- This article is about the Midwest region of the United States. For other meanings, see Mid west.
(United States of America, ND to OH)
The Midwest is a common name for a region of the United States of America. The term originated in the 19th century, along with 'Middle West' and 'Heartland', and referred to generally the same areas and states in the middle of the country. The heart of the Midwest is bounded by the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys, the 'Old Northwest' (or the 'West') referring to the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, which comprised the original Northwest Territory, but are now (somewhat confusingly in this context) called the East North Central States by the United States Census Bureau. The Northwest Territory was created out of the ceded English (formerly French, and Native American) frontier lands by the Continental Congress just before the U.S. Constitution was ratified under the Northwest Ordinance. The Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery and religious discrimination, and promoted public schools and private property. As Revolutionary War soldiers from the original colonies were awarded lands in Ohio and migrated there and to other Midwestern states with other pioneers, including many immigrants from central and northern Europe, the area became the first thoroughly American region. The Midwest region today refers not only to states created from the Northwest Ordinance, but also may include states between the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains and north of the Ohio River.
Though definitions vary, any definition of the Midwest would include the Northwest Ordinance 'Old Northwest' states and often includes many state that were part of the Louisiana Purchase. The state of the Old Northwest are also known as 'Great Lakes states'. Many of the Louisiana Purchase states are also known as Great Plains states. The Midwest is defined, by the U.S. Census Bureau as these 12 states:
Illinois: Old Northwest, Ohio River and Great Lakes state
Indiana: Old Northwest, Ohio River and Great Lakes state
Iowa: Louisiana Purchase
Kansas: Louisiana Purchase, Great Plains and "border state"
Michigan: Old Northwest, and Great Lakes state
Minnesota: eastern part Old Northwest, and Great Lakes state; western part Louisiana Purchase
Missouri: Louisiana Purchase and once, a "border state"
Nebraska: Louisiana Purchase, Great Plains state
North Dakota: Louisiana Purchase, Great Plains state
Ohio: Old Northwest, Ohio River and Great Lakes state
South Dakota: Louisiana Purchase, Great Plains state
Wisconsin: Old Northwest, and Great Lakes state
The region's largest city is Chicago, the nation's third largest city; other important cities in the regions include Cleveland, Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. Those cities and the farms of Kansas and Iowa loom large in any imaginative description of the Midwestern soul.
Because The Northwest Ordinance region, comprising the heart of the Midwest, was the first large region of the United States which prohibited slavery (the Northeastern states emancipated slaves four decades into the 19th century), the region remains culturally apart from the country and proud of its free pioneer heritage. The regional southern boundary was the Ohio River, the border of freedom and slavery in American history and literature (See: Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Beloved, by Toni Morrison).
The region was shaped by freedom from slavery, pioneer spirit, intellectual stimulation in one-room free public schools, and democratic feeling brought with Revolutionary War veterans, Protestant faiths and experimentation, and agricultural wealth disbursed by the Ohio River riverboats, flatboats , canal boats , and railroads. The canals in Ohio and Indiana opened so much of the Midwestern agriculture that it launched the world's greatest population and economic boom foreshadowing later "emerging markets". The commodities that the Midwest funneled into the Erie Canal down the Ohio River led to the great wealth of New York City, which overtook Boston and Philadelphia. New York State would proudly boast of its "Inland empire" — the Midwest — and would become known as the Empire State. The Midwest was predominantly rural at the time of the Civil War, dotted with small farms across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, but industrialization, immigration, and urbanization fed the Industrial Revolution, and the heart of industrial progress became the Great Lakes states of the Midwest. German, Scandinavian, Slavic and African American immigration into the Midwest continued to bolster the population there in the 19th and 20th centuries, though generally the Midwest remains a predominantly diverse, Protestant region.
Midwestern or Heartland influence is felt in Pittsburgh (an old pioneer town), West Virginia (which seceded from Virginia), Louisville (an industrial city on the Ohio River) and, with some irony, in former states where slavery was legal or tolerated before the Civil War, including Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, though most of these cities and states are not truly Midwestern. Parts of Colorado and Utah were settled by Midwestern migrants, and retain some "Heartland feeling", and because of trade ties, the province of Ontario has some cultural affinity to the Midwest. Generally, though, the region is bounded by the Ohio River, through the Great Plains to the Rockies and Canada.
