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The Midwestern United States, as defined by the U.S.
Census Bureau

The Midwestern United States (in the U.S. generally referred to as the Midwest) is one of the four geographic regions within the United States of Americamarker that are officially recognized by the United States Census Bureau.

The region consists of twelve states in the central and inland northeastern US: Illinoismarker, Indianamarker, Iowamarker, Kansasmarker, Michiganmarker, Minnesotamarker, Missourimarker, Nebraskamarker, North Dakotamarker, Ohiomarker, South Dakotamarker, and Wisconsinmarker. A 2006 Census Bureau estimate put the population at 66,217,736. Both the geographic center of the contiguous U.S.marker and the population center of the U.S. are in the Midwest. The United States Census Bureau divides this region into the East North Central States (essentially the Great Lakes States) and the West North Central States.

Chicagomarker is the largest city in the region, followed by Detroitmarker and Indianapolismarker. Chicagolandmarker is the largest metropolitan statistical area, followed by Metro Detroit, and the Twin Citiesmarker. Sault Ste.marker Marie, Michiganmarker is the oldest city in the region, having been founded by French missionaries and explorers in 1668.

The term Midwest has been in common use for over 100 years. A variant term, "Middle West", has been in use since the 19th century and remains relatively common. Another term sometimes applied to the same general region is "the heartland". Other designations for the region have fallen into disuse, such as the "Northwest" or "Old Northwest" (from "Northwest Territory") and "Mid-America". Since the book Middletown appeared in 1929, sociologists have often used Midwestern cities (and the Midwest generally) as "typical" of the entire nation. The region has a higher employment-to-population ratio (the percentage of employed people at least 16 years old) than the Northeast, the West, the South, or the Sun Beltmarker states.

Four of the states associated with the Midwestern United States (Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota) are traditionally referred to as belonging to the Great Plains region. However, in recent years they are often included in the Midwestern region.


Midwest as shown by U.S.
Census Bureau official map

Traditional definitions of the Midwest include the Northwest Ordinance "Old Northwest" states and many states that were part of the Louisiana Purchase. The states of the Old Northwest are also known as "Great Lakes states". Many of the Louisiana Purchase states are also known as "Great Plains statesmarker".

The North Central Region is defined by the U.S.marker Census Bureau as these 12 states:

Physical geography

While these states are for the most part relatively flat, consisting either of plains or of rolling and small hills, there is a measure of geographical variation. In particular, the eastern Midwest lying near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountainsmarker; the Great Lakes Basin; the Ozark Mountainsmarker of southern Missouri; and the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, and northeast Iowa exhibit a high degree of topographical variety. Prairies cover most of the states west of the Mississippi River with the exception of taiga-clad northern Minnesota. Illinois lies within an area called the "prairie peninsula", an eastward extension of prairies that borders deciduous forests to the north, east, and south. Rainfall decreases from east to west, resulting in different types of prairies, with the tallgrass prairie in the wetter eastern region, mixed-grass prairie in the central Great Plains, and shortgrass prairie towards the rain shadow of the Rockies. Today, these three prairie types largely correspond to the corn/soybean area, the wheat belt, and the western rangelands, respectively. Although hardwood forests in the northern Midwest were clear-cut in the late 1800s, they were replaced by new growth. Ohiomarker and Michiganmarker's forests are still growing. The majority of the Midwest can now be categorized as urbanized areas or pastoral agricultural areas.

