French Milwaukee

By Carl Baehr

Milwaukee’s European roots are French. Nearly three and a half centuries ago, in 1674, a Frenchman, Jacques Marquette, a priest and explorer, became the first European to set foot in Milwaukee, when it was part of the French colony known as New France. He landed near what is now Pere Marquette Park in downtown Milwaukee. 

During the next century, French Canadians followed. Men with names like La Framboise, Mirandeau, Le Claire, La Croix, and Beaubien came and traded with Indians for animal pelts. A trading post was established near the present-day Domes in Mitchell Park in the 1790s by Jacques Vieau. In the mid-1820s, Vieau’s son-in-law, Solomon Juneau, the last of the French-Canadian fur traders, built his home at E. Wisconsin Avenue and N. Water Street. In the mid-1830s, Juneau and his business partner, Morgan Martin, drew up their plans for a town east of the Milwaukee River that today includes East Town and the Historic Third Ward. Solomon Juneau is considered the city’s founder and was elected its first mayor.

In 1837, Juneau and Martin donated land for the public to use, land that we know today as Cathedral Square and that is the centerpiece of Bastille Days. Over 40,000 area residents claim French ancestry but people of all ethnicities enjoy the city’s biggest French festival held each July.