History of Waukesha 2018-01-22T20:25:43+00:00

History of Waukesha

The original founders of Waukesha consisted entirely of settlers from New England. They were part of a wave of New England farmers who headed west into what was then the wilds of the Northwest Territory during the early 1800s. When they arrived in what is now Waukesha County there was nothing but dense virgin forest and wild prairie, the New Englanders laid out farms, constructed roads, erected government buildings and established post routes. They brought with them many of their Yankee New England values, such as a passion for education and established many schools. You can see many of these early buildings by taking a walk in downtown Waukesha. The school system is still a huge draw for many to move to the Waukesha area. By 1846, the area was incorporated as the village of Prairieville. On February 8, 1847, the village changed its name to “Waukesha,” and in 1896, incorporated as a city.

Waukesha’s name

Waukesha comes from the Ojibwe proper name Waagoshag or the Potawatomi name Wau-tsha. Wau-tsha (sometimes written as Wauk-tsha or Wauke-tsha) who was the leader of the local tribe at the time of the first European settlement of the area. This is confirmed by accounts of Increase A. Lapham, an early settler and historian of the region. According to Lapham, the word for “fox” was pishtaka. Cutler also told visitors about Wau-tsha, who was described as “tall and athletic, proud in his bearing, dignified and friendly.”

“Spring City”

Waukesha was known as “Spring City” thanks to an account by author Kristine Adams Wendt. In 1868, Colonel Richard Dunbar, a sufferer of diabetes, chanced upon the medicinal properties of what he later named the Bethesda Spring while viewing a parcel of land recently purchased by his sister. Testimonials found in a Dunbar brochure of 1873 proclaimed the miraculous benefits.

The “healing waters” were so valued that a controversial attempt was made to build a pipeline between the city and Chicago so that they could be enjoyed by visitors to the 1893 Columbian Exposition According to Time magazine, the scheme had been conceived by one Charles Welsh who had been given the springs by his uncle, but after several miles of pipe were laid, it was discovered that the cost was too great.

Those springs are not a part of Waukesha anymore but the town does enjoy the presence of the Fox River as it winds its way through the downtown area as well as well as throughout the county. You will often find kayakers on the river and families picnicking beside the river.

Les Paul – The Wizard of Waukesha

If you walk in the downtown area, you will start to see a theme of guitars and Les Paul and you may be wondering about the connection. A Waukesha resident, Les Paul, considered the father of the solid-body electric guitar, was both an iconic guitar player and inventor. In the early 1950s, Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford created 36 gold records. His lightning-fast guitar playing along with unique trills, chording sequences and fretting techniques mesmerized musicians and music-lovers. At the same time, Les experimented with recording techniques and used his cutting-edge developments to create a new sound.