Largest Midwestern U.S. cities and urban areas

Rank City State

(2000 census)
1 Chicagomarker ILmarker 2,896,016
2 Detroitmarker MImarker 951,270
3 Indianapolismarker INmarker 791,926
4 Columbusmarker OHmarker 711,470
5 Milwaukeemarker WImarker 596,974
6 Clevelandmarker OHmarker 478,403
7 Kansas Citymarker MOmarker 441,545
8 Omahamarker NEmarker 390,007
9 Minneapolismarker MNmarker 382,618
10 St. Louismarker MOmarker 348,189

Urban Areas]]
Rank Urban area State(s) Population
(2000 census)
1 Chicago ILmarker-INmarker 8,307,904
2 Detroit MImarker 3,903,377
3 Minneapolis-

St. Paul
MNmarker 2,388,593
4 St. Louis MOmarker-ILmarker 2,077,662
5 Cleveland OHmarker 1,786,647
6 Cincinnati OHmarker-KYmarker-INmarker 1,503,262
7 Kansas City MOmarker-KSmarker 1,361,744
8 Milwaukee WImarker 1,308,913
9 Indianapolis INmarker 1,287,919
10 Columbus OHmarker 1,133,193

Metro Areas
Rank Metro area State(s) Population
(2000 census)
1 Chicagomarker ILmarker-INmarker-WImarker 9,098,316
2 Detroit MImarker 5,357,538
3 Minneapolis-

St. Paul
MNmarker-WImarker 2,968,806
4 St. Louis MOmarker-ILmarker 2,698,687
5 Cleveland OHmarker 2,148,143
6 Cincinnati OHmarker-KYmarker-INmarker 2,009,632
7 Kansas Citymarker MOmarker-KSmarker 1,836,038
8 Columbus OHmarker 1,612,694
9 Indianapolis INmarker 1,525,104
10 Milwaukee WImarker 1,500,741


Exploration and early settlement

Rural farmland covers a large area of the American Midwest.
European settlement of the area began in the 17th century following French exploration of the region. The French established a network of fur trading posts and Jesuit missions along the Mississippi River system and the upper Great Lakesmarker. French control over the area ended in 1763 with the conclusion of the French and Indian War. British colonists began to expand into the Ohio Country during the 1750s. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 temporarily restrained expansion west of the Appalachian Mountainsmarker, but did not stop it completely.

Early settlement began either via routes over the Appalachian Mountains, such as Braddock Road, or through the waterways of the Great Lakes. Fort Pittmarker (now Pittsburghmarker) at the source of the Ohio River was an early outpost of the overland routes. The first settlements in the Midwest via the waterways of the Great Lakes were centered around military forts and trading posts such as Green Baymarker, Sault Ste.marker Mariemarker, and Detroitmarker. The first inland settlements via the overland routes were in southern Ohio or northern Kentuckymarker, on either side of the Ohio River, and early such pioneers included Daniel Boone and Spencer Records.

Following the American Revolutionary War, the rate of settlers coming from the eastern states increased rapidly. In the 1790s, American Revolutionary War veterans and settlers from the original states moved there in response to federal government land grants. Among the earliest pioneers to Ohio and the Midwest were the Ulster-Scots Presbyterians of Pennsylvaniamarker (often through Virginiamarker) and the Dutch Reformed, Quaker, and Congregationalists of Connecticutmarker.

The region's fertile soil made it possible for farmers to produce abundant harvests of cereal crops such as corn, oats, and, most importantly, wheat. The region soon became known as the nation's "breadbasket".

Development of transportation

Two waterways have been important to the development of the Midwest. The first and foremost was the Ohio River, which flowed into the Mississippi River. Development of the region was halted until 1795 due to Spainmarker's control of the southern part of the Mississippi and its refusal to allow the shipment of American crops down the river and into the Atlantic Oceanmarker.

The Mississippi River inspired two classic books – Life on the Mississippi and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – written by native Missourian Samuel Clemens, who used the pseudonym Mark Twain. His stories became staples of Midwestern lore. Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missourimarker is a tourist attraction offering a glimpse into the Midwest of his time.

The second waterway is the network of routes within the Great Lakesmarker. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 completed an all-water shipping route, more direct than the Mississippi, to New Yorkmarker and the seaport of New York Citymarker. Lakeport cities grew up to handle this new shipping route. During the Industrial Revolution, the lakes became a conduit for iron ore from the Mesabi Range of Minnesota to steel mills in the Mid-Atlantic States. The Saint Lawrence Seaway (1862, widened 1959) opened the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean.

