Milwaukee has been a stronghold of cultural diversity since long before it became a city. The Menominee and Ho-Chunk were the dominant tribes in the region until the 1600s, when a wave of newcomers migrated from the east: Fox, Sauk, Ottawa, Ojibwe and—most numerous of all—Potawatomi.
Photo courtesy of Hildegard H. Hundt
In the 1830s, another wave of settlers from the east, most of them born in New York and New England, pushed out the Native Americans and planted a city. By 1860, they, too, were outnumbered, this time by immigrants coming directly from Europe. Milwaukee became the most German big city in America, but Irish, Scandinavian, and Czech families were present in large numbers of well.
Industrial expansion attracted immigrants from southern and eastern Europe in the later 1800s. Poles were the city’s second-largest ethnic community by 1900, and a host of other groups joined them, including Italian, Greek, Jewish, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian.
A booming economy and curbs on immigration led to a dramatic rise in the numbers of African Americans and Latinos in the 1920s, and both groups have expanded steadily in the years since World War II. In recent decades, the range of ethnic groups has broadened to include Southeast Asians, Russian Jews, East Indians, and a United Nations of other backgrounds. Once a predominantly European city, Milwaukee has become a thoroughly cosmopolitan community, and it is the abundance of Ethnic Stories that tell the story of the city as a whole.
Although broader cultural movements shaped the city’s character most decisively, individuals have played leading roles as well. Milwaukee has had an unusually colorful cast of Historical Figures, including rogues and reformers, engineers and entrepreneurs, and saints and sinners, several of whom earned fame far beyond the city’s borders.