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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Solomon Juneau, Milwaukee’s Founding Father

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Solomon Juneau, Milwaukee’s first mayor, scores pretty high as far as founding fathers go. Born in 1793 in Repentigny, Quebec Province, Canada, a small farming community near Montreal, Juneau signed up as a voyageur at the age of 15 or 16. Voyageurs were crew members hired to man canoes that carried trade goods and supplies to wilderness posts where they were exchanged for furs. It was common employment for most boys in that area. It required a tremendous amount of strength and stamina to maneuver a 40-foot-long canoe capable of carrying 4 tons of cargo and eight men. According to Milwaukee historian John Gurda, the classic Canadian route into the interior covered 900 miles and took a month to complete.

While his early career is nearly impossible to reconstruct, the Wisconsin Historical Society believes Juneau was on Mackinac Island (at the time, Michilimackinac) in 1816 when he found employment as a clerk for Jacques Vieau. Vieau was a trader working for the American Fur Co. who had his headquarters at Green Bay and a string of trading posts along the western shore of Lake Michigan, including one post on the Menomonee River at the present site of Milwaukee.

In 1818, Juneau came to Milwaukee as Vieau’s clerk and protégé, and stayed with Vieau’s large family in their cramped log cabin located above the Menomonee Valley in today’s Mitchell Park. It is believed Vieau had at least 12 children, including a daughter named Josette who was of French and Menominee ancestry. She was 17 when she and Juneau married in 1820. Juneau and his bride moved out to one of Vieau’s trading posts in southern Wisconsin after their marriage, but returned to Milwaukee in 1825, where Juneau, like his father-in-law, worked for American Fur. Solomon opened a trading post at the present intersection of Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue above the mouth of the Milwaukee River, and it quickly became the busiest in the region.

Juneau developed a strong relationship with his tribal trading partners, and had a reputation as "one of Nature's noblemen." He spoke Potawatomi and Menominee fluently, and learned to speak English the same year he became an American citizen, in 1831.

In the 1830s, speculators from out east arrived with intentions of building a city on the swamp that covered central Milwaukee. Juneau adapted to the changing game, transitioning from furs to real estate. In 1833 he formed a partnership with Morgan Martin, an influential Green Bay lawyer, to develop a village on the east side of the Milwaukee River. In 1835, Juneau claimed a pre-emptive right to the land he had been living on seasonally (Green Bay was the trader’s permanent residence until the mid-’30s), divided his holding into lots and began to sell them to settlers. That year, Juneau erected a two-story house and a store, and became Milwaukee’s first postmaster. The next year, he and Martin built Milwaukee County (formed the year before) its first courthouse on the north end of what is now Cathedral Square. In the same year, they constructed the Milwaukee (or Bellevue) House, a four-story hotel on the corner of Wisconsin and Broadway. Juneau began publication of The Milwaukee Sentinel in 1837, the same year the village government was organized, and he became trustee and village president.

In 1846, Juneau was elected the first mayor of Milwaukee, but chose not to run for a second term. He had generously contributed to any cause that might forward the town’s growth (including donating land for St. Peter's Catholic Church, St. John's Cathedral, the first government lighthouse, and the Milwaukee Female Seminary), and was no longer a wealthy man. He devoted himself to repairing his personal fortune and, in 1848, moved to Dodge County and founded a settlement named Theresa (after his mother), where he had established a trading post as early as 1833. Juneau opened both a general store and a gristmill, and continued to trade with American Indians.

Josette died in 1855, and Juneau was reportedly devastated by the loss. Less than a year later, while on a trip to the Menominee Reservation in northern Wisconsin, Juneau died of what is believed to be acute appendicitis. There was great sorrow among the American Indians, and the chiefs summoned all the braves to attend Juneau’s funeral service, including the burial behind the Menominee Council House. Juneau’s children retrieved their father’s body and brought it back to Milwaukee, where he was honored with the largest funeral its citizens had witnessed up to that point. According to “Solomon Juneau: Milwaukee’s First Mayor” by Marion Lawson, the grieving Menominee followed Juneau’s body as far as Shawano, then “returned to plant an evergreen in the empty grave so that Juneau’s spirit might remain with them always.” Solomon and Josette Juneau are buried in Calvary Cemetery in Milwaukee, and a statue stands in his honor in Juneau Park overlooking Lake Michigan.

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