Midwestern United States

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the Midwest

Red states show the core of the Midwest, states shown as pink may or may not be included in the Midwest, and thus their inclusion or exclusion varies from source to source.

The Midwestern United States (or Midwest) is a region of the northeastern United States of America. The term is now somewhat archaic, as this region was the "Middle West" of the United States before the Louisiana Purchase. Presently, this region is neither the middle nor the west of the United States. More accurate (if unwieldy) regional terms for these locations are the East North Central States and the West North Central States, as defined by the United States Census Bureau.



The term "Midwest" 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. This area is now 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.

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 "Mid-America" and its citizens, "Mid-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".


Though definitions vary, any definition of the Midwest would include the Northwest Ordinance "Old Northwest" states and often includes many states that were part of the Louisiana Purchase. The states 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 state
  • Michigan: Old Northwest, and Great Lakes state
  • Minnesota: eastern part Old Northwest, and Great Lakes state; western part Louisiana Purchase
  • Missouri: Louisiana Purchase
  • 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

Chicago is the largest city in the region and the third largest in the nation; other important cities in the regions include Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Those cities and the farms of Kansas and Iowa loom large in any imaginative description of the Midwestern soul.

Although one of the thirteen colonies, Pennsylvania is sometimes considered a Midwest state, but in reality, only the western half of the state, around Pittsburgh shares a culture with the Midwest, while the eastern half of the state, around Philadelphia identifies more with the East Coast.

The prairie parts of Montana, Wyoming, and especially Colorado are sometimes considered part of the Midwest, especially to people in the Great Plains Midwest, although this addition would be considered incorrect to most people in the Great Lakes region.


Despite the tendency to sometimes denigrate the states as being relatively flat, there is a measure of geographical variation. In particular, the eastern midwest lying within the foothills of the Appalachians, and the Great Lakes basin and northern parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa demonstrate a high degree of topographical variety. Prairies cover most of the states west of the Mississippi with the exception of southern Missouri and eastern Minnesota. Illinois lies within an area called the "prairie peninsula," an eastward extension of prairies that borders deciduous forests to the north, east, and south. Rainfall decreases from east to west, resulting in different types of prairies, with the tallgrass prairie in the wetter eastern region, mixed-grass prairie in the central Great Plains, and shortgrass prairie towards the rain shadow of the Rockies. Today, these three prairie types largely correspond to the corn/soybean area, the wheat belt, and the western rangelands, respectively; virgin hardwood forests were logged of in the late 1800s. The majority of the midwest can now be categorized as urbanized areas or pastoral agriculture. Areas in northern Michigan and Wisconsin, such as the Porcupine Mountains, and the Ohio river valley are largely undeveloped.

Among the westernmost states of the Midwest, residents of the wheat belt generally consider themselves part of the Midwest, while residents of the remaining rangeland areas usually do not. Of course, exact boundaries are nebulous and shifting.


The Midwest is a cultural crossroads.

Starting in the 1790s, Revolutionary war veterans and settlers from the original 13 colonies moved there in response to government land grants. 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. Many German Catholics also settled throughout the Ohio River valley and around the Great Lakes. 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.

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 the relative absence of slavery (except for Missouri), pioneer settlement, education in one-room free public schools, and democratic notions brought with Revolutionary War veterans, Protestant faiths and experimentation, and agricultural wealth transported on the Ohio River riverboats, flatboats, canal boats, and railroads. The canals in Ohio and Indiana opened so much of 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 contributed to the wealth of New York City, which overtook Boston and Philadelphia. New York State would proudly boast of the Midwest as its "inland empire"; thus, New York would become known as the Empire State.

The Midwest was predominantly Kansas City 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. Large concentrations of Catholics are found in larger cities like Chicago and St. Louis because of Irish, Italian, and Polish immigration in the 1800s.


Education is another of the region's strongest legacies. The region contains numerous highly-regarded universities, both public and private. Notable public schools include Indiana University Bloomington, Purdue University, Ball State University, Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, The Ohio State University, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the main Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, and the main campus of the University of Minnesota located in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Notable private institutions include the best-known Catholic university in the United States, the University of Notre Dame; Northwestern University; and the University of Chicago, with which more Nobel Prize winners have been affiliated than with any other university in the world except Cambridge in the UK. A cluster of top-ranking liberal arts colleges in the Midwest include the University of Evansville, Oberlin College, Carleton College, Macalester College, Grinnell College, Kenyon College, Ohio Wesleyan University, Denison University, DePauw University, Antioch College, The College of Wooster, Calvin College and Earlham College. Miami University is considered a Public Ivy.

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.

Due to 20th-century African American migration from the South, a large African American urban population lives 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, including new music like the Motown Sound and techno from Detroit and house music from the south side of Chicago. Rock and Roll music was first identified as a new genre by a Cleveland radio DJ, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is now located in Cleveland. See also Music of the Midwest.

Midwestern 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. A similar influence also exists in the western parts of New York State (from Syracuse onward through Buffalo) due to a related industrial heritage and adjacent geography, though others consider the "culture" of this area to be more a hybrid of the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic. Parts of Colorado and Utah were settled by Midwestern migrants, and retain some "Heartland feeling". Because of trade ties, the province of Ontario (particularly the southwestern and northern parts) 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.

Political trends

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 America 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.

In some upper midwestern states, such as Illinois, the story is quite different. Illinois is currently dominated heavily by the Democratic Party, and has voted blue in the past 5 elections. Minnesota was actually the only state among the 50 states of the U.S. to vote for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan in 1984. (Although Washington D.C. also voted for Mondale.)

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 decline 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.

Linguistic influence

The accents of the region are generally distinct from those of the American Northeast and South. They are considered by many to be "standard" American English, and are preferred by many national radio and television broadcasters. Prominent broadcast personalities of the mid 20th century - such as Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, John Madden and Casey Kasem - came from this region and so influenced this perception. However, in some regions, particularly the farther North one goes, a definite accent is detectable, usually reflecting the heritage of the area. For example, Minnesota and Wisconsin both have a strong Scandinavian accent, which intensifies the farther north one goes. Parts of Michigan have noticeable Dutch-flavored accents. Also, residents of Chicago are recognized to have their own distinctive accent which adds to the uniqueness of the city.

The Midwest today

Today, the wealth of the coastal regions and the growth of the Sunbelt 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 servicemembers for the United States military, and remains a thoroughly patriotic and American center. Today the population of the Midwest is 64,482,997.

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.

See also

Geographic regions of the United States
Central | Coastal States | Deep South | East | East Coast | Gulf Coast | Mid-Atlantic | Midwest
Mountain States | New England | North | Northeast | Northwest | Pacific | South | South Atlantic
South Central | Southeast | Southwest | Upper Midwest | West | West Coast
Multinational regions: Border States | Great Lakes | Great Plains | Pacific Northwest


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