What is the Midwest?

Some distinctions are clear-cut: California is iconically West Coast, New York unabashedly screams East Coast and Mississippi just sounds right when said with a Southern twang. But move toward the middle of the U.S. and boundaries may not be as simple as you think. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.


Growing up in Minnesota, I always thought I had a sense of the Midwest. It was the extra long sounds people around me made on their ‘a’ and ‘o’ sounds, my grandmother’s caramel roll recipe and the story of the Great Halloween Blizzard of 1991 (if you’re from another Midwestern state, feel free to replace this with your own “Great Blizzard of [insert year here]” — you know we all have one).

I never had to define it in stricter terms until college threw me into an environment with people from all over the country. Someone could claim St. Louis was the “Paris of the Midwest,” even though I’d never thought to include Missouri in the region at all (and I’m pretty sure both Detroit and Cincinnati have claimed that title already). 

And so I decided to poll my colleagues in Midstory’s internship program, with some hailing from as far as Massachusetts to the east and Beijing, China to the west. I gave them a map, and told them to outline what they considered to be the Midwest, with a reminder that they didn’t need to adhere to state boundaries. Out of the 15 who responded, some did, but most didn’t, especially when it came to states on the periphery of the region. 

The only two states to appear in every single map were Minnesota and Wisconsin, followed closely by Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana and Ohio. The inclusion of other states — including West Virginia and Kentucky — seems to be a lot more controversial. Some maps even went as far as to include parts of Pennsylvania to the east and Colorado, Wyoming and Montana to the west.

What is the Midwest? Answers from Midstory’s 2021 intern cohort. Graphic by Elise Hannum for Midstory. 
A numeric breakdown of states chosen as the Midwest in Midstory’s intern poll. Graphic by Elise Hannum for Midstory. 

According to Dr. Matthew Cook, an Associate Professor of Historic Preservation and Cultural Geography at Eastern Michigan University, this ambiguity isn’t completely unexpected.

“Slapping hard and fast boundaries on anything is going to be different for nearly anybody,” he said. “Geographers themselves don’t agree on what defines the Midwest.”

And while we’re on the topic of ambiguity, I’ve found that people love to (oftentimes inaccurately) use other regional designations as interchangeable with “the Midwest.”

A map of the Corn Belt. Image courtesy of the National Centers for Environmental Information.
A map of the Rust Belt. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Unsurprisingly, one classification of Midwest geography comes from agriculture, notably the Corn Belt. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t outline the Corn Belt on a map until the 1950s, references to it date back to the late 1800s. Originally, farmers grew corn to fatten beef cattle and hogs, but the focus shifted in the mid-1900s with changing farming practices and a new focus on cash-grains like corn and soybeans instead of livestock feeding grains.

Another term that’s become popular is the “Rust Belt” — specific to some industrial parts of the northern Midwest, but also encompassing areas considered to be on the East Coast. This designation, appearing alongside more unofficial and arguably derogatory nicknames like “flyover country” or “middle America,” found particular popularity around the time of the 2016 election, as evidenced by a conspicuous spike in search popularity around November of that year:

Of course, there is an “official” answer. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Midwest comprises the Old Northwest states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) as well as North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri. 

When asked about how he defines the Midwest, Dr. Jon Lauck, a historian and board member of the Midwestern History Association, named the standard twelve states off the top of his head, with the added detail of the western halves of the Dakotas being the Great Plains, eastern Ohio being more Appalachian and the Ohio River as a Southern border. 

“People who haven’t really dug into the field kind of give up too soon,” Lauck says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t know what the Midwest is — who knows?’ and then just kind of abandon all hope.”

The U.S. Census Bureau’s map of the Midwest. Image licensed under Creative Commons. 

But as is apparent from my Midstory intern poll, the government’s borders may not be exactly the same as the Midwest that lives inside of people’s brains. There are historians, geographers, sociologists and more pursuing their own paths to a definition of the Midwest as a region — or at least an exploration of one.

For example, Lauck, alongside others, formed the Midwestern History Association in 2014 with the hope of shining a light on a neglected region. It hosts an annual conference at Grand Valley State in Michigan, and began publishing its own journal, the Middle West Review. Lauck, along with Joseph Hogan and Gleaves Whitney, also edited a collection of articles on the Midwest by different scholars called “Finding a New Midwestern History.” 

