The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Midwest, Redefined

What if the region we broadly understand as the Midwest, stretching from the foothills of the Alleghenies to the high plains, and from the chilly northern Great Lakes to the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri river valleys, had been allowed to develop as organically as its eastern and southern — and even western — neighbors?  

If it had, it would be far better understood, have a much stronger cultural clarity, and more recognized for its contributions to American society and economy.

Here’s what I mean.  The north central region of the U.S. has been an American paradox since its founding.  Unlike other regions of the country, where a critical mass of settlers established a colony or territory and then pursued legitimacy, the core of the region had its territorial boundaries established long before settlers had a chance to make a major imprint on the land.  That set off a race for control of the region by two already established regions, New England and Appalachia, with vastly different motivations — and cultural mores.  Because they came from different places, they took different paths to the Midwest.  New Englanders came via the Erie Canal and Great Lakes, while Appalachians traveled northward across the Ohio River.  Rather than intermingle and create a new and blended society, the New Englanders and Appalachians tended to maintain their local strongholds, with New Englanders in larger Great Lakes cities, and Appalachians in the upper regions of the Ohio Valley.  And this happened without any reconsideration or adjustment of political boundaries in the Midwest’s early days.

This has hampered our understanding of the Midwest ever since.

Here’s a thought experiment.  Let’s say that instead of New York expanding to the shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie because it wanted to control development of the Erie Canal, western New Yorkers fought to establish their own state.  Similarly, let’s say that early settlers of western Pennsylvania recognized their remoteness from Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and decided local control suited them, too.  And let’s further suggest that, instead of becoming part of Ohio, the Connecticut Western Reserve was also allowed to develop as a separate state as well.

Ultimately, it’s conceivable that a new map of the Midwest, one that matches more closely to actual American settlement patterns, might look something like this:

In my mind, as many as six new states could have emerged.  Western New York could’ve become Niagara, with Buffalo and Rochester as its key metropolises.  Western Pennsylvania could’ve become Allegheny, centered on Pittsburgh and Erie.  The Connecticut Western Reserve could’ve become Erie (or Cuyahoga?), greater Chicago could’ve been recognized as its own state, and the upper parts of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota could’ve become Superior.  The southern part of Missouri could’ve become Ozark.
The benefit of this is that the political environment aligns with the settlement patterns and modern-day networks of the region.  I’ve made similar points before about the cultural geography of the Midwest.  I think that because two different cultural groups inhabited the same space without ever effectively coming together, they’ve never maximized the development potential within either.  Yes, the Midwest was the nation’s manufacturing center for much of the 20th century, but it could be argued that it often did so in spite of rural and agricultural interests that were strong in state capitals like Columbus, Indianapolis and Springfield.  When manufacturing faded, those same interests often promoted the development of cities within their regions that were less tainted by a manufacturing legacy.
Two years ago, I noted that, irrespective of state boundaries, the Midwest was somewhat aligned like this:
And yet, the tension that was evident two centuries ago continues today.  For my “Five Midwests’ series, I quoted a passage from James McPherson’s book about the Civil War entitled Battle Cry of Freedom, in which he noted the economic, social and cultural differences between the Hoosiers, Buckeyes and Butternuts of the Ohio Valley, and the Yankees of the Great Lakes.  Today, geographers can track and map broad travel and commuting patterns that illustrate how we’re connected as a nation, and find those patterns still exist:

“Danville, in central Illinois, is more closely connected to Des Moines, which is hundreds of miles away in Iowa, than it is to Chicago, which is much closer and in the same state.

That’s not necessarily because there are tons of Danville commuters trekking to Des Moines. Rather, Nelson and Rae’s methodology shows they are both more tightly linked to the necklace of cities in between them—Urbana, Bloomington, Peoria, etc.—than they are to the cities that fall outside the entire zone.”

Welcome to the characteristic that keeps the Midwest from being well understood as a region.

3 Responses to “The Midwest, Redefined”

  1. NEO

    As an Akron native, I've always been fascinated by the setup of our broader region which I think of as including NE Ohio as well as Western PA. Arguably, Northwest Ohio and SE Michigan–Toledo and Detroit–could also fall under the same umbrella, and it isn't much of a stretch to make. The entire region from Pittsburgh to Detroit has long maintained a common economic focus that emerged organically, yet it's been randomly strewn across three states, and is often hampered by the same because of conflicting politics and policy agendas in distant state capitals. Regrettably, this all seems to be a product of colonialism and the thinking of our elected leaders 200+ years ago that we needed to carve up as much of the land as expediently as we could for administrative purposes and settlement. In any case, there's enough organic overlap between the New England and Appalachian cultures you discuss that a state essentially containing Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown, Pittsburgh and Erie under a common administration could have been as successful as Ohio and Pennsylvania, but perhaps even more so. Akron/Summit County in particular seems to be the key point of convergence between the two cultures, one that seems to have integrated the best elements of both. Perhaps it could have been the state capital? Alternatively, Youngstown might have been chosen for such a role, given its almost even distance from Cleveland and Pittsburgh.Sometimes I do wonder if the region would be better off with greater autonomy? It does seem very unlikely that any insightful answer, much less the support for it, is going to emerge from Columbus at this point. A state capital that was created specifically as an administrative center for the state seems to have lost sight of its original purpose, and has basically sprawled its way into position as both the originator and end-recipient of anything constructive that comes out of the statehouse. Every other part of the state seems almost an afterthought. I learned from my experiences in Cincinnati that they feel similarly neglected, and are more immediately grappling with the problems that come with being divided between two states.

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  2. Betty Barcode

    What about the effects of immigration? Buffalo and Western NY, the imagined Niagara on your map, was initially settled, as you wrote, by Yankees arriving on horse, wagon, stage, then canal.But by 1840, German immigrants were pouring in, followed by Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants who shared little except Roman Catholicism. Not to mention Jews from eastern Europe and African-Americans from the south.Yankee WASPs lost their numeric and cultural dominance a long time ago.These same waves arrived in our peer Great Lakes cities. Wouldn't these shared immigration histories have a strong unifying effect on the region?

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  3. Pete Saunders

    Thanks for your comment. I'd say you're right — it didn't take long for the early Yankees to be outnumbered by the waves of immigrants that followed them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, I don't think they necessarily lost their cultural dominance. Yankee WASPs were dominant among the late 19th/early 20th century elite: your captains of industry in most of the big Rust Belt cities at the time. Their influence far outlasted their numerical superiority. I view the early Yankees as the ones who set the cultural standard that others followed. Also, I think immigration patterns is one thing that unites these imagined states. What you describe in Buffalo is not dissimilar from Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago or Milwaukee, even St. Louis, and it's part of what makes them culturally similar. Go further south of those cities, particularly cities like Columbus, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville, and you'll find cities that had less (or less direct) immigration from eastern and southern Europe, fewer Jews and more immigration from Appalachia, and that produces a different cultural character than you'll find further north. The Catholic influence is far less in many of these cities, the Protestant influence far greater. Overall, my point is that in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley, state boundaries were settled before immigration patterns were, unlike states to the east, south and west. It's made New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois in particular rather schizophrenic. Consider Utah, which was a territory that became a state based on strong and consistent Mormon immigration, or Washington and Oregon, the trail head of the Oregon Trail that was used mostly by New Englanders looking for more space. All three states had a culture in place, established by settlers, before statehood.

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