Inland canals in Ohio and Indiana constituted another important waterway, which connected with Great Lakes and Ohio River traffic. The commodities that the Midwest funneled into the Erie Canal down the Ohio River contributed to the wealth of New York Citymarker, which overtook Bostonmarker and Philadelphiamarker. New York State would proudly boast of the Midwest as its "inland empire"; thus, New York would become known as the Empire State.

19th century sectional conflict

The Northwest Ordinance region, comprising the heart of the Midwest, was the first large region of the United States that prohibited slavery (the Northeastern United States emancipated slaves in the 1830s). The regional southern boundary was the Ohio River, the border of freedom and slavery in American history and literature (see Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Beloved by Toni Morrison). The Midwest, particularly Ohio, provided the primary routes for the "Underground Railroad", whereby Midwesterners assisted slaves to freedom from their crossing of the Ohio River through their departure on Lake Erie to Canada.

The region was shaped by the relative absence of slavery (except for Missouri), pioneer settlement, education in one-room free public schools, democratic notions brought by American Revolutionary War veterans, Protestant faiths and experimentation, and agricultural wealth transported on the Ohio River riverboats, flatboats, canal boat, and railroads.

Industrialization and immigration

By the time of the American Civil War, European immigrants bypassed the East Coast of the United States to settle directly in the interior: German immigrants to Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and eastern Missourimarker; Irish immigrants to port cities on the Great Lakes, especially Chicago; Swedes and Norwegians to Wisconsinmarker, Minnesotamarker and northern Iowamarker; and Finns to Upper Michiganmarker and northern/central Minnesota. Poles, Hungarians, and Jews settled in Midwestern cities.

The U.S. was predominantly rural at the time of the Civil War. The Midwest was no exception, dotted with small farms all across the region. The late nineteenth century saw industrialization, immigration, and urbanization that fed the Industrial Revolution, and the heart of industrial domination and innovation was in the Great Lakes states of the Midwest, which only began its slow decline by the late twentieth century.

In the 20th century, African American migration from the Southern United States into the Midwestern states changed Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Gary, Detroit, Minneapolis, and many other cities in the Midwest dramatically, as factories and schools enticed families by the thousands to new opportunities.

History of the term Midwest

As this region lies mostly in the eastern half of the United Statesmarker, the term "Midwest" can be misleading if one does not understand American history.

The term West was applied to the region in the early years of the country. In 1789, the Northwest Ordinance was enacted, creating the Northwest Territory, which was bounded by the Great Lakesmarker and the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Because the Northwest Territory lay between the East Coast and the then-far-West, the states carved out of it were called the "Northwest". In the early 19th century, anything west of the Mississippi River was considered the West, and the Midwest was the region east of the Mississippi and west of the Appalachians. In time, some users began to include Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri in the Midwest. With the settlement of the western prairie, the new term Great Plains States was used for the row of states from North Dakota to Kansas. Later, these states also came to be considered Midwest by some.

The states of the "old Northwest" are now called the "East North Central States" by the United States Census Bureau and the "Great Lakes" region by some of its inhabitants, whereas the states just west of the Mississippi and the Great Plains states are called the "West North Central States" by the Census Bureau. Today people as far west as the prairie sections of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana sometimes identify themselves with the term Midwest. Some parts of the Midwest are still referred to as "Northwest" for historical reasons – for example, Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines and Northwestern Universitymarker in Illinois – so the Northwest region of the country is called the "Pacific Northwest" to make a clear distinction.


Religiously, like most of the United Statesmarker, the Midwest is mostly Christian.

Roman Catholicism is the largest religious denomination in the Midwest, varying between 19 and 29% of the state populations. Southern Baptists compose 15.42% of Missourimarker's population and a small percentage in other Midwestern states. Lutherans are prevalent in the Upper Midwest, especially in Minnesotamarker.