These and other historians emphasize the need to tell the diverse story of the Midwest: that its history comprises much more than just white European immigrants and corn farmers. 

The Midwest — or the Middle West, as it was then known — emerged as part of the national consciousness of the United States between the 1880s and 1910s, a time period that coincided with what some consider the end of the harsh military conquest of Indigenous lands, where settlers saw the region as a blank slate.

The region that would eventually be known as the Midwest is home to the Anishinaabeg, comprising the Three Fires of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Boodewaadaamii groups, as well as other Algonquin- and Siouan-speaking peoples. Indigenous peoples tried to adjust to life in the midst of colonial occupation, attempting to buy land to avoid relocation to other parts of the United States, like Oklahoma. Small concentrations of Indigenous land remained in what at that time was known as the Old Northwest, comprising Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and parts of northeastern Minnesota. By the 1850s, federal policy moved away from relocation and towards “civilization” through boarding schools and the imposition of reservations. 

Before the Civil War, the Lower Midwest — Indiana, Ohio and Illinois — had a stronger association with the South. The war, however, drew stark lines of resentment toward the South, making the Midwest distinct from the region.  Following the war, intellectuals, artists and writers all played a role in the development of the Midwest, as they used language to develop a regional identity that had not been articulated before. 

Actually, regionalism — a study of the different regions and the identities people have that are tied to them — has roots in the Midwest, according to Dr. Michael Steiner, an Emeritus Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.

“At the same time that the Midwest was gaining an identity as a region [in the late 1800s], there were people who had grown up in the Midwest who were writing about regionalism,” he said. “The obvious person is Frederick Jackson Turner.”

Frederick Jackson Turner was a historian from Portage, Wisconsin, known best for his “frontier thesis,” which he first proposed in an essay to the American Historical Association in 1893. It emphasizes that the process of settling the ever-shifting and fluid western frontier of the United States was crucial to the development of American identity and democracy as distinct from colonists’ European roots. According to Turner, the experience of living on the frontier created a different culture from the first colonizers in New England.  

He writes that the “Middle West” had deep roots of “equality, freedom of opportunity [and] faith in the common man.” In the midst of Manifest Destiny, his ideas helped transition the national consciousness from thinking of the region as the “Northwest” to identifying it as the “Middle” of an ever-expanding country. 

Turner wasn’t the only one; Steiner also noted the influence of John Wesley Powell, a geologist, Jane Addams, a social worker, and Hamlin Garland, a novelist, all of whom wrote and talked about the Midwest as a distinct region. The range of specializations and interests demonstrates the development of a self-consciousness and identity amongst “regular” people in the Midwest, with these intellectuals as spokespeople, in the late 1800s. 

“People were becoming self-conscious that they were living in a distinctive place,” Steiner said. “I really feel that unless you have a word for something, you can’t really know what it is. It’s when a word is created and shared by people [that] it becomes real to them.”

Although the idea of the Midwest largely came from white historians and intellectuals like Turner, the new concept of the Midwest was built on more than just one insular experience. In the period after the Civil War and continuing on into the 1970s, the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South had a huge influence on the culture of the Midwest.

The change in the Midwest’s status quo wasn’t necessarily welcomed; as a result of the Great Migration, there was the return of American conservatism as the white population fled to the suburbs, the development of a white working class identity in opposition to Black workers and an overall hostile environment towards the Black working class. But it also contributed to energized social protest and the growth of music, culture and radical press, especially in urban areas like Chicago. Overall, the Midwest was a source of both hope in the face of the Jim Crow South and disappointment with the realities of racism and hostility that were still alive and well in the North. 

Today, the Midwest — much like America as a whole — continues to grapple with its own identity. Twenty-first century politics have thrust “middle America” into the spotlight, bringing to the fore issues of race, class and power. In a world of division, the Midwest is stuck in the middle, straddling competing geographies, histories and cultures. And while finding a blanket definition for the region may be a task too tall for any one individual, threads are certainly being woven through a reexamination of our past and present alongside a desire to shape our future.

And while divisions remain, most Midwesterners will tell you there’s just something about the Midwest that makes it what it is — even beyond the twenty feet of snow our grandparents had to walk through during that one unforgettable winter storm. Spend a few days enjoying New York or L.A., and you just might find yourself missing that something.

As the authors of “Finding a New Midwestern History” put it: “If [M]idwesterners still doubt whether or not their regional identity is real, they simply need to leave the Midwest to find it.”


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