What Is “Midwest,” Anyway?

Unless you like to read bloggers who have no regard for intellectual property rights, you’re reading this article on a website called Midwest Sports Fans. While not all who contribute to MSF currently live in the Midwestern United States, we all have ties to the Midwest and maintain allegiances to college and pro sports teams in the region. These Midwestern sympathies set MSF apart from sports websites whose writers identify with the coasts or the south.

But what does “Midwest” mean?

I had assumed that, for most Americans, “Midwest” meant the Great Lakes, the Rust Belt, the Big Ten, corn, and the American League Central. But after spending much of last week in Sacramento, I’m not so sure.

When I mentioned the “Midwest” to people in California, many assumed that I was talking about the Rocky Mountain region, and several found it odd that I considered Ohio and Indiana Midwestern.

Maybe we need to do a better job of defining “Midwest” so that people elsewhere in the country know what we’re talking about.

In a discussion on the MSF Contributors Facebook Page, co-editor AJ Kaufman offered this definition:

I define the Midwest . . . as beginning with Pittsburgh and moving west [through] Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, as far as perhaps Des Moines (central Iowa), and north as far as Minnesota, and of course Wisconsin and Michigan. It does not go much more southern than Louisville, at least culturally. (St. Louis, needless to add, is also Midwest, as is the rest of Missouri all the way to the Missouri River in KC, though southern Missouri, culturally, is more “southern” than Midwestern.)

Western Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas City and all of Kansas itself would be Great Plains, as would North Dakota and all of South Dakota, excluding the extreme western part.

AJ’s map of the Midwest looks something like this:

Purple states are wholly in the Midwest. Orange states are "border states." Parts of these states belong to the Midwest.

Unlike AJ, I don’t think of the Great Plains as being separate from the Midwest but as being one of two sub-regions within the Midwest, the other being the Great Lakes sub-region. My map looks like this:

Purple states belong to the "Great Lakes" sub-region. Orange States belong to the "Great Plains" sub-region.

The United States Census Bureau agrees with me, mostly. The Midwest is one of four regions recognized by the Census Bureau, and it includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

The Census Bureau also divides the Midwest into two sub-regions, or Divisions: West North Central and East North Central. Its map looks like this:

Purple states are in the Census Bureau's "East North Central" Division. Orange states are in the "West North Central" Division.

The Census Bureau isn’t the only entity to offer a formal definition of the region. The World English Dictionary defines “Midwest” as such:

the N central part of the US; the region consisting of the states from Ohio westwards that border on the Great Lakes, often extended to include the upper Mississippi and Missouri valleys

That definition could fit any of the maps above.

The World English Dictionary also provides some information on the origin of the word “Midwest”:

from earlier Midwestern (1889) in ref. to a group of states originally listed as W.Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas.

Apparently, this was once the Midwest:

The definition of "Midwestern" in 1889. Things were weird back then.

(I will use this map to justify the many future columns I will write about the Vanderbilt Commodores.)

Setting aside the bizarre 1889 definition, we can say with confidence that the Midwest includes most or all of the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Next question: Does the Midwest extend north of the border?

Western Ontario and southern Manitoba are geographically and culturally similar to their southern neighbors. Ontario shares maritime borders with Ohio and Michigan and a land border with Minnesota. Manitoba shares land borders with Minnesota and North Dakota. For sports purposes, can we claim Winnipeg, or even Toronto and Hamilton, as part of the Midwest? Perhaps not, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Now it’s your turn:

Which states do you consider be "the Midwest"? (Select all that apply)

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Editor’s note: Like a jackwagon, I left Missouri out of the initial poll. We love the Show Me State; it was not intentional. They were added after 459 votes had been cast, so take that into consideration when viewing the results.

The term “Midwest” comes from a bygone era when the population of the United States was so concentrated on the eastern seaboard that anything on the far side of the Alleghenies was considered western. Back when the mean center of the country’s population was in Indiana and the westernmost Major League Baseball team played in St. Louis, it made perfect sense to refer to cities such as Chicago and Cleveland as Midwestern.

With the population of the United States moving west and south, it makes sense that young people would be confused by the term. After all, if you look at a map of the U.S., start in the west, and move toward the middle, you’re likely to end up in Wyoming or Colorado, not Ohio or Michigan.

But for those of us who grew up in Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, the Midwest will always be the Midwest. Even if the name is longitudinally inaccurate, we will always associate “Midwest” with the Packers, Cardinals, Bulls, and Red Wings; with the Buckeyes, Hawkeyes, Badgers, Hoosiers, and Wolverines; with Chicago-style Pizza and the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald; with Motown, Devo, and the Smashing Pumpkins; with limestone quarries and iron mines. You get the point.


Note: I created all of the maps at this website, created many years ago at Texas A&M (which, despite being in the Big 12, is not in the Midwest).

Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


  1. Great post Josh. It's about time we put up something like this! Personally, I agree with your view and include the Great Plains states in the Midwest. Although, I must say, I'd never considered the Dakotas to be Midwestern, but that's my own fault for foolishly overlooking them. I think too much in terms of sports and because Big Ten teams rarely cross paths with teams from North or South Dakota, those two states (both lovely and wonderful by all accounts) never entered by natural thought process about the region. But they are now. But Colorado? Wyoming? It seems so laughable to me that people could think that, but I guess every region of the country has its own biases.

    Awesome job on this. I really enjoyed editing, reading, and thinking about.

  2. I had this discussion with some friends from PA recently.

    Growing up in Michigan, I generally considered the Midwest to be synonymous with the Big Ten- Pennsylvania isn't the Midwest though, and I'd add in Missouri, even though, as you pointed out, the southern part is much more "South" than "Midwest". (PS-Missouri is not on your voting list). I considered the Great Plains to be separate from the Midwest (basically my map would be the same as AJ's).

    I won't argue against including the Great Plains states, though, I just didn't really consider them Midwest when I was growing up.

    However, these friends from Pennsylvania tried to convince me that Michigan was not actually part of the Midwest…which greatly confused me. What the heck do you think we are if we're not in the Midwest?

    Anyway, I've never considered whether Canada can be included, interesting food for thought. Back before you needed a passport to cross the border, we used to compete with teams from Ontario all the time as kids…

  3. markjdowell says:

    Being born and raised in Louisville, then coming to Bloomington and spending much of my time in Indiana, I would vouch for Louisville being part of the Midwest. But definitely not Kentucky. Louisville is the Gateway to the South and the Midwest. It possesses much of the charm of the south brought in mostly by bourbon and horse racing, but is very much a embodiment of Midwestern sensibility.

    I know I grew up a Midwesten-er. Most Louisvillians will claim Midwestern status to avoid being group with those Southern UK people.

  4. Amanda Lawson says:

    Living in the Midwest, you just assume that everyone has the same view point on what the Midwest is. I agree with your map for the most part. I don't consider the Dakotas part of the Midwest, Nebraska is a toss up and I don't know what I would label Kansas as. Wyoming is definitely not close, but I guess if you're not living in the Midwest, it might be harder to define. Great work Josh!

  5. Love this article! Thanks for mentioning my views too. I'm not sure about that one person who voted for Colorado, but at least no one voted for Manitoba!

    I also look culturally more than geographically. I do not look sports-wise.

    Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Missouri do not have "midwestern cutlure," nor do most of Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota, aside from the eastern parts of the state, where the large cities are (KC, Omaha, Lincoln, Fargo, Sioux Falls).

    But nonetheless, great work, Josh.

    (And no, folks from the coast don't understand anything "in the middle" of the country–hence, this map of the US as seen by a New Yorker that's been going around lately):

    Sad but (mostly) true.

    • Keith Mullett says:

      Completely agree about culture being a determining factor. Obviously geography is the main qualifier, but for the borderline states I cede to the culture and mindset of the residents.

  6. Please update the user poll. The state of Missouri is currently missing.

  7. Manitoba?…all of Canada is midwestern in mindset, except those frenchies who think they are Euro. There are western parts of Pennsylvania and New York State that seem more Midwestern than East Coast.

  8. What dumb fuck decided to call this region "midwest" instead of "central" or "Great Lakes" anyways?
    Is there so little value to this region that you have to piggyback on another region's name?
    Even the KKK yahoos in the "south" got their regional name right.
    Christ, pull your collective head out of your ass! already.

  9. Growing up in Michigan I barely ever heard the term Midwest and never once heard Michigan referred to as being part of it. I never heard this really until I moved to Chicago where I seemed to hear it a lot. I guess I never really considered Michigan part of the Midwest. The northern states don't seem to fit in the category.

    • I grew up in Michigan and thought the same exact thing. I never thought of Michigan as a midwest state.

      • That's funny. I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and we always thought of Michigan as a midwest state.

    • Wow…this is fascinating to me. I grew up in Indiana and never questioned Michigan as a Midwest state, probably because of their Big 10 affiliation. It's fascinating to see the difference in view.

    • I've lived outside of Flint my whole life, and we've always considered Michigan to be a part of the Midwest.

      Of course, according to the Michigan fight song, we're the champions of the West.

  10. Having grown up in a south western state, I always thought it funny that they are called "midwest." Midwest to what – they are mid eastern. I understand the historical reasons for them being considered midwest, but I think the name denotes an eastern centric point of view.

  11. Peter Voth says:

    I can assure you that no one from Ontario considers themselves to be part of the midwest.

    • Well if people actually think Michigan is part of the Midwest it wouldn't be hard for them to think Ontario is! Haha

  12. perhaps the Midwest is just a state of mind : )

  13. Kurt Allen says:

    Oklahoma is midwest, suburb of OKC is called Midwest City, or Midwest can be any state with a Culver's, or any market with a MLB franchise that Dave Magadan DID NOT play for… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Culvers2011Feb….

  14. All of those states look further east to me.

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