The man who started Milwaukee

Solomon Juneau stands on the shore of Lake Michigan and looks across the city he founded. The first permanent white settler of the city, Juneau was also a friend to the Menomonee Indians, the city's first mayor, and the father of 15 children. Photo by Carl Swanson

Solomon Juneau stands on the shore of Lake Michigan and looks across the city he founded. A fur trader turned city founder, Juneau was also a friend to the Menomonee Indians, the city’s first mayor, and the father of 17 children. Photo by Carl Swanson

A recent Saturday visit found Juneau Park host to an interesting cross-section of the city. A man admired the view of Lake Michigan from a bench, a couple kissed under the trees one of them recording the moment with a video camera held at arm’s length. At a picnic table a man dressed in many layers of shabby clothing, surrounded by boxes and bags of his belongings, quietly read a newspaper. Three people tossed a Frisbee in an open area. And a strolling couple paused to look at an imposing statue. “Who’s Solomon Juneau?” one asked, reading the name on the pedestal.

Milwaukeeans. Photo by Carl Swanson

Juneau’s memorial accurately depicts his customary garb. The sash shown around his waist was a favorite garment. Vivid red in color, it was a treasured gift from his Indian friends. Photo by Carl Swanson

The short answer: He was a fur trader who turned a lone cabin in the wilderness into a thriving city. He developed the downtown and the East Side parts of the city, He built the first courthouse and donated it to the city. He was Milwaukee’s first mayor and its first postmaster.

And that’s just scratching the surface. He made a massive fortune and lost it all. He had 17 children. When he died, chiefs of the Menomonee Nation served as his pallbearers.

This first Milwaukeean was French Canadian, born near Montreal, Canada, on August 9th, 1793. (He became a U.S. citizen in 1831.) Contemporaries describe him as more than 6 feet tall, broad shouldered, with grey eyes and long black hair.

He had worked as a voyageur in his youth, finding his way to Mackinac, where he was hired in 1816 by fur trader Jacques Vieau, who conducted an extensive business from his headquarters at Green Bay, including a trading post at Milwaukee. In 1818, Juneau arrived in Milwaukee as Vieau’s representative. He also married his employer’s oldest daughter, Josette. The couple went on to have 17 children.

Shortly before her death, Josette Juneau sat for this portrait.

Shortly before her death, Josette Juneau sat for this portrait.

Josette is just as interesting as her husband. The granddaughter of a Menomonee chief, Josette’s innumerable acts of kindness and charity made her a beloved figure among Native Americans. For example, she alway kept a barrel of flour and a barrel of sugar outside her cabin door. Indians in need of food but too shy to ask could simply help themselves. Fluent in several Indian dialects, she rarely spoke English – French was the primary language in the Juneau household. For much of her life she preferred to dress in traditional Indian garb. 

The Juneaus were not the first Europeans to visit Milwaukee. Jean Nicollet was here, probably, in 1639, and Father Pierre Marquette dropped in briefly in 1674. Other Europeans stayed in the area a few months or a few years to trade with the Indians before moving on.

Like Vieau before him, Juneau probably spent his summers elsewhere, turning in the furs he purchased over winter and restocking his trade goods, but Juneau was the first of those early visitors to Milwaukee to see the potential of the area. With a business partner from Green Bay, Juneau purchased 130 acres north of today’s Wisconsin Avenue and east of the Milwaukee River in 1835 and began selling lots.

In addition to selling land, he frequently gave it away. He contributed land for a lighthouse, a Catholic Church, and both land and building materials for Milwaukee’s first courthouse. Solomon and Josette also donated land and building materials to the impoverished, reasoning that even poor people needed a home.

Here’s how George William Bruce describes Juneau in his 1918 book Milwaukee’s Century of Progress:

Sturdy honesty was an inseparable part of the man. His peaceful dealings with the Indians, in which written contracts were never employed, broken promises unknown, and every bargain carried out to the letter, stood out in striking contrast to the scheming methods resorted to by some of the young Anglo-Saxons, his contemporaries, who had been reared in an atmosphere of ‘culture’ and ‘morality.’ Fair dealings had won wealth for Juneau, but the sharp practices of his contemporaries, it is said, rendered him poor again.

Solomon Juneau at age 60.

Solomon Juneau at age 60.

