Discover Historic Waterways

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Before Wisconsin became a state in 1848, it was territory mapped by federal land surveyors preparing for public land sales. Surveying the land into a grid of square townships and subdivided plots encouraged speculation, settlement, and development following widespread displacement of Native Americans. The Milwaukee area was initially surveyed in 1835, with more work in 1836 and 1837. (Ever notice how there are major arterial streets roughly every mile apart? This is a legacy of the surveyors’ gridlines.)

The maps and field notes from these surveys provide invaluable historical context about Milwaukee’s geography, hydrology, and ecology prior to urban development. Thanks to the mapping team at MMSD, who adapted a digital layer from the maps held by the Wisconsin Commissioner of Public Lands, you can now explore where surveyors noted historic waterways in our area. You’ll notice many more tributaries into the three major rivers, as well as areas denoted as wetlands, marsh, or swamp. Over time many of these areas were filled with land and many of the river channels straightened.

Access the Milwaukee Community Map in Google Earth Pro on Desktop, then toggle on the Basemaps section and fill in the circle by “Historic Water Maps.” There are two layers. The first is from the 1830s federal land surveys described above. The second is from roughly 60 years later based on USGS surveys. Can you find where waterways used to be near your home or neighborhood?