The "Five Midwests" Series

Throughout my life I’ve been about as big an advocate for Rust Belt cities as there is.  I grew up in Detroit, have lived for years in the Chicago area, and I’ve become intimately familiar with other cities throughout the Rust Belt/Midwest.  However, one of the issues that has perplexed me for years is the general lack of support these cities receive from within their own region, the Midwest.  Unlike many East Coast cities, which are acknowledged to be the economic generators for their region and have state governments that treat them as such, Rust Belt cities seem to operate in spite of such support, and languish as a result.  Why would this be the case?

I believe that the Midwest, a poorly defined and little understood region of the nation, has suffered because different groups, with different cultural ideals, have been in conflict since the region was settled 200 years ago.  The Midwest is the one region in the nation where New England Puritans, Mid-Atlantic Quakers and Appalachian backcountry people came together in a combustible mix, with varying views on development.  This conflict is best understood by looking at the Midwest as being comprised of five subregions: the North Woods, the Lower Lakes (or Rust Belt), the Heartland, the Midland Valley and the Plains.

In the very early days of this blog I took on this topic without any follow up.  In the upcoming weeks I’m going to go roll out a Five Midwests series.  I will go into more detail about the Midwest’s subregions, how they developed, what makes them distinct and how they interact with one another.  Hopefully, when we’re done you’ll understand why the Twin Cities is different from St. Louis, or why Cleveland is different from Indianapolis, or even why Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Louisville are included here.  I think this historical perspective can help us to understand the limitations and challenges that the Midwest’s major cities are confronted with, and could provide some ideas for possible solutions.  I’d encourage readers to look at the earlier work (linked to in this paragraph) that will serve as a foundation for what’s to come.

There are three books I’ve read over the years that have brought me to this point.  All three books allude to the crossroads nature of the region we call the Midwest, and how its initial settlement impacted future development.  The first, Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer, was published more than 25 years ago, with a thesis that four distinct English cultures, with different regional speech patterns, social structures, religious beliefs and folkways were responsible for the early development of America.  Puritan artisans from East Anglia settled in New England; royalist cavaliers from southwest England settled in Virginia.  Egalitarian Quakers from the North Midlands settled in the Delaware River Valley, and backcountry Scots-Irish moved to similar lands in Appalachia.  Each group carried its traditions into their new lands and laid the foundations for a new distinctly American culture.

The second book is American Nations by Colin Woodard, which explores the eleven rival regional subcultures that make up America.  Woodard argues that the subcultures have always been in conflict in our country, and are constantly vying for dominance.  To him, the central conflict is between Yankeedom and its northern allies of New Netherlands and the Left Coast, and the Deep South and its allied subculture of Greater Appalachia.  If you’re confused, I encourage you to check it out.

The last book is Caught in the Middle by Richard C. Longworth.  In this book Longworth examines the Midwest’s difficulty in transitioning to our current global society and economy, and calls out a region that became too accustomed to long-term manufacturing job security, an indifference to education and skill development, and a general aversion to risk that inhibits entrepreneurship.  Longworth too notes that the Midwest’s cities are well-positioned to excel in the global age, like Chicago, but poor regional cooperation prevents it from happening.

Let’s get to know the nuances of “flyover country”, and learn the lessons it has to offer.

9 thoughts on “The "Five Midwests" Series

  1. A few unconnected comments:

    1. You should look at William Labov's phonological atlas of North America. It measures regional accent patterns (among whites), which divide the Midwest into several bands running east-west. The region you call Lower Lakes is the Inland Northern accent, coming from people who settled via the Erie Canal; it stretches farther east, to just west of the Albany exurbs. To its south is the Midland, settled via Pennsylvania, which is divided into North and South Midlands. It sort of matches your Heartland vs. Midland Valley distinction.

    2. In one specific sense, Appalachia is Northern rather than Southern: it has a tradition of smallholding farmers rather than large plantations. As a result, slavery never caught on there, so it was largely pro-Union in the Civil War. It also traditionally had a very low black population, which declined further in the segregation era because of Northern-style sundown towns, whereas the South had (and still has) high black population and had a caste system in the segregation era rather than Northern-style exclusion. (Post-1960s, I'd argue the entire US has Northern-style exclusion.)

    3. What effect do newer cities (usually state capitals) have on this classification? They may introduce a breakdown of the Midwest that doesn't follow geographic lines well.

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  2. Thanks for bring up Labov's phonological atlas. I'm quite familiar with it and I've referred to it in past posts here. In fact I could've credited it as another foundational source for this topic.

    The regional accent difference might be lost to outsiders, but are quite apparent to Midwesterners. The North Woods is the home of the Scandinavian-influenced accent that's been featured in “Fargo” and Prairie Home Companion. Chicago is known for its distinct “Shee-kah-gah” accent as defined by the Saturday Night Live “Superfans”, but that accent can be heard all the way from Buffalo, through Cleveland and Detroit, and past Chicago into Milwaukee. You're right about the North Midlands and South Midlands accent split. It does follow the Heartland/Midland Valley subregion boundary I show here and might be particularly difficult for outsiders to hear much of a difference. The Plains' people developed an accent that people like Johnny Carson (originally from Nebraska), Walter Chronkite (Kansas City, Missouri) and Tom Brokaw (from South Dakota) made popular as General American English, perhaps because it came from so many other American accents.

    I agree that Appalachia has traditionally been Northern, but has been becoming more Southern since the Civil Rights Movement. You're correct about the region's yeoman farmers versus the plantations further south, and Kentucky and Missouri did remain in the Union during the Civil War. But they've been attracted to the South's emphasis on individualism and low taxes and become a dutiful ally to Deep South states. Colin Woodard's book describes that transition. Northern-style versus Southern-style segregation? That is an entirely different series. I actually want to address that one day.