Judaism and Islam are each practiced by 1% or less of the population, with higher concentrations in major urban areas, such as Chicagomarker, Cincinnatimarker, St. Louismarker, Minneapolismarker, Detroitmarker, and Clevelandmarker. Those with no religious affiliation make up 13–16% of the Midwest's population. Around 50% of the people in the Midwest regularly attend church.

The rural heritage of the land in the Midwest remains widely held, even if industrialization and suburbanization have overtaken the states in the original Northwest Territory.

Because of 20th century African American migration from the South, a large African-American urban population lives in most of the region's major cities, although the concentration is not generally as large as that of the Southern United States. The combination of industry and cultures, jazz, blues, and rock and roll led to an outpouring of musical creativity in the 20th century, including new music genres such as the Motown Sound and techno from Detroitmarker and house music from Chicagomarker. Additionally, the electrified Chicago blues sound exemplifies the genre, as popularized by record labels Chess and Alligator and portrayed in such films as The Blues Brothers, Godfathers and Sons and Adventures in Babysitting. Rock and roll music was first identified as a new genre by a Cleveland radio disc jockey, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Famemarker is located in Cleveland.

Cultural overlap with neighboring regions

Differences in the definition of the Midwest mainly split between the Heartland and the Great Plainsmarker on one side, and the Great Lakesmarker and the Rust Belt on the other. While some point to the small towns and agricultural communities in Kansas, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Nebraska of the Great Plainsmarker as representative of traditional Midwestern lifestyles and values, others assert that the declining Rust Belt cities of the Great Lakesmarker – with their histories of 19th- and early-20th-century immigration, manufacturing base, and strong Catholic influence – are more representative of the Midwestern experience.

Certain areas of the traditionally defined Midwest are often cited as not being representative of the region, while other areas traditionally outside of the Midwest are often claimed to be part of the Midwest. These claims often embody historical, cultural, economic or demographic arguments for inclusion or exclusion. Perceptions of the proper classification of the Midwest also vary within the region, and tend toward exclusion rather than inclusion.

Two other regions, Appalachia and the Ozark Mountains, overlap geographically with the Midwest – Appalachia in Southern Ohio and the Ozarks in Southern Missouri. The Ohio River has long been the boundary between North and South and between the Midwest and the Upper South. All of the lower Midwestern states, including Missourimarker, have a major Southern component, but only Missouri was a slave state before the Civil War.

Western Pennsylvania, which contains the cities of Eriemarker and Pittsburghmarker and the Western New York city of Buffalo, New Yorkmarker, shares history with the Midwest but overlaps with Appalachia and the Northeast as well.

Although Kentuckymarker is considered Midwestern by some, reflecting its heritage as a border state that remained in the Union during the Civil War, it is categorized as Southern by the Census Bureau. Because of significant corn and grain production, much of the state forms part of the Corn Belt, along with Midwestern states such as Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa. Industrial regions in northern Kentucky, such as Louisville, have also experienced population and employment declines that have led to their being viewed as part of the Rust Belt. As Kentucky is entirely south of the Ohio River), much of the state, excluding the urban areas such as Louisville, Lexington, and Northern Kentucky(which is part of the Cincinnati Metro Area), speaks in the Southern dialect, and the state is culturally and historically Southern, it is usually not considered part of the Midwest.

Political trends

One of the two major political parties in the United Statesmarker, the Republican Party, originated in Riponmarker, in east-central Wisconsin, in the 1850s. It included opposition to the spread of slavery into new states as one of its agendas.

Midwestern political caution is sometimes peppered with protest, especially in minority communities or those associated with agrarian, labor, or populist roots. This was especially true in the early 20th century, when Milwaukeemarker was a hub of the Socialist movement in the United States, electing three Socialist mayors and the only Socialist Congressional representative (Victor L. Berger) during that time. The metropolis-strewn Great Lakes region tends to be the most liberal area of the Midwest, and liberal presence diminishes gradually as one moves south and west from that region into the less-populated rural areas. The Great Lakes region has spawned politicians such as the La Follette political family, labor leader and five-time Socialist Party of America presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, and Communist Party leader Gus Hall. Minnesota has produced liberal national politicians Paul Wellstone, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey, and protest musician Bob Dylan.

