Milwaukee: Beautiful then and now

In places, the Milwaukee River still looks much as it did when Native Americans were the only residents. Photo by Carl Swanson

In places the Milwaukee River still looks much as it did when Native Americans were the only residents. Photo by Carl Swanson

James S. Buck was one of Milwaukee’s first white settlers. In his later years, he wrote a four-volume history of the founding and growth of the city. In the following passage, Buck describes the land as it was when he encountered it, when the area was still part of Michigan Territory.

 This description will, I think, give a very correct idea of the appearance of Milwaukee in a state of nature. To say that it was simply beautiful does not express it; it was more than beautiful – those bluffs, so round and bold, covered with just sufficient timber to shade them well, and from whose tops could be seen the lake extending beyond the reach of human vision, while between them ran the river, like a silver thread; not the filthy sewer it is today, but a clear stream, in which the Indian could detect and spear fish at the depth of 12 and even 18 feet, and upon whose surface sparkled the rays of the morning sun, as upon a mirror. No wonder it had received the appellation of the Beautiful Land. I certainly have never seen a more beautiful spot upon the entire lakeshore. Yea, and it is beautiful today, but its beauty today and in 1836 are different. The former was the work of God, the latter of man. – A Pioneer History of Milwaukee, From the First American Settlement in 1833 to 1841, James S. Buck, Swain & Tate publishers, 1890. 

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James S. Buck

James S. Buck

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