The term West was applied to the region in the early years of the country. During this time, the vast majority of the population lived east of the Appalachian Mountains, but the country's borders stretched west all the way to the Rocky Mountains. Later, the vast region west of the Appalachians was divided into the Far West (now just the West), and the Middle West. Some parts of the Midwest have also been referred to as North West for historical reasons (for instance, this explains the Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines and the former Norwest Bank), so the current Northwest region of the country is called the Pacific Northwest to make a clear distinction.
The Midwest term is used sometimes interchangeably with the Heartland term to refer to "Middle America" and its citizens, "Middle Americans". Heartland states would seem to increasingly include states like Arkansas and Oklahoma, whom Atlanta-based CNN referred as the location of the "tragedy in the Heartland". Because the middle of the country has sometimes lagged the Coasts and Sunbelt states in agriculture and industry, the poverty of Southern border states and the religious character there leads some to include these states, like Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas in a definition of the "Heartland". Many Southerners and Westerners might be included in the "Heartland" definition as well, though strong regional affiliations with the old Confederacy and the Rocky Mountains usually trump those associations.
These states are sometimes denigrated as being relatively flat, either heavily developed into urbanized areas or left in pastoral agriculture, and demarcated by the surveyor's grid imposed by the ordinances, and most easily seen by residents of the coasts in airplanes as they fly over "flyover" country. States like Colorado and Utah sometimes get lumped into the region for these reasons.
Among the westernmost states listed, residents of the eastern agricultural areas generally consider themselves part of the Midwest, while residents of the remaining ranching areas usually do not. Of course, exact boundaries are nebulous and shifting.
The Midwest is a cultural crossroads, and was perhaps the largest American "Melting Pot".
Starting in the 1790s, Revolutionary war veterans and settlers from the original 13 colonies moved there in search of better farmland and religious liberty. The Ulster-Scots Presbyterians of Pennsylvania (often through Virginia) and the Dutch Reformed, Quaker, and Congregationalists of Connecticut were among the earliest pioneers to Ohio and the Midwest, though by the time of the Civil War, European immigrants bypassed the East Coast to settle directly in the interior: German Lutherans to Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and eastern Missouri, Swedes and Norwegians to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and Poles, Hungarians, and German Catholics and Jews to Midwestern cities. In the 20th century, African American migration from the South into the Midwestern states changed cities dramatically, as factories and schools enticed families by the thousands to new opportunities.
The region's fertile soil made it possible for farmers to produce abundant harvests of cereal crops such as corn, oats, and, most importantly, wheat. In the early days, the region was soon known as the nation's "breadbasket".
Two waterways have been important to the Midwest's development. The first and foremost was the Ohio River which flowed into the Mississippi River. Spanish control of the southern part of the Mississippi, and refusal to allow the shipment of American crops down the river and into the Atlantic Ocean, halted the development of the region until 1795.
The river inspired two classic American books written by a native Missourian, Samuel Clemens, who took the pseudonym Mark Twain: Life on the Mississippi and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Today, Twain's stories have become staples of Midwestern lore.
The second waterway is the network of routes within the Great Lakes. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 completed an all-water shipping route, more direct than the Mississippi, to New York and the seaport of New York City. Lakeport cities grew up to handle this new shipping route. During the Industrial Revolution, the lakes became a conduit for iron ore from the Mesabi Range of Minnesota to steel mills in the Mid-Atlantic States. The Saint Lawrence Seaway later opened the Midwest to the Atlanic Ocean.
Inland canals in Ohio and Indiana constituted another great waterway, which connected into the Great Lakes and Ohio River traffic.
Education is another of the region's strongest legacies. Top ranking universities include Ohio State University, Ball State University, and Notre Dame University among many others. A cluster of top-ranking liberal arts colleges in the Midwest include Oberlin College, Carleton College, Macalester College, Grinnell College, Kenyon College, Ohio Wesleyan University, Denison University and Earlham College. Despite the more conservative mores of the region, several leftist liberal arts colleges such as Antioch College are located in the Midwest.
Midwesterners are alternately viewed as open, friendly, and straightforward, or stereotyped as unsophisticated and stubborn. The former values probably stem from the freedom-loving heritage of the free states in the region, and from belief in widespread education and tolerance. The latter values probably stem from the stalwart Calvinist heritage of the Midwestern Protestants and pioneers who settled the area, and in the mind of people on the coasts, this continuing religious appeal strikes many as anti-intellectual. For the religious adherents, though, this heritage is loving and inspirational. The Midwest remains a melting pot of Protestantism and Calvinism, mistrustful of authority and power.