The region is now home to many critical swing states that do not have strong allegiance to either the Democratic or Republican party. Upper Midwestern states, such as Illinois, Minnesotamarker, Wisconsinmarker, Michiganmarker, and Iowamarker have proven reliably Democratic. Normally a Republican stronghold, Indianamarker became a key state in the 2006 mid-term elections, picking up three House Seats to bring the total to five Democrats to four Republicans representing Indianamarker in the U.S. House. In 2008, Indiana voted for the Democratic candidate for the first time in 44 years.

The state government of Illinois is currently dominated by the Democratic Party. Both Illinois senators are Democrats and a majority of the state's U.S. Representatives are also Democrats. Illinois voters have preferred the Democratic presidential candidate by a significant margin in the past five elections (1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008). The same is true of Michiganmarker and Wisconsinmarker, which also currently have Democratic governors and two Democratic senators. Iowamarker is considered by many analysts to be the most evenly divided state in the country, but has leaned Democratic for the past fifteen years or so.

Iowa has a Democratic governor, a Democratic Senator, three Democratic Congressmen out of five, has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in four out of the last five elections, (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008). As of the 2006 mid-term elections, Iowa has a state legislature dominated by Democrats in both chambers. Minnesotamarker voters have chosen the Democratic candidate for president longer than any other state. Minnesota was the only U.S. state (along with Washington, D.C.) to vote for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan in 1984 (Minnesota is Mondale's home state). In Iowa and Minnesota, however, the recent Democratic pluralities have often been fairly narrow. Minnesota has elected and re-elected a Republican governor, as well as supported some of the strongest gun concealment laws in the nation.

In 2006, Democrats scored major gains across the region. In Iowa, Democrats gained control of the state legislature and held onto the governor's mansion, giving them one-party control of Iowa's government. Elsewhere, Democrats gained control of the Wisconsin Senate, the Michigan Legislature, and the Indiana House. Minnesota, thought to be trending Republican, saw the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) post double-digit gains in the Minnesota House and win all state-wide elections, save for the gubernatorial race. Democrats also won all state-wide races in Ohio, and gained control of all Illinois statewide offices. On a federal level, Democrat Sherrod Brown defeated Republican incumbent Mike DeWine 56-44 for the U.S. Senate.

By contrast, the Great Plains states of North Dakotamarker, South Dakotamarker, Nebraskamarker, and Kansasmarker have been strongholds for the Republicans for many decades. These four states have gone for the Republican candidate in every presidential election since 1940, except for Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Barack Obama's capture of one electoral vote in Nebraska in 2008. However, North Dakota's Congressional delegation has been all-Democratic since 1987, and South Dakota has had at least two Democratic members of Congress in every year since 1987. Nebraska has elected Democrats to the Senate and as Governor in recent years, but the state's House delegation has been all-Republican since 1995. Kansas has elected a majority of Democrats as governor since 1956 but has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.

Missourimarker is considered a "bellwether state". Only twice since 1904 has the Show-Me-State not voted for the winner in the presidential election, in 1956 and in 2008. Missouri's House delegation has generally been evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, with the Democrats holding sway in the large cities at the opposite ends of the state, Kansas City and St. Louis, and the Republicans controlling the rest of the state. Missouri's Senate seats were mostly controlled by Democrats until the latter part of the 20th century, but the Republicans have held one or both Senate seats continuously since the 1976 elections.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the region spawned the Populist Movement in the Plains states and later the Progressive Movement, which consisted largely of farmers and merchants intent on making government less corrupt and more receptive to the will of the people. The Republicans were unified anti-slavery politicians, whose later interests in invention, economic progress, women's rights and suffrage, freedman's rights, progressive taxation, wealth creation, election reforms, temperance, and prohibition eventually clashed with the TaftRoosevelt split in 1912. Similarly, the Populist and Progressive Parties developed intellectually from the economic and social progress claimed by the early Republican party. The Protestant and Midwestern ideals of profit, thrift, work ethic, pioneer self-reliance, education, democratic rights, and religious tolerance influenced both parties, despite their eventual drift into opposition.

