A History of Milwaukee

By Jim Schact

Milwaukee comes from either the Algonquian word Millioke meaning “Good”, “Beautiful” and “Pleasant” land or the Ojibwe word ominowaking and the Potawatomi word miniwaking that mean “Gathering place by the water” also translated as meaning “council grounds”.  The first known inhabitants of the area were the Menomonie, Fox, Mascouten, Sauk, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk.  People have lived here for about 13,000 years and prior to European settlement, and it appears to have been considered neutral ground.  There were many villages along the riverbanks of the three rivers, the Milwaukee, Menomonee and the Kinnickinnic when Europeans came.

The Menomonee are the only present-day tribe in Wisconsin whose origin story indicates that they have always lived in Wisconsin.  They called themselves the Mamaceqtaw or “the people”, but other tribes referred to them with a word that means wild rice in Algonkian since it was a major food.  Their historic territory originally included an estimated 10 million acres in Wisconsin and Northern Michigan, but their current reservation is less than a tenth of that.  The tribe currently has about 8700 members.  Historically they have been known as a peaceful and friendly nation.

The Fox Indians, which includes the Sauk, called themselves the Meshkwahkihaki which means “people of the red earth,” while the Sauk called themselves Asakiwaki, which means “people of the yellow earth”.  They have their historic differences but have been grouped together by our government.  They coalesced in Ontario, Canada in the St. Lawrence River valley but were pushed out by French and their allies.  The French king actually signed a decree calling for their complete extermination.  They were first pushed south and west, then in 1804 the US government forced the Sauk and Fox tribes to cede their land claims in southern Wisconsin.  This led to the Black Hawk War in 1832.  They were removed to the territory that became Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska and have no reservations in Wisconsin.

The Mascouten originated in Michigan but were driven out by the Odawa (Ottawa) Indians and moved west to live on both sides of the Mississippi.  They united with the Kickapoo and Fox after almost being exterminated by the French and Potawatomi.  The last reference of them as a tribe was in 1779.

The Potawatomi, who call themselves Neshnabe, are part of a long-term alliance with the Ojibway and Ottawa, creating the Council of Three Fires.  The Potawatomi are considered the “youngest brother” and are referred to as the “keepers of the fire.”  The Potawatomi were first encountered in southwestern Michigan but were pushed west.  They were signatures of a staggering 42 different treaties with the United States between 1789 and 1867, more than any other tribe, and were involved in many wars.  In the Treaty of Chicago in 1833 about five million acres of land were taken and they were rounded up by the military to be moved to Kansas and Oklahoma.  Groups of Potawatomi refused removal and fled, many of them settling in northern Wisconsin in what would in time be recognized as the Forest County Potawatomi Reservation that now has about 1400 members. Some Milwaukee natives are descendent from Potawatomi who escaped removal.

The Ottawa or Odawa understand that they originated on the East Coast, then moved to Ontario, along the shore of Lake Huron and along the Ottawa River in Michigan.  Their name is said to mean “traders” as they were known as intertribal traders and barterers.  They have a common ancestry with the Potawatomi and are part with them in the Council of Three Fires which had conflicts with the Iroquois over control of the fur trade.  As with the Potawatomi they were moved west by a series of treaties.  The Ottawa never had a large presence in Wisconsin and now number about 15,000 in Ontario, Michigan, and Oklahoma.

The Ho-Chunk or Hochungra, formerly known as the Winnebago, also has an oral history that places their origin in Wisconsin.  Ho-Chunk means ‘People of the Sacred Voice.”  Not surprisingly, they are known for their extensive oral history that goes back thousands of years.  In 2010 they had 10,317 tribal members.  They have no reservation, but own land in 14 counties in Wisconsin and has some treaty rights in ten million acres of ancestral tribal land between the Mississippi and Rock Rivers.  The Ho-Chuck were prominent supporters of Tecumseh’s pan-Indian rebellion. White minors began encroaching on Ho-Chunk territory to mine lead in southwest Wisconsin which led to efforts at removal through treaties and force.  There were eleven removals to reservations in South Dakota and Nebraska, but some stayed and remained on 40 acre homesteads and have reclaimed over 2000 acres of ancestral land.

As you can see, each tribe has their own story and unique history.  We don’t know what tribe or tribes lived in the villages overlooking the rivers what Europeans came here, but think they were some combination of these.  There could have been at some point a village where the Meetinghouse stands.



Wisconsin Historical Society

Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Milwaukee Public Museum Tribal internet postings