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Milwaukee City Guide

By David A. Fryxell Premium

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.

Milling time

Industrialization accelerated in the latter 1800s. By 1856, Milwaukee was home to more than two-dozen breweries, most German-owned. Soon it boasted four of the world’s largest breweries—Miller, Schlitz, Pabst and Blatz—and remained the leading beer producer for years. Today, the Miller brewery is the oldest major US brewery in operation and microbreweries carry on the Brew City tradition.
The milling industry also took advantage of Wisconsin’s agricultural bounty and Milwaukee’s proximity to lake shipping and the Chicago market. By the 1860s, Milwaukee led the world in shipping wheat. Other industries followed, including farm machinery, automobile frames and motorcycles. In 1903, Arthur and Walter Davidson and William S. Harley built their first motorized bicycle.Today Harley-Davidson is still headquartered in Milwaukee.
Jobs brought African-Americans from the South. They settled in the Bronzeville neighborhood, near today’s Old World Third Street and Martin Luther King Drive. Its jazz clubs earned it the moniker “Harlem of the Midwest.”

Brewing up records

Post-WWII Milwaukee has suffered many of the urban woes affecting other Rust Belt cities, but revitalization in historic neighborhoods, along with a reputation as the City of Festivals, make it an inviting place for roots research. Many of those fests—Bastille Days, Polish Fest, Festa Italiana, German Fest, African World Festival, Irish Fest and Mexican Fiesta—celebrate the city’s ethnic heritage. Explore your own happy days in the Cream City with these resources.

Vital records: Wisconsin required vital record-keeping in 1852, but few areas complied before 1907. Luckily, Milwaukee County was among the state’s first to begin keeping vital records, in the early to mid-1800s. The Register of Deeds holds birth records back to the 1850s, marriage records to the 1830s and death records to 1872. The Family History Library (FHL) has microfilm of births starting in 1854; marriages in 1836 and deaths in 1852.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) Libraries has microform birth indexes (1823-1932) and registers (1854-1911), delayed birth registrations (1850-1907) and registrations of births including neighboring counties (1852-1907). Death records include Milwaukee County indexes (1872-1916) and registers (1852 -1912), and indexes and registers for neighboring counties (1852-1907). Marriage records include indexes (1830-1918), certificates (1836-1876) and registers (1836-1911) for Milwaukee County, plus neighboring counties’ indexes (1852-1907) and registers (1836-1907).
The Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) in Madison offers an online index to births, deaths and marriages registered statewide before September 1907. For later statewide records, turn to the Department of Health Services in Madison.

Censuses: Territorial censuses from 1836, 1838, 1840, 1842, 1846 and 1847 can reveal early Milwaukee arrivals. These are available, with indexes, at the WHS, Milwaukee County Historical Society (MCHS) and FHL. Most are also on

State censuses, taken every 10 years from 1855 to 1905, are available at the WHS, on FHL microfilm (except 1865) and online at has the 1895 and 1905 state census indexes. The MCHS has the 1905 state census, which is the most detailed.
Wisconsin was included with Michigan in the 1820 and 1830 federal enumerations. The first federal census to cover Wisconsin as a state was in 1850.
Church and cemetery records: Both MCHS and UWM have significant collections of local church records dating to the early 1800s, and the university library also has some cemetery records. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee, covering the area’s large Roman Catholic population, doesn’t allow in-person searching of its archives, but accepts mail and online requests.
You can search a database of Archdiocese cemetery records, including records at the oldest Catholic cemetery in the city—Calvary Cemetery. Find other church records dating from the mid-1800s on FHL microfilm. The Forest Home Cemetery, one of the oldest in the city, dates to 1850 and is the burial place of many early and prominent citizens.
City directories: City directories can help trace families as Milwaukee grew. The MCHS has directories spanning 1847 to 1990, 1992 to 1993, 1996 to 1997 and 2002. Find many Milwaukee directories dating as far back as 1847 on FHL microfilm, and on for years 1861 to 1885.
Naturalization: The MCHS has naturalization papers and indexes covering 1836 to 1941. The UWM Libraries has naturalization records for neighboring Ozaukee, Sheboygan, Washington and Waukesha counties.
Military records: Although Milwaukee had been a city for less than two decades when the Civil War started, and Wisconsin achieved statehood only in 1848, the state sent 90,000 soldiers to fight for the Union. The WHS has online databases of Wisconsin volunteers, as well as veterans censuses in 1885, 1895 and 1905. 
Newspapers: The WHS has the second-largest collection of historical newspapers in the United States, including 1,600 Wisconsin titles. Many are microfilmed and available for interlibrary loan. Find an online article database and several local papers on subscription site GenealogyBank; even has German-language titles. The Milwaukee Public Library has a variety of obituaries from local newspapers in its collection.
TIP: Search for ancestors’ names or specific dates in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper’s online archive of articles from 1884 to 2007.

