The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Five Midwests" Series, Part 1: Overview

On two separate occasions as a youth, I traveled not very far from where I was living and found people who talked — and lived — very differently than what I was accustomed to.  That provided me with my earliest sense that there were subtleties within places that were often overlooked.

The first time was when my family went on a vacation to Mackinac Island and the Upper Peninsula in Michigan when I was about ten years old.  The weather was different; instead of the humid August warmth of southeast Michigan, it was noticeably cooler and drier.  I noticed people talked funny.  I noticed that people’s lives seemed to revolve around the woods, the water.  The 300 miles between Detroit and Mackinac seemed even further apart.

The second time was when my family moved to Indiana while I was in high school.  We left Detroit for Muncie, in central Indiana.  Again, people had a different accent.  Country music reigned.  Agriculture was a main focus; I heard farm reports on the radio for the first time.  I was convinced that the South (I had traveled through Tennessee, Georgia and Florida by this time) started in Muncie.  That is, until I went to college at Indiana University in Bloomington, in southern Indiana.  The accent was closer to Southern, the geography of the area made it less suitable to agriculture.  I saw Confederate flags.  There, I saw once again that within short distances there can be great cultural differences.

As I got older and read about the places I’d lived in and visited, I noticed how each place had been settled by people from different places and built their local economies on different industries.  However, there seemed to be little recognition of these nuances by most people.  I always felt the nuances should be explored, because they tell us more about who we are and where we’ll go.

Research and personal experience led me to the initial identification of the five Midwest subregions that I called out in a blog post more than three years ago:

“First, I see the Midwest having seven core states – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. I also see it as including parts of seven other states – western New York, western Pennsylvania, the eastern halves ofNorth Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, and northern Missouri. The fourteen states listed above have slightly less than 100 million people in them. However, I looked at county population figures from the 2010 Census in the partial states to get a sense of what actual “Midwest’ population would be. When all is said and done, there are about 70 million residents in that commonly – but still broadly – defined Midwest.

Next, I started to think about how various parts of the Midwest were settled, their natural resource advantages, and their immigration patterns, and to me the patterns led to the Five Midwests:

North Woods: The upper Great Lakes region centered around Lake Superior and the northern reaches of Lakes Michigan and Huron. It was initially settled by New Englanders and Northern Europeans, and its early economy focused on timber and mining.

Lower Lakes: The lower Great Lakes region stretching from Rochester, New York to Chicago, including the southern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and southeastern Wisconsin. It was also initially settled by New Englanders and Northern Europeans and had an early economy focused on timber and mining, but this area was closer to the agricultural heart of the region (described in more detail below). Also, this region developed into the industrial center of the region, and attracted a broader range of immigrants.

Heartland: This is a region that begins in central Ohio and stretches through the midsections of Indiana and Illinois, and includes southwestern Wisconsin, southern Minnesota, all of Iowa, and the eastern quarter of Nebraska andKansas. The area was settled by farmers from within and beyond the U.S., and it has long maintained its agricultural heritage.

Midland Valley: This area begins in western Pennsylvania and runs along the northern edge of the Ohio River to include southeastern and southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois and northern Missouri. Unlike the three subregions mentioned above, it was initially settled by people from the Upper South (Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia). This area grew from its reliance on river trade and coal. It is also the home of most of the Midwest’s oldest settlements.

Great Plains: The Great Plains includes western Minnesota, the eastern halves of North and South Dakota, and roughly the middle third or so of Nebraska and Kansas. This area is like the Heartland in that it was settled by farmers from within and beyond the U.S., but its product was grains and cattle as opposed to the cash crops of the Heartland.”

Here are a couple tables to help you visualize some of the differences between the subregions:

Please forgive me if my wild-assed guesses don’t have the ring of intellectual authenticity here, but I think they’re fairly on the mark.  If so, there are some things that become apparent here.  First, it was the Midland Valley that was settled first in the Midwest, beginning right after the Revolutionary War and through the first couple decades of the 19th century.  It could be argued that the Tennesseans and Kentuckians who settled southern portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois (via Pennsylvania, according to commenter DBR96A), set the early social and cultural tone for the region.  They came to the area by way of the Ohio River and various trails northward and westward from Appalachia.  The Midland Valley people were quick to establish state capitals in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, first within their own subregion (Chillicothe, Corydon and Kaskaskia/Vandalia, respectively) until each state looked to establish a state capital and a foothold in another subregion (Columbus, Indianapolis, Springfield).

The second and third subregions to settle were the Lower Lakes and Heartland, almost simultaneously.  The settlement of the Lower Lakes was aided by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which brought thousands of New Englanders to the virgin territory.  Heartland development occurred through the push northward by people from the Ohio Valley looking for better agricultural land, and early German and Amish immigrants looking to do the same.  North Woods and Plains development came later.

There are great differences in population between the subregions.  The Lower Lakes, what most people would refer to as the Rust Belt, has approximately 29 million people, with about two-thirds living in the Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee metro areas.  Together, the Heartland and Midland Valley have about 29 million as well.  The more sparsely populated North Woods and Plains lag behind.  Their development has historically been slowed by cold (North Woods) and aridity (Plains).

