The Founding Fathers of Milwaukee

Milwaukee waterfront shout
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The founding of Milwaukee is often credited to three men, and the names of each are already well-known in Milwaukee vernacular today -- even if we don't know why. They are Solomon Juneau (Juneau Street), Byron Kilbourn (Kilbourn Street) and George Walker (Walker's Point neighborhood). These three early settlers each erected villages around the confluence of the Milwaukee, Menominee and Kinnickinnic Rivers. Juneautown was between Lake Michigan and the east bank of the Milwaukee River, Kilbourntown was on the west bank, and to the south was Walker's Point.

All three of these settlements remain today distinct neighborhoods, though Juneautown is today better known as East Town.

From the outset of their establishment in the mid 1830s, both Juneautown and Kilbourntown were at odds. Both villages struggled for independence, and continually attempted to overshadow the other. Despite this, in 1846, the two villages, along with the Walker's Point, incorporated as the City of Milwaukee.

Solomon Juneau

Solomon Juneau was the first of the three to settle in the area and buy land. According to the Milwaukee County Historical Society Milwaukee timeline, Solomon Juneau came to Milwaukee from Montreal in 1818 to work as an assistant to Jacques Vieau, a local agent for the American Fur Trading Company. Vieau maintained a fur trading post on the east side of the Milwaukee River, and although he did not live here year-round, he and his family are considered the first residents of Milwaukee. Juneau eventually married Vieau’s daughter, and according the the Wisconsin Historical Society's Dictionary of Wisconsin History, built the first log house in Milwaukee in 1822, and the first frame building in 1824.

In 1835, the first public land sale of Milwaukee area takes place at Green Bay, and Juneau acquires, for $165.82, a tract of 132.65 acres east of Milwaukee River. Juneau soon platted these lots, and began selling them to settlers.

By 1835 Juneau was on a building frenzy, having erected a two-story house, a store, and a hotel. In that same year, Juneau was appointed postmaster, and in 1837 he began publication of the Milwaukee Sentinel. Juneau helped build the first courthouse, and he donated the land for St. Peter's Catholic Church, St. John's Cathedral, the first government lighthouse, and for Milwaukee Female Seminary. Milwaukee became a city in 1846, and Juneau was elected mayor, two years before Wisconsin was granted statehood in 1848.

Byron Kilbourn

Byron Kilbourn, a surveyor from Connecticut, arrived in Milwaukee in 1835. The following year, he purchased 160 acres of land west of the Milwaukee River, across from Juneautown. Both men were quite enterprising, and both communities began to thrive. In 1837, both Juneautown and Kilbourntown were incorporated as villages.

To promote his village, Kilbourn helped launch the Milwaukee Advertiser newspaper in 1936. In that same year, Kilbourn also built Milwaukee's first bridge. However, this bridge was built at an angle since Kilbourn refused to line up his street grid with those of Juneautown (a quirky decision that is still visible when traversing downtown streets today). According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Juneau also actively promoted the Milwaukee and Rock River Canal Co., which would have connected the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, sponsored Milwaukee harbor improvement, boat building, the Milwaukee Claim Association, and the Milwaukee County Agricultural Society.

George Walker

George Walker was a Virginian who arrived in Milwaukee in 1933, where he worked as a fur trader in the area south of Kilbourn and Juneau's establishments. Here he claimed a section of land -- which he eventually gained title to in 1849 -- and erected a cabin and warehouse. The supposed located of this cabin was at what is now the south end of the Water Street Bridge.

Compared to Kilbourn and Juneau, there is considerably less written about Walker -- perhaps because he wasn't part of the notorious east vs. west war waged by the two other founders. Moreover, his area developed less slowly than those of his northern neighbors, and their villages ultimately became the area that today comprises the economic and entertainment heart of Milwaukee, with Walker's area today being the northernmost point of Milwaukee's southside -- an interesting district in it's own right, but one that today still retains much of its early industrial flavor.

Despite this, Walker was still an influential business and political leader. He was a member of the lower house of the territorial legislature from 1842-1845, and later state assemblyman. He was also twice Milwaukee mayor, in 1851 and 1853 (Solomon Juneau was mayor in 1846, and Byron Kilbourn in 1848 and 1854). Walker was also an early promoter of Milwaukee area railroad ventures, as well as builder of the city's first street car line.