    I'll get to this in the series, but the big point I will eventually make is that the North Woods and Lower Lakes were largely settled from the east, while the Heartland and Midland Valley were settled from the south, and slightly earlier. The Heartland and Midland Valley set the social and cultural agendas for many Midwestern states early on, including the placement of state capitals, and never developed much of a connection with the industrial cities in their northern reaches. That divide is particularly strong in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

    This is going to be fun to explore.

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  3. It would be interesting to find out whether southern Ontario Canada falls into the “Midwest” and if so which one? In his book, Colin says that southern Ontario (where almost half of all Canadians live) is a part of the Midlands. I grew up in Toronto with a father from Duluth Minnesota and a mother from Buffalo New York. It was easier for my father to assimilate into Canadian society than for my mother even though she lived closer to Toronto.

    The linguistic differences between Midwest US English and central Canadian English are also sharp.

    I wonder if it falls within its own separate category.

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  4. Interesting points. Personally I see Ontario as being closer to the North Woods American subregion than any other in the Midwest. However, I would say that while Buffalonians may not relate to Ontario very well, Detroiters seem to do so quite well. As a kid I remember people working on both sides of the border and getting along. Maybe that has more to do with Windsor than Ontario overall.

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  5. The “Midland Valley” region was absolutely settled from the east first. A great many settlers in the interior of the United States came from Pennsylvania from the time it was first established as a colony all the way up to the Civil War. In the colonial days, there was the Great Wagon Road, which had its northern terminus in Philadelphia and its southern terminus in Augusta, GA. The road went west from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, and then south through what was initially frontier land at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, and then down into the Carolina Piedmont. This explains why the Shenandoah Valley has sort of a “baja Pennsylvania” vibe to it that differentiates it from the Tidewater region of Virginia. I think it also explains why Virginia and North Carolina have always been a somewhat different brand of “Southern” than the Deep South.

    Even the Mid-South was heavily influenced by Pennsylvania. Basically, Kentucky is a blend of Pennsylvania and Virginia, and Tennessee is a blend of Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. Settlers from Pennsylvania found their way down the Ohio River to its tributaries like the Tennessee River and the Cumberland River. The Pennsylvania influence is one of the two major differences between the Mid-South and the Deep South. The other major difference was that the Mid-South was less reliant upon slavery.

    In general, settlers from New England moved west due to the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, while settlers from Pennsylvania were directed southwest by the Appalachian Mountains and the Ohio River. People with no grasp of cause and effect have said that parts of Pennsylvania have a degree of Southern influence because they've detected similarities in places like Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, but they have it backwards. There's Pennsylvania influence in portions of each of those four states. Virginians and Carolinians never had an influence on any part of Pennsylvania. Instead, Pennsylvanians essentially teamed up with Virginians and Carolinians to influence the culture in the Virginia and Carolina hinterlands, plus their interior territories that would later become Kentucky and Tennessee.

    As for the “Heartland” region on your map, it's basically a blend of Pennsylvania and Great Lakes cultures.

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  6. It is amusing to see half of New York State claimed for the Midwest. For over a century, actual Midwesterners have considered New Yorkers to be the worst of a despised East Coast elite.

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  7. Enjoying this discussion. American Nations would, I suppose, place southern Ontario in your “Heartland” section, as many of the “founding settlers” of Upper Canada were Midlanders from the so-called “late loyalist” emigration wave between the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

    American Nations argues that the “North Woods” region is Yankee, and that the Yankee traits (frugality, history of a state church, emphasis on community's freedom over individual freedom, etc) were attractive to Lutheran Scandinavian immigrants. (The logging industry in Minn and, esp, Michigan, was initially founded by Mainers.) I've no doubt it has distinct characteristics all its own, but at a continental scale, I'd place it as a sub-region.)

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  8. Canada was settled by loyalists who were ethnically (/politically) cleansed from the US after the War of Independence, so it's really a different migration wave, regardless of where in the US they came from. For example, they were anti-slavery, based not so much on American abolitionist influence as on British one. Because of this British tradition they were never anti-black even in the Northern American sense of sundown towns; nowadays, Canadian anti-black racism is intertwined with nativism, as in Europe. Whereas in the US, some white people view black immigrants as The Good Ones, in Canada it's the reverse – Malcolm Gladwell has an old article lampooning about how Thomas Sowell tried to come up with a cultural explanation for why Jamaicans have better values than native-born black Americans, while in Canada people give cultural explanations for why Jamaicans have worse values.

    Pete: I'm curious to hear what your experience is with Detroit vs. Windsor. Is Windsor as racist as Detroit?

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  9. You've simplified the loyalist story a bit.

    The immediate refugees overwhelmingly settled in what is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (including many black “loyalists” from the Tidewater who'd been pledged freedom if they fought for the crown.) They were from all over the American colonies and found themselves facing a culturally cohesive Yankee society of “old settlers” from Maine and Massachusetts (who had settled Cape Sable, the Saint John valley and what is now called NB's “loyalist southwest.”

    Quebec (soon to become Lower Canada) was, for linguistic, cultural, and logistical reasons, not a destination. A decade later, the “late loyalists” (mostly Midlanders) came to the new colony of Upper Canada (now Ontario), many fleeing an uncomfortable post-revolutionary environment in (Appalachia-controlled) Pennsylvania.

    So the end effect was a broadly Yankee Maritimes, a New France Quebec (and northern/western NB), and a Midland-founded Ontario. Distinct “founding settler” migration waves.

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