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41 maps (and charts) that explain the Midwest

Henry Ford. Mark Twain. Willa Cather. Warren Buffett. Abraham Lincoln. Betty Friedan. Bob Dylan. They're all iconic, they all changed the world in one way or another, and they're all Midwesterners. To anyone from the Heartland, it's self-evident that the middle of the country has produced some truly impressive people. But all too often, the Midwest feels ignored by people on the coasts (unless it's an election year). The Midwest is a fascinating place, full of far more than hot dishes and corn and admirable work ethics. Below are 41 maps (and charts) that explain the Midwest's land, people, and what it even is.

    What is the Midwest?

  1. Which states are in the Midwest?

    Which states are in the Midwest?

    Earlier this year, Five Thirty Eight tried to define the Midwest via survey, and found that people's definitions vary greatly. There were some clear front-runners — Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana were most often included. But there was substantial disagreement on clear Midwest occupants (Minnesota, Kansas), and included states that clearly don't qualify (Pennsylvania, Oklahoma).

  2. No, seriously. Which states are in the Midwest?

    No, seriously. Which states are in the Midwest?

    Clearly before we can go further here, we need to arrive at our own definition of the Midwest. Fortunately, the Census Bureau has done that already. This is a map of what the bureau considers the Midwest, though interestingly, even the Census Bureau was slow to come around to defining the term. The Census Bureau only started calling it the "Midwest" in 1984; prior to that, it was the "North Central Region." Disagree with their choices if you'd like, but it's a good middle-of-the-road definition of "Midwest" for our purposes.

  3. How the Midwest was shaped

  4. Formerly known as the Northwest

    Formerly known as the Northwest

    Of course, it wasn't always known as "The Midwest." For example, the Northwest Territory, which the US added in 1787, was actually the eastern chunk of what we think of today as the Midwest (Northwestern University in Illinois, for example, originally served what was at the time the Northwest Territory). So while defining "the Midwest" is tough today, it has also been tough for hundreds of years. In his 1989 book "The Middle West," James Shortridge shows that the definition of "Midwest" has been highly changeable throughout US history. In the 1880s, Kansas and Nebraska were the "Middle West," as opposed to the Dakota Territory (the Northwest) and the area that would be Oklahoma and Texas (the Southwest). It was in the early 20th century, he writes, that people began thinking about the Midwest as having broader definition looking more like the one we use today.

  5. The Louisiana Purchase was a steal

    The Louisiana Purchase was a steal

    After the Northwest Territory, most of the rest of the Midwest was added in 1803, with the Louisiana Purchase. The US paid France roughly $15 million for the land, or around 4 cents for each of the 530 million acres, according to the Library of Congress. That's around $237 million in 2014 dollars, or 45 cents per acre, as calculated using data from the Minneapolis Fed. To put that in perspective, in December 2013, Iowa State University estimated that Iowa's average farmland value was around $8,716 per acre.

  6. Once upon a time, there was one Dakota

    Once upon a time, there was one Dakota

    Once upon a time, there was only one Dakota: Dakota Territory. That massive chunk of land, organized in 1861 out of the Minnesota and Nebraska territories, included all of today's Dakotas, plus large chunks of Montana and Wyoming. According to the Library of Congress, the territory was cut down in 1863 to include only what we know today as the Dakotas. By the 1870s, the people of Dakota territory wanted to be admitted to the Union as a state, but they also couldn't agree on where to put the capital, so they split in two. As Michael P. Malone writes in his 1976 book "Montana," Republicans in Congress were happy to admit two Dakotas, both of them heavily Republican, but Democrats opposed this. After Republicans won control of Congress in the 1888 elections, they were able to bring North and South Dakota in as states in 1889.

  7. A slowly shrinking reservation

    A slowly shrinking reservation

    This map shows how the Great Sioux Reservation gradually became less and less great, in terms of size. National Geographic tells the story of how the massive settlement established by the Fort Laramie treaty in 1868 was slowly eaten away. That reservation once covered half of South Dakota and parts of four other states, but the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, settlers' demand for land, and the Dakotas' statehood all contributed to the federal government slowly shrinking and breaking up the original reservation.

