The Real Midwest

The Midwest is three different places - Yankeeland, Nation of Immigrants, and Cracker Nation - four, if you include the Germanic Heartland

American Midwest

In the minds of White Southerners, especially those in the Deep South, the “Yankees” are the people who live in the Northern States, which is loosely defined as the Northeast and Midwest beyond the Potomac and Ohio Rivers.

The Midwest is considered everything beyond the Ohio River. Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia were never part of the Confederacy. In spite of this, these three states are never associated with the Midwest around here.

Southerners intuitively define the border of “Dixie,” culturally speaking, as the northern border of the Cracker Nation, and geographically speaking, as the Ohio River. The Southern people are the Scots-Irish Crackers, the Tidewater Cavaliers, and the Carolina Chivalry.

The truth is more complicated: the Cracker Nation settled large swathes of Southern Illinois, Southern Indiana, and Southern Ohio. Pennsyltucky was also the cultural heartland of the Cracker Nation – the launching pad for the conquest of the Southern Backcountry.

In the War Between the States, the “Copperheads” and “Butternuts” lived in this area. The Yankees colonized the Upper Midwest where they dominated Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Inland North American English reflects Yankee settlement patterns

But what about the people who settled the Midwest who were neither Yankees or Crackers? This is really insightful excerpt:

Nineteenth-century visitors ofter remarked on the difference between the areas north and south of the old National Road, an early highway that bisected Ohio and which is now called U.S. 40. North of the road, houses were said to be substantial and well maintained, with well-fed livestock outside and literate, well-schooled inhabitants within. Village greens, white church steeples, town hall belfries, and green-shuttered houses were the norm. South of the road, farm buildings were unpainted, the people were poorer and less educated, and the better homes were built with brick in Greco-Roman style. “As you travel north across Ohio,” Ohio State Univeresity dean Harlan Hatcher wrote in 1945, “you feel that you have been transported from Virginia to Connecticut.” There were exceptions (Yankees skipped over the marshlands of Indiana and northeastern Ohio en route to Michigan and Illinois), and between Appalachian “Virginia” and Yankee “Connecticut” one passed through a Midland transition zone. But the general observation holds true: the place we called “the Midwest” is actually divided into east-west cultural bands running all the way out to the Mississippi River and beyond.

Foreign immigrants to the Midwest often chose where to settle based on their degree of affinity or hostility to the dominant culture, and vice versa. The first major wave was German, and, not surprisingly, many of them joined their countrymen in the Midlands. Those who did not faced a choice between the Yankees and the Appalachian folk; few opted to settle in areas controlled by the later.

Swedes and other Scandinavians, for their part, were comfortable with the Yankees, with whom they shared a commitment to frugality, sobriety, and civic responsibility; a hostility to slavery; and an acceptance of a state run church. “The Scandinavians are the ‘New Englanders’ of the Old World,” a Congregational missionary in the Midwest informed his colleagues. “We can as confidently rely upon them to help American Christians rightly [make]  … ‘America for Christ’ as we can rely upon the good old stock of Massachusetts.

Other groups who fundamentally disagreed with New England values avoided the region on account of the Yankees’ reputation for minding other people’s business and pressuring newcomers to conform to their cultural norms. Catholics – whether Irish, south German, or Italian – did not appreciate the Yankee educational system, correctly recognizing that the schools were designed to assimilate their children into Yankee culture. In areas where Catholic immigrants cohabited with Yankees, the newcomers created their own parallel system of parochial schools precisely to protect their children from the Yankee mold. Yankees often reacted with hostility, denouncing Catholic immigrants as unwitting  tools of a Vatican-directed conspiracy to bring down the republic. Whenever possible, Catholic immigrants chose to live in the more tolerant, multicultural Midlands or in individualistic Appalachia, where moral crusaders were looked upon as self righteous and irritating. Even German Protestants found themselves at odds with their Yankee neighbors, who would try to pressure them into giving up their brewing traditions and beer gardens in favor of a solemn, austere observance of the Sabbath. Multiculturalism wouldn’t become a Yankee hallmark until much later, after Puritan values ceased to be seen as essential to promoting the common good.

Political scientists investigating voting patterns have probed electoral records dating back to the early nineteenth century, matching polling-place returns with demographic information about each precinct. The results have been startling. Previous assumptions about class or occupation being the key factors influencing voter choices have turned out to be completely wrong, with the nineteenth-century Midwest providing some of the most intriguing evidence that ethnographic origins trumped all other considerations from 1850 onward. Poor white German Catholic miners in northern Wisconsin tended to vote entirely different from poor white English Methodist miners in the same area. English Congregationalists tended to vote alike regardless of whether they lived in cities or on farms. Scandinavian immigrants voted with native-born Yankees in opposition to candidates and policies preferred by immigrant Irish Catholics or native-born Southern Baptists of Appalachian origin.

As the nation careened toward civil war in the 1850s, areas first settled by Yankees gravitated to the new Republican Party. Counties dominated by immigrants from New England or Scandinavia were the strongest Republican supporters, generally backed by German Protestants. This made Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota reliably Republican straight through the mid-twentieth century; the other states split along national lines. Later, when the Republicans became champions in the fight against civil rights, Yankee-dominated states and counties in the Midwest flipped en masse to the Democrats, just as their colleagues in New England did. The outlines of the Western Reserve are still visible on a county-by-county map of the 2000, 2004, or 2008 presidential elections.

