The Midwest is known as “America’s Heartland” because of its role in the nation’s manufacturing and farming sectors and its patchwork of big commercial cities and small towns. The region includes the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, and Iowa.
This vast north-central area of the United States consists mostly of a low, flat to rolling landscape except for the eastern Midwest near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the heavily glaciated uplands of the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, and the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri. The northern parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota have forests.
Considered the broadest representation of American culture, the accent of most of the Midwest is thought by many to be “standard” American English. Most national television and radio broadcasters speak with a midwestern accent. This may have started because many television show hosts came from this area, such as Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Tom Brokaw, and Casey Kasem.
European settlement of the area began in the 17th century following French exploration of the region and became known as New France. In 1673, the governor of New France sent Jacques Marquette, a Catholic priest and missionary, and Louis Jolliet, a fur trader, to map the way to the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. They traveled through Michigan’s upper peninsula to the northern tip of Lake Michigan. On canoes, they crossed the massive lake and landed at present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, before they entered the Mississippi River on June 17, 1673.
Though the explorers quickly realized that the Mississippi River could not be the Northwest Passage because it flowed south, they continued the journey, mapping the northern portion, recording the wildlife they encountered, and reporting that the native peoples who lived along the route were generally friendly and that the natural resources of the lands were extraordinary.
The American Midwest was the home of over one-quarter of U.S. Presidents and the birthplace of numerous inventors and entrepreneurs that developed technology such as airplanes, automobiles, electric lighting, transistor, petroleum, steel production, and more.
The Midwest is also home to abundant nature, including the massive Great Lakes and the vast Northwoods, which cover northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan and spill over into Canada, making the far end of the upper Midwest very different in character from the more urbanized, agricultural, and industrialized lower Midwest.
Chicago is the most populous city in the region and the third most populous in the nation. Other large cities include Columbus, Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Cleveland, St. Paul, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Madison, and Des Moines.
Economically, the region is balanced between heavy industry and agriculture, with finance and services such as medicine and education becoming increasingly important. Its central location makes it a transportation crossroads for riverboats, railroads, autos, trucks, and airplanes.
In the northern part of this region are the Great Lakes — Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. Rivers connect the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, making it possible for goods to be shipped worldwide. Lake Superior, at more than 350 miles long, is the largest freshwater lake in the world.
Compiled by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.