Waukesha is a city in and the county seat of Waukesha County, Wisconsin. The population was 70,718 at the 2010 census, making it the largest community in the county and seventh largest in the state. The city is adjacent to the Town of Waukesha.
In 2013 and 2012, Gibson Guitar Corporation designated Waukesha for their nationally acclaimed “GuitarTown” arts project. In 2012, Money magazine ranked Waukesha one of the “100 Best Places to Live,” in the United States. In 2012 and 2011, America’s Promise Alliance ranked Waukesha one of the “100 Best Communities for Young People” in the United States. In 2011, the National Recreation and Park Association granted Waukesha their “Gold Medal Award.” In 2011 the Wisconsin Library Association designated Waukesha’s Public Library as the “Wisconsin Library of the Year.”
The area that Waukesha now encompasses was first inhabited in 1834. Its first non-American-Indian settler was Morris D. Cutler.
By 1846, the area was incorporated as the village of Prairieville. On February 8, 1847, the village changed its name to, "Waukesha," and in 1896, incorporated as a city.
Over the years, many believed, incorrectly, that the origin of the name of the city was an Algonquian word meaning "fox" or "little foxes," though it is actually an Anglicization of the Ojibwe proper name Waagoshag or the Potawatomi name Wau-tsha. Wau-tsha (sometimes written as Wauk-tsha or Wauke-tsha) was the leader of the local tribe at the time of the first European settlement of the area. This is confirmed by accounts of Increase A. Lapham, an early settler and historian of the region. According to Lapham, the word for "fox" was pishtaka. Cutler also told visitors about Wau-tsha, who was described as "tall and athletic, proud in his bearing, dignified and friendly."
Matthew Laflin, an early pioneer of Chicago, Illinois, provided the capital and enterprise that laid the foundation for Waukesha as a famous Wisconsin watering resort and was the proprietor of the grand resort, the Fountain Spring House. Waukesha was once known for its extremely clean and good-tasting spring water and was called a, "spa town." This earned the city the nicknames, "Spring City," and, "Saratoga of the West."
According to author Kristine Adams Wendt, in 1868, Colonel Richard Dunbar, a sufferer of diabetes, chanced upon the medicinal properties of what he later named the Bethesda Spring while viewing a parcel of land recently purchased by his sister. Testimonials found in a Dunbar brochure of 1873 proclaimed the miraculous benefits.
Wendt reports that by 1872, "area newspapers carried accounts of a community ill equipped to handle its new popularity among the suffering multitudes. The semi-weekly Wisconsin (Milwaukee) of July 31, 1872, reported 'that fully 500 visitors are quartered in hotels and scattered in private families here, seeking benefit from the marvelous waters...'"
The "healing waters" were so valued that a controversial attempt was made to build a pipeline between the city and Chicago so that they could be enjoyed by visitors to the 1893 Columbian Exposition. According to Time magazine, "[t]he scheme had been conceived by one Charles Welsh who had been given the springs by his uncle, but after several miles of pipe were laid, it was discovered that the cost was too great."
Richard W. Sears, founder of Sears and Roebuck, may have been attracted to Waukesha by the waters. In failing health, Sears retired from business in 1908 and, according to The New York Times, "spent his time on his great farm near Waukesha." In 1914, Sears died in Waukesha of Bright's disease, leaving an estate estimated at $20 million.
In 1956, Helen Moore, who ran a mud bath spa in Waukesha, appeared as a guest on What's My Line.
Over the years, the natural springs have been spoiled by pollution and a number have gone dry.
One of the most important "firsts" in American sports history occurred in Waukesha on September 5, 1906, when Carroll College (now Carroll University) hosted the football team from St. Louis University. SLU halfback Bradbury Robinson threw the first legal forward pass in football history in that game. The Carroll players and local fans were stunned. The visitors went on to win 22–0.
During the Cold War, Waukesha County was the site of three Nike Missile batteries, located in the city of Waukesha and nearby Muskego and Lannon. In the city of Waukesha, the U.S. Army and later the Wisconsin National Guard operated the command and control center from 1956 to 1970 at what is now Hillcrest Park on Davidson Road. The missile pits existed near the corner of Cleveland Avenue and Hwy 164 – first holding Ajax missiles with conventional warheads and later the nuclear equipped Hercules warhead. The Hercules provided a similar nuclear capability as that of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in World War II. The Midwest Chapter of the Cold War Museum has promoted the preservation of the Hillcrest Park site as a local Cold War museum, honoring Cold War veterans and commemorating America's longest and costliest conflict.