The Five Midwests

I am a creature of the Midwest.  I was born in Detroit and moved away from there as a junior in high school.  We relocated to Muncie, Indiana, where I finished high school and graduated from college (IndianaUniversity, in southern Indiana).  We later moved to Chicago, where I’ve been for the last 25 years.  So I’ve had the opportunity to experience a good deal of the Midwestpersonally.
I’d also be one of the first to admit that the Midwest as a region is poorly defined.  I first came across this idea from Richard Longworth’s book, Caught in the Middle, in which he struggled to come up with an adequate consensus of the Midwest’s boundaries.  I also saw some similar writings on the matter on The Urbanophile blog by Aaron Renn.   
Longworth noted in his book that the Midwest’s states have often shown difficulties working together, either internally (witness the Chicagoland/Downstate dynamic in Illinois) or externally (the constant pull of jobs from one state to another in the name of economic development).  I’ve often wondered about that myself and came to the conclusion that there may be some demographic dynamics at play.  What did I conclude?  The reason the Midwest is poorly defined, and cooperation is lacking, is because there’s not one Midwest– there are five
First, I see the Midwest having seven core states – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesotaand Iowa.  I also see it as including parts of seven other states – western New York, western Pennsylvania, the eastern halves of North 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 Superiorand 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 Indianaand Illinois, and includes southwestern Wisconsin, southern Minnesota, all of Iowa, and the eastern quarter of Nebraska and Kansas.  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 Pennsylvaniaand 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.
After identifying the subregions, I started estimating the population by subregion.  This is not precise, but out of about 70 million Midwesterners, my initial analysis says it’s broken down along these lines:
North Woods: 4%
Lower Lakes: 48%
Heartland: 27%
Midland Valley: 17%
Great Plains: 4%
Nearly one-half of the Midwest’s population resides in the Lower Lakes subregion, anchored by Chicago.  However, nearly all the state capitals of Midwestern states are in the Heartland subregion – Columbus, OH; Indianapolis, IN; Springfield, IL; Des Moines, IA.  Sounds like a recipe for conflict to me.
I’ll explore this and offer a graphic that illustrates this soon.

2 thoughts on “The Five Midwests

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