Truth comes out.

There is really no such thing as the “Midwest” – there is the Cracker Midwest, the Yankee Midwest, and “Nation of Immigrants” which was sandwiched in between the two.

Immediately, this explains the unusual deviancy of Indiana which persists to the present day, as well as the history of Ohio and Illinois, which had “Jim Crow” laws in the Antebellum period when those states were dominated by Appalachian Crackers who shared the Border South antipathy to negroes.

Like Vermont and New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Minnesota never passed anti-miscegenation laws or segregation laws. Iowa repealed its anti-miscegenation law in 1851. Ohio and Illinois repealed their black codes after they started to fill upon with European immigrants.

This also explains the Antebellum alliance between Southern Whites and Northern Catholics in the Democratic Party. The “Know-Nothings” were overwhelmingly Yankees who saw the Catholics as part of a Vatican conspiracy to enslave Protestant Yankeeland.

The Irish rioted in New York City because they didn’t want to be sent to the frontlines in Virginia to fight for negro equality. The Georgia Irish who had settled in Savannah and Dublin ended up tragically shooting the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg.

The Irish of New Orleans also rioted against Reconstruction in New Orleans. See David Gleason’s The Irish in the South, 1815 to 1877.

The Irish integrated into southern society without abandoning their ethnic identity. They displayed their loyalty by fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War and in particular by opposing the Radical Reconstruction that followed. By 1877, they were a unique part of the “Solid South.” Unlike the Irish in other parts of the United States, the Irish in the South had to fit into a regional culture as well as American culture in general. By following their attempts to become southerners, we learn much about the unique experience of ethnicity in the American South.

In Dixie, the Irish settled in a caste based society that was constructed around the color line, and since the Irish were perceived as “White,” they zealously embraced their White identity which eroded the difference between the “Protestant Irish” and “Catholic Irish.”

In the North, the Irish assimilated into a different culture. Just watch Hardball With Chris Matthews, The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell, and the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC tonight.

Note: The most Southern of movies, Gone With The Wind, is wrapped up in the Irish experience in the South. Tara, Scarlett’s plantation, is named after the ancient capital of Ireland.

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  1. well my people dominated the north and the south and the west before these
    people came in the picture and then they wiped my people plum out just about oh well
    im a Northern fucker in Midwest.

  2. i also thought in the picture above we in Indiana should be blue and folks in the south should be red right i suppose they are blue and we are red then is that right.

  3. I’m a Midwesterner, born and raised. You make a good point, but it isn’t true for every area of the Midwest.

    “There is really no such thing as the “Midwest” – there is the Cracker Midwest, the Yankee Midwest, and “Nation of Immigrants” which was sandwiched in between the two.”

    My parents are from Indiana. My mom’s family specifically from Southern Indiana and before that mostly Kentucky and North Carolina, also Tennessee and Virginia to a lesser extent. You might as well call most, if not all, of Indiana as Kentuckiana.

    However, you enter a different world as you go further west and further north in the Midwest. I wrote about one distinction that can be seen in a mapping of individualism and collectivism:

    The map can be seen here (scroll down to page 6):

    This shows why Iowa is very different along with Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Even the Upper Midwest of Wisconsin and Minnesota is vastly different from most of the eastern Midwest and the Northwest. Indiana, of course, fits more in with the Upper South than with the Midwest.

    What makes Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and further west different is that these areas had large concentrations of Northern Europeans. Yes, Northern Europeans often allied with Yankees, but they weren’t Yankees. It was only in the Upper Midwest that you found entire cities dominated by Germans with newspapers written in the German language and public schools taught in the German language. It is also the only place you ever found long-lasting implementation of sewer socialism, something not seen in New England. There are also lots of farmer collectives and local co-ops found in these mostly rural farm states.

    Over at hbd chick, she had an interesting post about individualism and collectivism (see the last part of the post):

    I responded by connecting her speculations to my own:

  4. “This also explains the Antebellum alliance between Southern Whites and Northern Catholics in the Democratic Party. The “Know-Nothings” were overwhelmingly Yankees who saw the Catholics as part of a Vatican conspiracy to enslave Protestant Yankeeland.”

    An interesting comment. I don’t know enough to say much about it, but I can think of one complication. I’ve read that German immigrants who were mostly Protestants often had great mistrust of the “Know-Nothings” and were wary of the early Republican Party for this reason.

    I’m not sure if it is relevant, but in Iowa there are a ton of Catholics. Many rural small towns have Catholic churches. They are all over the place. In the town I live in, there originally was a German Catholic church and later the Czechs built their own Catholic church.

    One connection many don’t know about is that many Germans and Czechs, after going west across the Midwest, headed North into Canada and South down as far as Northern Texas hill country. I’m not sure if this relates to religious adherents being concentrated in the central band of the US from North to South:

  5. This is very good work. I am a Swedish Yankee from Michigan. My paternal grandfather came from Sweden, and my maternal grandmother was descended from John Annis (1700 –1771) an early pioneer in New Hampshire. And I share your analysis of the ethnic divide from the formative period of our country. My critique of Crackers is they tend in live in fantasy. For example: the superiority of the white race. The lowest, poorest, most miserable men drunkenly glory in the supremacy of the white race. Rubbish! It is too damn cold up here not to face reality. The Good Lord made all Men brothers! If you don’t like it, take it with Him when you see Him. If you get to see Him.

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