Ethnic Roots

Native American tribes were drawn to the area due to its rich vegetation and location at the intersection of three rivers and Lake Michigan. The Algonquians, Potawatomis, and Ojibwe named the area “Millioke,” “Ominowakiing,” and “Manwaking,” all variations of “good land” and “gathering place by the water.” French fur traders and missionaries established a trading post here in the late 17th and 18th centuries, followed by waves of European immigrants, who began settling in Milwaukee in the 1800s.

In 1846, three sometimes warring founding fathers – Solomon Juneau, Byron Kilbourn, and George Walker – set aside their differences and incorporated their neighboring towns as the city of Milwaukee.

In the mid-1800s, Milwaukee became a mecca for German, English, Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants, each preferring to settle in their own neighborhoods. Lured by German brew masters and industrialists to their burgeoning breweries, tanneries, flour mills, and heavy equipment manufacturing, German immigrants made up one third of the city's population by 1850. By 1890, Germans had developed their own society within Milwaukee, complete with German-language newspapers, schools, churches, singing societies, and political groups.

The Polish community was rooted in Milwaukee’s south side, where Polish churches, stores, bakeries, and schools helped to form a close-knit society all its own. Italians settled in what is now the Historic Third Ward and along Brady Street, specializing in fresh produce, groceries, bakeries and trades, and Irish and English were known for their roles in city government and the legal professions.

Almost every European country was represented in Milwaukee’s immigration history, leading up to the later arrival of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian immigrants.

Today, Milwaukee has proven itself to be a place where people with ethnic roots from all over the world come together to form a community of great cultural diversity. The 75-acre lakefront Henry Maier Festival Park hosts ethnic festivals all summer long, among them the largest festivals of their kind in the U.S. – German Fest, Polish Fest, and Irish Fest.

Beer Stein

A glimpse into our story Meet Milwaukee

An exhibit at the Historical Society

A glimpse into our story

Meet Milwaukee

An exhibit at the Historical Society

Milwaukee County Historical Society

Architectural landmark building exhibiting rotating displays on Milwaukee County's culture, architecture and significant events/people. Extensive research library. Guided tours by appointment. Private party facility rental.

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Jewish Museum Milwaukee

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee's mission is to preserve and present the Jewish experience through the lens of Greater Milwaukee, and to celebrate the continuum of Jewish heritage and culture. 

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Wisconsin Black Historical Society & Museum

The Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum hosts a variety of exhibits that speak to the contributions of African Americans to Milwaukee and Wisconsin. See the world unfold in a fourteen-panel mural tracing African Americans from Egypt to Milwaukee, learn about the history of civil rights in Wisconsin and more.

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Take a walk

with history

Experience Milwaukee's history on a walking tour lead by Historic Milwaukee! For just $10, you'll learn about Milwaukee's architecture, neighborhoods, and fascinating historical tidbits you can use to impress people at cocktail parties.

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