Juneau believed the place where the rivers met Lake Michigan would become a great city – and he wasn’t the only one. About the same time Juneau was buying land on the East Side, Byron Kilbourn, was developing Kilbourn Town west of the Milwaukee River, and George H. Walker had purchased land south of downtown and founded Walker’s Point.

Much of the city’s early history is marked by the not-so-friendly rivalry between these communities. But in the speech he gave on leaving office as mayor in 1847, Juneau struck an optimistic note:

When I first set foot on this soil some 30 years ago, I little thought that during my age and generation I should behold such a sight as now presents itself. … The wigwam is supplanted by massive and ornamental structures. The place of the bark canoe, which was then the only craft that floated upon the waters of the noble river that meanders through the heart of your city, has been filled by the hundreds of vessels, propelled by both steam and wind, which now annually visit our shores and enter our harbor, laden with the commerce of the east, and which bear away the surplus produce of Wisconsin. Here we behold a city of 12,000 inhabitants, with her beautiful streets and walks, her fair gardens, her splendid buildings, and her intelligent and enterprising population, where 11 years ago the soil was unbroken.

A replica of Juneau's original cabin was added to his namesake park in the 1940s. Photo by Rachel Swanson

A replica of Juneau’s original cabin was added to his namesake park in the 1940s. Photo by Rachel Swanson

By the time he left office as mayor, Juneau was no longer a rich man and divided his time between Milwaukee and Theresa, a village he founded on the Rock River, 40 miles north of Milwaukee.

In 1855, Josette Juneau, who had been ailing for some time, died. She was 50 years old.

Early settler Uriel B. Smith left this memory of Josette:

My child, Milwaukee Smith, was born October 10, 1835. She was the first white child born in Milwaukee, and Mrs. Juneau was present at her birth, and attended upon my wife in such a kind and motherly manner as to win the love and esteem of my wife as well as myself. Mrs. Juneau was also an attendant and watcher at the death bed of my wife some two years after. For such services rendered to my wife during her sickness, I offered ample remuneration, which was immediately declined – she saying to me, “Such services were due all, and, that too, without consideration.” Such incidents can never be forgotten. I trust that Milwaukee today has her equal – I know it has not her superior.

According to the winter 1957-58 issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, Juneau set off to visit the Menomonee in northern Wisconsin a year after Josette’s death. A tribal gathering was taking place and Juneau planned to do a little trading and catch up with his old friends. On arriving at Keshena, Wisconsin, he became ill with symptoms that suggest appendicitis.

After receiving last rites from a Catholic priest, Juneau remarked to a friend, “It is hard to die here. I had hoped to lay my bones in Milwaukee.” Then, folding his hands and with a peaceful expression on his face, he said his final words, “I come to join you, my wife.” Juneau died on November 14, 1856.


And you ask me for his message. Read it in a life’s work well accomplished. – C.A.A McGee, Solomon Juneau’s grandson

Grieving tribal members, the Wisconsin History article records, arranged one of the most impressive funerals in the state’s history. With a priest leading the way, Juneau’s casket was carried by 10 pallbearers, at least four of whom were Native American chiefs (one being Chief Oshkosh). The casket was followed by all the males of tribe, about 700, marching silently in orderly ranks.

He was initially laid to rest in a grave atop a hill behind the Menomonee’s council house. When Juneau’s children arrived to take his body back to Milwaukee. Indians escorted the remains as far as Shawano and, on their their return, planted an evergreen tree in Juneau’s open grave, saying his spirit would remain with the tribe always.

solomon_juneau_grave

When Juneau’s body reached Milwaukee a funeral Mass was held at St. John’s Cathedral and he was buried in the “Old Cemetery.” Following the purchase of the land that became Calvary Cemetery on the west side, Solomon Juneau was moved again. In 1946, the Milwaukee Common Council commissioned this memorial. Photo by Carl Swanson

Solomon and Josette Juneau rest side-by-side in Milwaukee's Calvary Cemetery. Photo by Carl Swanson

Solomon and Josette Juneau rest side-by-side in Milwaukee’s Calvary Cemetery. Of the couple, a contemporary wrote, “They united in their personality those qualities of unselfishness, generosity, Christianity, nobility of purpose, and good will toward all mankind, rarely, if ever, found in any one individual.” Photo by Carl Swanson


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