It’s interesting to note that the major metropolitan areas of the Midwest are often located near the intersection of two, and sometimes three, subregions.  The Twin Cities is almost perfectly situated at the intersection of the North Woods, Heartland and Plains subregions, while Kansas City similarly sits where the Heartland, Plains and Midland Valley subregions meet.  To the east, Pittsburgh unites the Lower Lakes, Heartland and Midland Valley subregions, and in the middle of the Midwest Chicago brings together the Lower Lakes, North Woods and Heartland subregions.  Other metros located wholly within one subregion seem to be capitals or commerical centers of them.  Indianapolis and Columbus (Heartland) fit this description.  Others, like Buffalo, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis, seem to act as bridges to entirely different regions within the country — Buffalo to the East Coast, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis to the South.

The key distinction that will be explored in this series was articulately put forth by James McPherson is his Civil War book Battle Cry of Freedom, and cited at

“Most of the (lower Midwest’s) initial settlers there had come from the upper South and Pennsylvania. They populated the southern part of the region and evolved a corn-hog-whiskey economy, selling their small surplus in markets accessible by the Ohio-Mississippi river network. They were called Buckeyes, Hoosiers, Suckers; they dressed in homespun clothes dyed with the oil of walnut or butternut trees, and hence acquired the generic name of Butternuts. They remained rural, southern, and localist in their orientation, hostile toward Yankees” of New England heritage who settled in the northern portions of these states made accessible by the Erie Canal after 1825.

These Yankees established a wheat-cattle-sheep-dairy farming economy linked to eastern markets by the burgeoning rail network after 1850. The railroads and the rapidly multiplying banks, industries, towns and cities owned or controlled by the “Yankees” caused these parts of the states to grow faster than the Butternut sections… .
Yankee areas were positively correlated with the production of wheat, cheese, and wool, with farm values per acre and the percentage of improved land, the value of farm machinery, banks and pro-bank sentiment, urbanization, population growth, schools, literacy … and antislavery societies.

The Butternut areas were positively correlated with the production of corn, sweet potatoes, and whiskey, with anti-bank and anti-black sentiments, illiteracy and Baptist churches.”

Again, these cultural differences have never really been resolved in Midwestern states, and, in my opinion, inhibit the development of the region’s key economic engines — its major cities.

The series will continue with a more in-depth exploration of the subregions, with the North Woods first off.

8 Responses to “The "Five Midwests" Series, Part 1: Overview”

  1. Alon

    One issue: the reason is that the white Catholic migration to Chicago and environs was not an independent factor, the way the Nordic migration to Minnesota or the initial settlement of the Great Lakes through the Erie Canal were. Instead, this migration came about as a result of a booming industrial economy, which most of the Midland Valley did not have. St. Louis, geographically a Midland Valley city, did get this immigration, and today has the accent of Chicago and Cleveland and not that of Cincinnati; the metro area also votes Democratic, whereas Columbus and Indianapolis are bellwethers and Cincinnati is strongly Republican. Similarly, on the East Coast, geographically Midland Baltimore received this migration and became a solidly Northern city in the 20th century. (Washington instead took until well into the post-industrial era to Northernize.)


  2. Kurt Taube

    Southwest Ohio is strongly Republican – the Cincinnati suburbs form the bastion of GOP support in Ohio – but Cincinnati itself is as Democratic as any other major city. Obama carried Hamilton County twice, and those votes didn't come from Indian Hill.


  3. LSH

    Really enjoyed this article. Many years ago, I had a conversation with a graduate student from Indiana who said the core Mid West includes Iowa in addition to all states that touch the Great Lakes excluding Pennsylvania.


  4. NEO

    Pittsburgh is definitely more of a Midwestern city than it is part of any other region. Culturally and economically, there is a great deal there that overlaps and integrates with parts of NE Ohio, particularly through Youngstown, but also extending into the Akron-Canton area and even into Cleveland. I think this often gets overlooked because of Pennsylvania's decidedly East Coast orientation, tilted heavily in that direction by a very sizable, if understated, Philadelphia. If PA ever split east to west into two states, however, I'm willing to bet we would see Western PA orient itself much more closely towards Ohio and other Midwestern states. Football rivalry aside, Cleveland is much closer to Pittsburgh than Philadelphia. Geography always wins out in the end.


  5. Matt Halley

    a couple of didnt mention the pre 1790 settlement of the mid-mississippi valley centered around st. louis. native french speakers populated the foothills of the ozarks in the old mining district near st louis into the 1990 (google \”paw paw french\”), so this isnt a small aspect of the region. st. louis isnt louisville. secondly – while it is true that st louis is the last city in the midwest heading south – it has historically functioned as a gateway to the west and southwest (to santa fe in the 1700s, etc) – not the south. you can even see this in the sprawl pattern here – which is skewed due west.


  6. Kevin Klinkenberg

    As someone that lived the first 40 years of my life in the Midwest, I always enjoy these kinds of discussions. No doubt the Upper Midwest is its own animal, and I like your casting of \”Lower Lakes\” or what I just used to always call the Great Lakes as a sub-region. But it's funny – for me the heart of the Midwest has always been the Great Plains, with Kansas City as its capital (as Joel Garreau wrote about in 9 Nations of North America). I've always held to a bias that anything in the Eastern Time Zone is by default not \”Midwest.\” Yes, I know many disagree and think that's arbitrary. But culturally speaking, the time zone designation was always one of the shared aspects to me of Midwest vs East or Mountains going west.



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