Some in the Midwest favor isolationism, a belief that America should not involve itself in foreign entanglements. This position gained much support from German- and Swedish-American communities and leaders like Robert M. La Follette, Sr., Robert A. Taft, and Colonel Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune.

Linguistic characteristics

The accents of the region are generally distinct from those of the South and of the urban areas of the American Northeast. To a lesser degree, they are also distinct from the accent of the American West.

The accent characteristic of most of the Midwest is considered by many to be "standard" American English. This accent is preferred by many national radio and television broadcasters.

This may have started because many prominent broadcast personalities – such as Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Tom Brokaw, John Madden, Rush Limbaugh and Casey Kasem – came from this region and so created this perception. A November 1998 National Geographicmarker article attributed the high number of telemarketing firms in Omahamarker to the "neutral accents" of the area's inhabitants.

However, many Midwestern cities are now undergoing the Northern cities vowel shift away from the standard pronunciation of vowels.

The dialect of Minnesotamarker, western Wisconsinmarker, much of North Dakotamarker and Michigan's Upper Peninsula is referred to as the Upper Midwestern Dialect (or "Minnesotan"), and has Scandinavian and Canadianmarker influences.

See also


  2. Population in Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas Ranked by 2000 Population for the United States and Puerto Rico: 1990 and 2000 (pdf). U.S. Census Bureau. December 302003. Accessed November 202007.
  3. Examples of the use of "Middle West" include: and ; among many others.
  4. Merriam-Webster online
  5. Sisson (2006) pp 69-73; Richard Jensen, "The Lynds Revisited," Indiana Magazine of History (Dec 1979) 75: 303-319, online at [1]
  6. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  7. Incorporated Places of 100,000 or More Ranked by Population: 2000 (pdf) U.S. Census Bureau. April 22001. Accessed November 202007.
  8. Sisson (2006) pp 57-60
  11. Defining the Midwest Megaregion
  12. An Outline of American Geography, Map 9: The Agricultural Core
  13. Census Brief: "Rust Belt" Rebounds
  14. Ralph H. Smuckler, "The Region of Isolationism," American Political Science Review, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Jun., 1953), pp. 386-401 in JSTOR; John N. Schacht, Three Faces of Midwestern Isolationism: Gerald P. Nye, Robert E. Wood, John L. Lewis (1981).


  • Buley, R. Carlyle. The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period 1815-1840 2 vol (1951), Pulitzer Prize
  • Cayton, Andrew R. L. Midwest and the Nation (1990)
  • Cayton, Andrew R. L. and Susan E. Gray, Eds. The American Midwest: Essays on Regional History. (2001)
  • Frederick; John T. ed. Out of the Midwest: A Collection of Present-Day Writing (1944) literary excerpts
  • Garland, John H. The North American Midwest: A Regional Geography (1955)
  • Jensen, Richard. The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896 (1971)
  • Fred A. Shannon, "The Status of the Midwestern Farmer in 1900". The Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Vol. 37, No. 3. (Dec., 1950), pp. 491-510. in JSTOR
  • Richard Sisson, Christian Zacher, and Andrew Cayton, eds. The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia (Indiana University Press, 2006), 1916 pp of articles by scholars on all topics covering the 12 states; ISBN 0-253-34886-2 ISBN 978-0-253-34886-9
  • Terre Haute Tribune-Star (West Central news daily)
  • Meyer, David R. "Midwestern Industrialization and the American Manufacturing Belt in the Nineteenth Century". Vol. 49, No. 4 (Dec., 1989) pp. 921-937. The Journal of Economic History, [15349], JSTOR.

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