United States, most of them traveling to the Mid-Atlantic states and the Midwest.
One of the major destinations of German immigrants was Wisconsin. By 1900, 34 percent of its population was of German background. The largest number of German immigrants to Milwaukee came from Prussia, followed by Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover, and Hesse-Darmstadt. Milwaukee gained its reputation for the most German of American cities not just from the large number of German immigrants it received, but the sense of community which the immigrants established there.
Most German immigrants came to Wisconsin in search of inexpensive farmland. However, immigration began to change in character and size in the late 1840s and early 1850s, due to the 1848 revolutionary movements in Europe. After 1848, hopes for a united Germany had failed, and revolutionary and radical Germans, known as the "Forty-Eighters," turned their attention to the United States. One of the most famous “liberal revolutionaries” of 1848 was Carl Schurz, who explained why he came to Milwaukee in 1854, “It is true, similar things [cultural events and societies] were done in other cities where the Forty-eighters [sic] had congregated. But so far as I know, nowhere did their influence so quickly impress itself upon the whole social atmosphere as in 'German Athens of America' as Milwaukee was called at the time.”
Schurz was referring to the various clubs and societies that Germans developed in Milwaukee. The pattern of German immigrants to settle near each other encouraged the continuation of German lifestyle and customs. This resulted in German language organizations that encompassed all aspects of life; for example, singing societies and gymnastics clubs. Germans also made a lasting impact on the American school system. Kindergarten was created as a pre-school for children, and sports programs of all levels, as well as music and art were incorporated as elements of the regular school curriculum. These ideas were first introduced by radical-democratic German groups, such as the Socialist Turner Societies, known today as the American Turners. Specifically in Milwaukee, the American Turners established its own Normal College for teachers of physical education and a German-English Academy.
Milwaukee's German element is still strongly present today. The city celebrates its German culture by annually hosting a German Fest in July and an Oktoberfest in October. Milwaukee boasts a good number of German restaurants, as well as a traditional German beer hall. Even the German language is not lost, as a German language immersion school is offered for children in grades K-5. Germans were, and still are, an important component of life in Wisconsin and Milwaukee.
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. Italian Americans 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, a Serbian K-8 School, 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 Socialist Party of America 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.
In 1892, Whitefish Bay, South Milwaukee, and Wauwatosa were incorporated. They were followed by Cudahy (1895), North Milwaukee (1897) and East Milwaukee, later known as Shorewood, in 1900. In the early 20th century West Allis (1902) and West Milwaukee (1906) were added, which completed the first generation of "inner-ring" suburbs.
In the 1920s Chicago gangster activity came north to Milwaukee during the Prohibition era. Al Capone, noted Chicago mobster, owned a home in the Milwaukee suburb Brookfield, where moonshine was made. The house still stands on a street named after Capone.
By 1960, Milwaukee had grown to become one of the largest cities in the United States of America. Its population peaked at 741,324. In 1960, the Census Bureau reported city's population as 8.4% black and 91.1% white.
By the late 1960s, Milwaukee's population had started to decline due to white flight. Milwaukee had a population of 636,212 by 1980, while the population of the metropolitan area increased. Milwaukee avoided the severe declines of its fellow "rust belt" cities due to its large immigrant population and historic neighborhoods.
Since the 1980s, the city has begun to make strides in improving its economy, neighborhoods, and image, resulting in the revitalization of neighborhoods such as the Historic Third Ward, Lincoln Village, the East Side, and more recently Walker's Point and Bay View, along with attracting new businesses to its downtown area. These efforts have substantially slowed the population decline and has stabilized many parts of Milwaukee.
Milwaukee's rich European history is evident today. Largely through its efforts to preserve its history, in 2006 Milwaukee was named one of the "Dozen Distinctive Destinations" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In 2010, the Census Bureau released revised population numbers for Milwaukee that showed the city gained population, growing by 1.3%, between 2000 and 2009. This was the first population increase the city of Milwaukee has seen since the 1960 census.
Historic Milwaukee walking tours provide a guided tour of Milwaukee's historic districts, including topics on Milwaukee's architectural heritage, its glass skywalk system, and the Milwaukee Riverwalk.