Milwaukee Natives, Part II (Milwaukee Color)
A “Council Place” on “Good Land” Near the “Gathering Place of the Rivers”
Even before they arrived in Wisconsin, Europeans had already begun to alter the lives of American Indians in the region.Farther east, the Algonquin-speaking tribes and their French allies were in a fierce war with the Iroquois (a confederacy also referred to as the Five Nations that was originally comprised of the Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga and Seneca Nations) and their Dutch allies. Driven to monopolize the fur trade, expand their territory and divert French sources of supply, the Iroquois raged a brutal campaign against the tribes of the interior in the mid-17th century.
According to The Making of Milwaukeeby John Gurda, “In one of the great but virtually untracked migrations in American history, thousands of residents from modern-day Ontario, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana poured into Wisconsin, seeking refuge behind the barrier of Lake Michigan.” The Ho-Chunk and Menomi nee tribes of Wisconsin were forced to accommodate refugee nations including the Sauk, Mascouten, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa, Meskwaki (Fox) and a small number of the surviving Huron.
European fur traders followed the Algonquians west. There had been few light-skinned visitors to the area since French fur trader Jean Nicolet stopped by in the summer of 1634. By the 1670s, however, there was a virtual highway of fur trade that started at the top of Lake Michigan and ran in a big loop from Green Bay, across the state to the Mississippi River, south to the Illinois River, up to Chicago and then up the Lake Michigan shoreline back to Green Bay. According to Gurda, the earliest mention of Milwaukee dates from 1679, when a French Franciscan missionary visited a village of Fox and Mascoutens at the mouth of the “Melleoki” River. Later visitors wrote of mixed settlements of Sauk, Potawatomi, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa and Menominee families living within at least nine villages in the Milwaukee area.
In the same way the Meskwaki came to be called the Fox and the Ojibwe the Chippewa, the original name and meaning of Milwaukee was lost in translation. It has been referred to as: Minewaak, Mahnawauk, Meneawkee, Milowages, Milwarck, Miniwaaking, Minoaki, Milouakik, Melleorki, Meolaki and Milwacky. Its present pronunciation wasn’t locked down until the early 1800s and it was officially “Milwaukee” in 1844. Because there is no “L” in the Algonquian languages of the region, native speakers don’t know the literal translation of Milwaukee. It has been interpreted as “council place,” “good land” and “gathering place of the rivers.”
The fur trade was the major engine of change for the American Indians in Milwaukee. They would trade the abundance of their land, most famously beaver pelts, for imported goods like muskets, animal traps and tools. Fueled by French brandy, followed by English rum and then American whiskey, the native people started to become dangerously dependent on European material culture. After five decades of relative peace, the Milwaukee tribes became involved in a series of conflicts starting in the mid-18th century that would ultimately result in the restructuring of the country’s political geography. The consequences for the American Indian would be tragic. (To be continued.)
Milwaukee’s Indian Summer Festival
Sept. 11-13, 2009 200 N. Harbor Drive/ Milwaukee/ 414-604-1000/ www.indiansummer.org