|View of downtown Louisville, KY. Source: orbitz.com|
The series to date:
To me, there are two cities, just 100 miles apart, that epitomize the Midland Valley. Cincinnati, on the Ohio River’s north bank, and Louisville, on its south, share a settlement history, an early economy, and many cultural traits. The different trajectories of their respective states pulled the cities in different directions, but both reside in a national transition area that is poorly understood by those outside of it. Cincinnati, settled in 1788, and Louisville, settled even earlier in 1778, could be considered among the first “purely” American cities; they grew through assimilated European migrants and had less European influence as a result. Both cities grew during a period of bias against urban development, and in favor of rural life.
Even as a lifelong resident of this broader region of the country, it’s poorly understood by me. It is an area that is, outside of the original thirteen colonies, has the oldest uniquely American settlements in the nation. It is distinct from the coastal regions east of the Appalachians. It is neither North or South, yet shares aspects of both. The Midland Valley is an enigma.
In my mind, the Midland Valley starts where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge in Pittsburgh to create the Ohio River, and ends where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers converge near St. Louis. It extends (very slightly) into West Virginia and Kentucky along the Ohio’s southern banks. North of the river the area extends across the southern parts of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, which share a hilly topography and general lack of agricultural fertility with West Virginia and Kentucky. I see the subregion continuing west of the Mississippi to include St. Louis and the northeastern portions of Missouri. Here’s my general map of the area:
David Hackett Fisher’s 1989 book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,, makes clear that America’s cultural foundations were established by four distinct British groups — East Anglian Pilgrims in New England; North Midlanders to the Delaware Valley; South England Cavaliers to the Deep South; and North Britain borderlanders to Appalachia. The Scots-Irish who settled Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky came down from the mountains and into the Ohio Valley once the British (and their Native American tribal allies) left or were removed from the Midwest. Using rivers as the primary transportation means, they established towns along the Ohio and traversed inland from there.
In my previous post on the Heartland, I may have overstated how the Heartland is the boundary between North and South in America. In truth, the Midland Valley should have that claim. The Heartland is probably better understood as the younger hinterland to the older and more established Midland Valley, just as the North Woods should be considered the hinterland of the more established Lower Lakes.
At any rate, different economies emerged early on that cemented differences between the northern and southern parts of the Midwest. I made clear the differences with a quote in the overview for this series, but it’s worth bringing it up again. From James McPherson’s book Battle Cry of Freedom, and cited at hoyneriver.tumblr.com:
“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.”
It’s true that railroads, financial networks and a broader economic perspective pushed “Yankee” cities like Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee ahead of Cincinnati, Louisville, Evansville and St. Louis in the late 19th century, and there might be a latent envy that Midland Valley cities hold against their “Yankee” neighbors. However, as the settlements that drove the early definition of the very states they are located in, they were able to establish a political headstart that the Great Lakes cities don’t enjoy. Even though there are no state capitals in the Midland Valley, it could be argued that Midland Valley cities, particularly in Ohio, Indiana and Missouri, are closer in sentiment and ideology to their respective capitals.
What lies ahead for the Midland Valley? Cities like Pittsburgh are successfully relying on their legacy assets of higher education and technology, and employing an economic growth strategy seen more readily on the East Coast than in this subregion. Cincinnati and Louisville have fought against the anti-urban biases that permeate their metro areas to do some interesting things. Social fissures exploded in the St. Louis area last year, and St. Louis is still coming to grips with its racial legacy. With the exception of Pittsburgh, all have been a little less impacted by 20th century manufacturing than the Lower Lakes cities, and they’ve been trying to find new economic ground for them to cover.