Get the essential facts, advice and resources you need to find your ancestors in Milwaukee, Wisc.
If your knowledge of Milwaukee’s history stops at the 1950s version depicted in TV’s “Happy Days,” surprises are in store as you explore your family history in the Cream City. For instance, that nickname derives not from Wisconsin’s Dairy State reputation or the city’s taste for frozen custard, but from the color of bricks produced in Milwaukee—15 million a year at the peak in 1881.
Home to the Fox, Mascouten, Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk American Indian tribes, the area’s prime location at Lake Michigan first drew French fur traders, who built a trading post on the Menomonee River in 1795. Settlers soon founded three rival settlements: Juneautown on the eastern bank of the Milwaukee River, Kilbourntown on the western bank and Walker’s Point south of the river. In 1846, the villages merged and incorporated as Milwaukee (spelled several ways until the mid-1800s).
An influx of Germans earned Milwaukee another name: Deutsches Athen, the “German Athens.” Most early Germans came from Mecklenburg, Pomerania and Brandenberg. Later immigrant waves brought Italians, Irish, Greeks, Serbs, Croatians and Swedes, and the South Side became home to one of the nation’s largest Polish populations.