When I think about the name “Milwaukee”, all I can think about is the scene from Wayne’s World when Alice Cooper says “Actually, it’s pronounced ‘mill-e-wah-que’ which is Algonquin for ‘the good land’.”
I decided to do some digging to see if this is true.
According to an 1881 issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel, the name came from the man-wau plant, which only grew in the Milwaukee area. The man-wau plant was extremely valuable because of its aromas; it also had high trade value, due to its use for medicinal purposes in the northern Chippewa Nation. If a land had a lot of the man-wau root, it was considered by the Native Americans of Wisconsin to be “a good land.”
The problem with this idea is that botanists have yet to find a plant which such properties, which ultimately lead to a questioning of the origins of the name.
Even without this plant, the Native Americans believed Milwaukee was such “a good land” that they made it the site for religious festivals, some that would even last days. Because of this, the name Milwaukee is synonymous with “peace and reconciliation” or “council grounds” as well. Milwaukee was a land to make treaties and not war, and in fact has been a City of Festivals for hundreds of years.
Milwaukee’s designation as the “good land” appears to be common Native American knowledge, meaning it’s likely that multiple Wisconsin tribes contributed to the name, not just the Algonquin. Despite the Native American roots, the name “Milwaukee” ultimately took on a European pronunciation we use today.
I think “the good land” is great description for the city many of us call home.