The Bible Belt, some say, starts in the South and ends in the Midwest. In fact, religious attendance is lowest in the United States in the Industrialized Midwest and in the Southeast, and highest in coastal cities like Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, due to strong Catholic and African-American congregations there, and in the Southern and Midwestern strip from Texas to the Dakotas, where socialization in rural communities often starts at church services. Hence the "Bible Belt" going "across the middle of the country" is an archaic description of what is in fact a "Bible strip" going North to South in the Plains, and two "Bible Buckles" on the coasts.
The rural heritage of the land in the Midwest remains widely held, even if industrialization and suburbanization have overtaken the states in the original Northwest Territory. Given the rural, antebellum associations with the Midwest, further rural states like Kansas have become icons of Midwesternism, most directly with the 1939 film, the Wizard of Oz.
Midwestern politics tends to be cautious, but the caution is sometimes peppered with protest, especially in minority communities or those associated with agrarian, labor or populist roots.
Because of African-American immigration from the South, the Midwest hosts the largest African-American urban population found in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Toledo, Dayton, and other cities. The combination of industry and cultures, Jazz, Blues, and Rock and Roll, led to an outpouring of musical creativity in the 20th century in the Midwest, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is now located in Cleveland.
The Midwest gave birth to one of America's two major political parties, the Republican Party, which was formed in the 1850s and included opposition to the spread of slavery into new states as one of its agendas. The rural Midwest is a Republican stronghold to this day. Hamilton County, the home of Cincinnati, is the only urban county in American which has voted predominately Republican at the close of the 20th century. From the Civil War to the Depression and World War II, Midwestern Republicans dominated American politics and industry, just as Southern Democrat planters dominated antebellum rural America and as Northeastern financiers and academics in the Democratic party would dominate America from the Depression to the Vietnam War and the height of the Cold War.
Cincinnati and the Midwest are home to the Underground Railroad center, to denote the anti-slavery passions and heritage of the Midwest and all of America.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the region also spawned the Populist Movement in the Plains states and later the Progressive Movement, which largely consisted of farmers and merchants intent on making government less corrupt and more receptive to the will of the people. The Republicans were unified anti-slavery politicians, whose later interests in invention, economic progress, women's rights and suffrage, freedman's rights, progressive taxation, wealth creation, election reforms, and temperance and Prohibition eventually clashed with the Taft-Roosevelt split in 1912. Similarly, the Populist and Progressive Parties grew out intellectually from the economic and social progress claimed by the early Republican party. The Protestant and Midwestern ideals of profit, thrift, pioneer self-reliance, education, democratic rights, and religious tolerance eventually manifested into different political beliefs, and no matter the current political reallignment, the Midwest remains a political battleground over thoroughly American ideas and ideals.
Perhaps because of their geographic location and heritage of pioneers and Revolutionary War veterans, many Midwesterners have been sometime adherents of Washington's ideal of isolationism, the belief that Americans should not concern themselves with foreign wars and problems. Protectionism was also promoted by Midwestern politicians to protect native industry from free trade. Other Midwesterners, though, led to America greater internationalism, and eventually, belief in free trade. In the current era, Midwesterners wrestle with free trade beliefs along with protecting industrial jobs. The overexpansion of industry in the Midwest led to the "Rust Belt" era when productivity stagnated and employment declined. The loss of jobs among union households and the plight of the unemployed in the inner cities in the Midwest led to greater demands to protect jobs.
The Midwest today
Today, the wealth of the coastal regions and the growth of the Sunbelt, as well as the invention of the air conditioner, have contributed to a sense of unease in the Midwest. The abandonment by many industries of the Midwest, in favor of the South, has led some to refer to the Midwest as the Rust Belt. As the East, South, and West retain colonial memories, the Midwest mainly remembers its American pioneer heritage. The Midwest remains, with the South, a disproportionately large source of soldiers for the United States military, and remains a thoroughly patriotic and American center.
Because of massive black migration in the 20th century, the Midwest continually wrestles with poverty and racism. However, more than other, richer regions, the Midwest has perhaps made the best progress to date, with prominent African-American authors, teachers, and politicians forging a way into the American system just as other immigrants to the region did in earlier generations.
Though its pioneer, religious, and economic heritage tends toward libertarianism and freedom, its geography in the center of America causes Midwesterners to be disproportionately concerned with the future of the federal government and America in general — East, South, and West. Conversely, the nation looks to the central and centrist Midwest to implicitly solve the inevitable political and geographic arguments of the wide-ranging nation. For these reasons, the truly pervasive culture of the Midwest remains powerful, but subservient to a larger American culture. Perhaps it can be said that the Midwest is America's youngest and most idealistic regional offspring.