The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "Five Midwests" Series, Part 5: The Midland Valley

View of downtown Louisville, KY.  Source:

The series to date:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: The North Woods 

Part 4: The Heartland

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

“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.

7 Responses to “The "Five Midwests" Series, Part 5: The Midland Valley”

  1. Anonymous

    You've included Pittsburgh in this region, but you've also highlighted more than one way that it's an outlier in the region, which is part of why I have such a hard time including it in the Midwest in the first place, let alone the Midland Valley subregion.Pittsburgh was founded in 1758 after the British took control of the confluence from the French during the French and Indian War. It was incorporated in 1771, before the American Revolution even began. The Mason-Dixon survey placed it firmly in Pennsylvania in 1780, with the Revolution still in full swing, and seven years before Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. All of this happened before anyplace west of the Appalachian Mountains was even settled by English speakers. Furthermore, Pittsburgh had already developed a sizable economy by 1800, before settlement to its west was even incorporated.Another factor that makes Pittsburgh an outlier is, ironically, its relative lack of Scotch-Irish cultural influence compared to the central Appalachians and the Mid-South. It was ground zero for the Whiskey Rebellion, and many of its earliest residents were Scotch-Irish, but beyond that, the greatest cultural influences in Pittsburgh have been German, Italian and Eastern European. And though there are still plenty of hillbillies in rural western Pennsylvania, you can find hillbillies all the way up in northern New England too, much as New Englanders might try to deny it, so I don't even know that hillbilly culture in the hinterlands is a good way to delineate the Midland Valley either.You mentioned yourself that Pittsburgh was much more like the Lower Lakes regarding the role of manufacturing in its economy, and also that its economy behaves more like an East Coast city today, so between those two factors and everything I've mentioned above, I'd say that it's a stretch to classify Pittsburgh as part of the Midland valley. Midland Valley culture might have some of its origin in Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh really hasn't defined the culture for a long time, much as Clevelanders snidely insist otherwise.Your comments about Pittsburgh's economy also lend credence to something I've observed in the last 30 years: Overall, Pittsburgh is beginning to behave more like a Northeastern city than a Midwestern city. The reason Pittsburgh is often associated with the Midwest is because its economy was dominated by manufacturing, but once the manufacturing was gone and the city literally had to find a new raison d'etre, it began to build around its civic assets to create a better quality of place, which is the formula used by Northeastern cities, and that Midwestern cities have often struggled to do.It also helps that Pittsburgh's three strongest migration exchanges are with Philadelphia, New York and Washington DC, and those three cities are head and shoulders above the rest. In fact, Pittsburgh exchanges nearly twice as many people with New York as it does with Chicago. Cleveland, just 120 miles up the road, still exchanges more people with Chicago than it does with New York. The boundary between the Northeast and the Midwest is a soft boundary somewhere between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.


  2. Anonymous

    Having said all this, I'm not saying that Pittsburgh has nothing in common with Midwestern cities, just that it has less in common now than before. It also does have some similarities to the other cities in the Midland Valley region, but they're largely limited to the following:1. The influence of rivers2. The built environmentPittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis are all river cities, and they owe their existences to them. Their built environments are similar as well, considering the east/west development tendencies across the eastern United States. The same way Great Lakes cities were built similarly to New England cities, the river cities were built similarly to Mid-Atlantic cities. Residential architecture in New England and Great Lakes cities is mostly made of wood, with wide footprints and large setbacks from the streets. On the other hand, residential construction in Mid-Atlantic and river cities is mostly made of bricks, with narrow footprints (often in the form of rowhouses) and little or no setback from the streets.Another similarity is that none of the river cities have much of a Hispanic population, even compared to the Great Lakes cities, oddly enough. My theory is that Hispanics migrated in large numbers to Chicago, and then spread out to the different cities on the Great Lakes afterward.You also pointed out the black/white racial tension in St. Louis and Cincinnati, which, together with Baltimore, makes me wonder if Pittsburgh dodged a bullet, no pun intended. Back in 1995, there was a controversy in the Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood, when the brother of a Steelers football player was basically pulled over for \”driving while black,\” and ended up dead. This happened before the internet went mainstream, which is why I believe there wasn't more outrage, but it shows that Pittsburgh has dealt with the same problems that St. Louis, Cincinnati and Baltimore have. Hopefully Pittsburgh learned its lesson from that debacle without having to deal with the type of unrest that Baltimore, Cincinnati and St. Louis have.Anyway, there's no real way to come full circle with all this stuff, but these are my thoughts…


  3. Pete Saunders

    As always, I thank you for your comments. Pittsburgh presents a real challenge to me in this series, as you've pointed out. The reality is that see Pittsburgh being at the intersection of FOUR subregions — the Rust Belt Great Lakes (or Lower Lakes, as I've called it here), the Midland Valley, Appalachia and the Mid-Atlantic. I believe Pittsburgh owes its existence not only to the rivers that meet there, but its easy access to each of these areas. This is reflected in its people, its economy, and the strength of its current revitalization.Actually, the Twin Cities present the same dilemma to me in this analysis. The Twin Cities are part North Woods, part Heartland, part Lower Lakes and part Plains. Again, like Pittsburgh I see the Twin Cities owing its existence to its easy access to four different subregions. They are also an economic outlier when compared to the rest of the Midwest, however defined.Because of these unique characteristics, one could argue that Pittsburgh is within that transition zone between something eastern/southern to Midwestern, and the Twin Cities are in the transition area from Midwestern to northern/western.