  8. How glaciers made the Midwest the Midwest

    How glaciers made the Midwest the Midwest

    Glaciers are why Michigan is shaped the way it is, why Iowa and Illionis' soils are so fertile, and why Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes (and then some). Glaciers carved up the midwest, creating the dips in Minnesota that eventually formed lakes and helping deposit the sediment that would become rich topsoil. In addition, according to the NOAA, the last retreating glacier was so heavy and powerful that it cut deep depressions that became the Great Lakes.

  9. Putting the Midwest into context

  10. Just a little bigger than Mexico

    Just a little bigger than Mexico

    If you've ever driven through or taken a train through the Midwest — well, first off, congratulations! But secondly, you probably know it's a big, sprawling place. In fact, it would be a fair-sized country in its own right. The Midwest's roughly 821,000 square miles make it about twice the size of France, the country from which the US bought most of it. The region is pretty close in size to Mexico, which is just under 800,000 square miles.

  11. ...with an economy almost the size of Russia's

    ...with an economy almost the size of Russia's

    Aside from being physically big, the Midwest has a formidably sized economy. If it were its own country, it would have the sixth-largest economy in the world, behind the USA, China, Japan, Germany, and Russia, if you adjust other nations' GDPs for purchasing power parity. (This chart shows the US GDP including the Midwest; without the Midwest, the US would clearly fall behind China...but of course, that's not counting whatever economic disruptions would result from the entire Midwest splitting off from the rest of the country.)

  12. A population the size of Thailand's

    A population the size of Thailand's

    As of 2013, there were around 67.5 million people in the Midwest, according to the Census Bureau. That means if the Midwest were a country, it would be around the size of Thailand and slightly bigger than France or the UK. This chart shows other countries whose population counts are close to the Midwest's, as of 2013.

  13. Trains helped make agriculture what it is

    Trains helped make agriculture what it is

    Glaciers may have shaped the land of the Midwest, but trains helped shape the area's economic destiny in the 19th century. This map shows that in 1882, railways were densely concentrated in the Rust Belt and Midwest — even more densely concentrated than in the South, which had been a part of the United States for longer. Railways served very different purposes in those different regions, according to Hofstra University's Geography of Transport Systems. While lines in the South simply connected rural areas with ports, the Midwestern lines were part of a network that connected them with cities. The expansion of the railroads was directly tied to the expansion of the agriculture industry, still a major force in the Midwest. One 2009 NBER paper estimated that railroads were responsible for at least one-fourth of the roughly 150 million acres of farmland added to the US during the 1850s, and maybe even a majority.

  14. The rise and fall of rail

    The rise and fall of rail

    Put another way, the westward expansion of the US into what is now the Midwest was driven by, and helped drive, rail expansion. This chart shows the explosive growth of rail mileage in the second half of the 19th century. Though trains are no longer nearly as prominent in the Midwest as they once were, farmers still depend upon railways like BNSF to deliver grain to customers. In fact, rail delays this year frustrated many farmers, as Minnesota Public Radio reported. The cause of those delays differs depending on whom you ask: railways blame congestion and a brutal winter, while frustrated farmers blame oil shipments from North Dakota. Those delays cost farmers $100 million dollars in Minnesota alone, according to one report.

  15. The Great Migration brings southern blacks into the North

    The Great Migration brings southern blacks into the North

    The Midwest was heavily settled by Germans, the Dutch and Scandinavians, to name just a few. But the region grew more diverse in the 20th century as a result of the Great Migrations — the massive northward push of southern blacks, as they fled segregation and sought a better life. This changed the face of many Midwestern cities. According to the Census Bureau, Gary, Indiana went from 2.3 percent black in 1910 to 18.3 percent black in 1940; those years are generally counted as the start and end of the first Great Migration. Similarly, Chicago's black population grew by 148 percent between 1910 and 1920 alone, and Detroit's grew by 611 percent, according to Even more black families moved during the second Great Migration, from 1940 to 1970.