Fast Facts

  • Settled: 1795
  • Incorporated: 1846
  • Nicknames: Cream City, Brew City, Beer Town, City of Festivals, Custard Capital of the World
  • State: Wisconsin
  • County: Milwaukee
  • County seat: Milwaukee
  • Area: 97 square miles
  • Primary historical ethnic groups: African-American, Croatian, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Polish, Serb, Swedish
  • Primary historical industries: Brewing, milling, motorcycles, farm machinery
  • Famous residents:  Caroline Ingalls, Herb Kohl, Liberace, Jim Lovell, Golda Meir, Les Paul, William Rehnquist, Latrell Sprewell, Bud Selig, Spencer Tracy, Bob Uecker, Gene Wilder, Oprah Winfrey


1850: 20,061 
1900: 285,315   
Current: 594,833




  • Cream City Chronicles: Stories of Milwaukee’s Past by John Gurda (Wisconsin Historical Society Press)
  • The Making of Milwaukee by John Gurda (Milwaukee County Historical Society)
  • Milwaukee, WI: Its People, History and Culture Book Collection on CD (THA New Media)
  • Wisconsin: A History by Robert C. Nesbit (University of Wisconsin Press)
  • Wisconsin’s Past and Present: A Historical Atlas by Wisconsin Cartographers’ Guild (University of Wisconsin Press)

Archives & Organizations

200 E. Wells St., Milwaukee, WI 53202,
(414) 286-3456
Jewish Museum Milwaukee
1360 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53202,
(414) 390-5730
Milwaukee County Historical Society
910 N. Old World Third St., Milwaukee, WI 53203,
(414) 273-8288
Milwaukee County Register of Deeds
901 N. Ninth St., Courthouse Room 103, Milwaukee, WI 53233,
(414) 278-4021
Milwaukee Genealogical Society
Box 270326, Milwaukee, WI 53227

Milwaukee Public Library

814 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53233,
(414) 286-3000
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries
2311 E. Hartford Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53201,
(414) 229-4785
Wisconsin Black Historical Society
2620 W. Center St., Milwaukee, WI 53206,
(414) 372-7677

Records at a Glance

Birth records

Begin: 1850s
Privacy restrictions: Researching records from 1939 on requires staff assistance at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WDHS).
Research tips: Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) has pre-1907 records; WDHS has records since 1907.

Death records

Begin: 1872
Privacy restrictions: Researching records from 2003 to present requires staff assistance at WDHS.
Research tips: WHS has pre-1907 records; WDHS has records since 1907.


Begin: 1835
Research tips: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries have 19th century deeds plus indexes of grantees and grantors and of mortgages. The Family History Library has Milwaukee County mortgage records (1836-1916) and deeds (1835-1920).

City directories

Begin: 1847
Research tips: Check the Milwaukee County Historical Society, Family History LIbrary and


Cemetery records

Begin: 1836
Research tips: Search burials in Catholic cemeteries.


Marriage records

Begin: 1830s
Privacy restrictions: Researching records from 1968 on requires staff assistance at WDHS.
Research tips: Registers are arranged by date of volume, then alphabetical by year covered, then by date of marriage. WHS has pre-1907 records; WDHS has records since 1907.

Top 5 Historic Sites

  1. Capt. Frederick Pabst Mansion
    2000 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53233, (414) 931-0808
    The 1892 mansion, listed on the National Register of Historic Homes, has 37 rooms, 12 baths and 14 fireplaces.
  2. Harley-Davidson Museum
    400 W. Canal St., Milwaukee, WI 53201, (414) 287-2789
    Transportation history roars to life in displays of more than 450 motorcycles, artifacts and documents, dating back to Serial Number One, the oldest known Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
  3. Miller Brewery Visitor Center
    4251 W. State St., Milwaukee, WI 53208, (414) 931-2337
    A guided walking tour takes guests through 155 years of the famous brewery’s heritage, from the history of Fredrick Miller’s 1855 arrival in Milwaukee to the high-speed production lines used today. 
  4. Milwaukee Public Museum
    800 W. Wells St., Milwaukee, WI 53233, (414) 278-2728
    One of the largest museums in the United States, it features the Streets of Old Milwaukee, a walk back in time to about 1900 including several shops and two historic residences, in addition to natural history exhibits.
  5. Trimborn Farm
    8881 W. Grange Ave., Greendale, WI 53129, (414) 273-8288
    This former lime quarry and farm includes a Cream City brick farmhouse, one of the last and largest stone barns in Wisconsin, a worker’s bunkhouse, threshing barn and 75-foot kiln.


1674 Father Jacques Marquette visits site of Milwaukee
1795 Fur trading settlement established
1818 Michigan Territory enlarged to include Wisconsin
1845 Milwaukee Bridge War pits Juneautown against Kilbourntown
1855 Fredrick Miller founds Miller Brewing Co.
1868 First commercially successful typewriter invented here
1903 First Harley-Davidson motorized cycle built
1910 Milwaukee elects first Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel
1933 Breweries reopen after Prohibition
1950 First Kopp’s Frozen Custard opens
1981 German, Irish and Polish Fests begin
2001 Miller Park, home to the Milwaukee Brewers, opens

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