  4. NEO

    DBR96A, you make some valid points about Pittsburgh and its regional orientation through migration. I suspect that the extent to which it actually tilts to the Northeast though has more to do with state governance and policy–higher ed and state subsidized tuition probably playing a considerable role in this–in a Pennsylvania heavily influenced by a substantially larger Philadelphia, and that metropolitan region's own social, economic, and geographic ties to the Northeastern US. Separate the Eastern PA and Western PA into two new individual states, however, and Pittsburgh would be much more inclined by geography and economics to further build on its natural and historic ties to the Midwest and its much closer neighbors in Cleveland, the Akron-Canton area, and perhaps even Columbus. There's something to be said for the fact that there is already a great deal of economic overlap and synergy between NE Ohio and Western PA, particularly observable through the substantial regional presence of Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle and PNC Bank, as well as First Energy in Akron and Forest City Enterprises in Cleveland, all of which has occurred with little or no regard for the OH-PA state line.I do agree that Pittsburgh is a unique case with ties to multiple regions, so perhaps it is indeed a transitional city. Based upon the above, however, I might also suggest adding Cleveland, Akron, Canton and Youngstown into a broader new \”transitional category\” as these cities have Northeastern influences of their own–well evident within the east side of Cleveland and its suburbs along the I-271 Outerbelt–and yet are not truly Midwestern either, in the sense that we typically view Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis as being.More food for thought perhaps, Pete?


  5. Anonymous

    I half-agree. Pittsburgh has cultural and economic ties to Cleveland and Columbus, and Cleveland has cultural and economic ties to Pittsburgh and Buffalo, and those remain intact even today, but beyond that, Cleveland still seems more focused to the west, and Pittsburgh more to the east. Case in point: Pittsburgh exchanges more than three times as many people with Baltimore, and nearly three times as many people with Boston, as Cleveland does. Conversely, Cleveland exchanges more than four times as many people with Cincinnati, and more than five times as many people with Detroit, as Pittsburgh does. This is part of why I believe both cities are bookends for the transition between the Northeast and the Midwest.


  6. NEO

    I can see all that, and I am curious about exploring your \”bookends\” theory, although I also wonder how much of the separate east-west orientation is more indicative of a blind spot unique to both metros because of (or in spite of) their proximity and shared histories, as well as the result of a deeply embedded parochialism common throughout and also unique to the broader mega-region. Case in point, Cleveland's media seems particularly obsessed with (and jealous of) Columbus' growth, construction and population booms (in spite of its own recent progress on at least one of the two fronts), despite similar, more relevant and likely better informative happenings in a slightly closer Pittsburgh. Yet only on occasion does Cleveland seem to pay any heed to anything going on in Pittsburgh beyond NFL season. Likewise, Pittsburgh seems a bit more concerned with events and happenings in Philadelphia, a city nearly 5 hours away and well removed from it in nearly all relevant aspects except for a common state government, although they do seem to highlight slightly more top stories out of Cleveland than what Cleveland reciprocates (e.g. LeBron James' return home, the Brelo shooting case verdict, etc). Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt and lack of awareness about one's closest neighbors? For comparison's sake though, blindness to the nearest neighboring city across state lines seems much less a factor in the relationship between Chicago and Milwaukee, or even Detroit and Toledo.I also see the exchange between Cleveland and Cincinnati more than anything as having to do with the prominence of the University of Cincinnati as the state's second largest public university behind OSU, and the benefit of in-state tuition there that Clevelanders receive. UC itself has shared similar in-state migration stats supporting this theory. Also interesting to note that Kent State in NE Ohio, which often jockeys with UC for the #2 spot, pulls a significant amount of its enrollment from the Western PA/Pittsburgh area.In short, it seems there are multiple dimensions to the relationship between the two cities. Migration adds another layer. I don't think it necessarily negates or discounts anything beneath it, though. If anything, I suspect it validates both of our theories.


  7. Kevin Klinkenberg

    I think these areas do owe much of their shared history clearly to the rivers, but you have to be careful of the migration patterns. St. Louis, for example, was settled by French coming up from New Orleans. I'd venture to say much of Missouri that you highlight is far different than the Ohio River valley, in terms of the people and history. In Joel Garreau's Nine Nations of North America, he had St. Louis as a border city, essentially between the Midwest and the South – with both contradictions to your analysis and confirmation in some ways. Interesting read. I'll also suggest my brother as a plug on this, who's written a few books about the Mississippi Valley and knows it quite well.



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