Solomon Juneau, Milwaukee’s Founding Father
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.
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
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.