  16. The economy

  17. The best soil for agriculture

    The best soil for agriculture

    The Midwest is particularly good for farming because of the quality of its soil. Much of the Midwest is covered in mollisols and alfisols, two of the 12 types of soils that geologists distinguish between. Mllisols and alfisols are known for being good for agriculture — mollisols in particular, because they contain so much organic matter, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Together, mollisols and alfisols help make the Midwest a great place to grow the plants that feed the world...or that feed the animals that feed the world.

  18. The champions of photosynthesis

    The champions of photosynthesis

    Acres upon acres of green fields mean lots of photosynthesis. This gif (taken from our own 40 maps that explain food in America) shows all of that plant activity from space. Satellites can measure that process by measuring the tiny fluorescent glow that plants give off as they absorb sunlight. This image shows the changing glow in February, May, August, and November, with by far the brightest glow in August.

  19. Most of the corn we make doesn't end up in high fructose corn syrup

    Most of the corn we make doesn't end up in high fructose corn syrup

    The Midwest produces the vast majority of the nation's corn. According to 2013 USDA numbers, Iowa and Illinois alone accounted for 28 percent of US corn production. But it's not all for human — or even animal — consumption. According to data from the USDA, the share of corn used for animal feed has held relatively steady over the years. Ethanol, meanwhile, has driven demand for corn ever higher. Now, nearly as much corn is used for ethanol as for animal feed. Just over 5 billion bushels are used for ethanol, compared to 5.2 billion for animal feed and residual use.

  20. Rather, a lot of it ends up in ethanol

    Rather, a lot of it ends up in ethanol

    All of that corn means ethanol plants galore. Iowa, with its 42 plants as of 2013, produces by far the most ethanol of any state, with 3.7 billion gallons per year. That's almost double the No. 2 state, Nebraska. This map of completed and under-construction ethanol plants tells you more about the Midwest than where corn is grown. It helps explain sky-high land prices, which have been driven upward by corn prices that have been pushed up in part by ethanol. It also explains a bit about midwestern politics. Ethanol remains a hot-button political issue, but its support among national-level politicians appears to be eroding. Rick Santorum won the 2012 Iowa caucuses despite calling for an end to the federal mandate for ethanol in US fuels, as the Huffington Post reported.

  21. Thank Iowa for your bacon.

    Thank Iowa for your bacon.

    One reason to stop ragging on "flyover country": it's where your bacon comes from. Iowa, despite being the 30th-largest state in terms of population, is number 1 in terms of pork production, and by a wide margin. The Hawkeye State produces nearly one-third of the nation's pork, according to National Hog Farmer's 2013 State of the Industry Report. That's almost as much as the next three states combined. Accordingto the National Pork Producers' Council, the state produces $4.1 billion in pork each year.

  22. Of course Wisconsin dominates in cheese-making

    Of course Wisconsin dominates in cheese-making

    Wisconsonians Wisconsinites are known as cheeseheads for a reason. The state is by far the nation's largest cheese producer, according to USDA data, and accounts for roughly one-quarter of all US cheese production. That's about as much as the bottom 44 states put together.

  23. The Great Lakes are crowded with boats

    The Great Lakes are crowded with boats

    The Great Lakes helped make the Midwestern economy what it is, and a great deal of business still takes place on them. In July, freighters on the Great Lakes moved 11.36 million tons of goods. A 2011 study found that shipping activity on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway supports 227,000 jobs and provides people with $14.1 billion in personal income. At the time this article was written, 342 ships or boats were either moored, anchored, or moving about on the Great Lakes. The map at right is a screenshot of that activity as captured on Boat Nerd, which tracks ships and boats on the lakes in real time.

  24. A blighted Motor City

    A blighted Motor City

    This map from the Detroit Free Press shows just how dire things have gotten in Motor City. The decline of the auto industry has helped send that city's population packing, leaving a sea of abandoned buildings and lots behind. A May report from that city's blight removal task force recommended tearing down 40,000 structures, as reported by the Times, and found that around 30 percent of buildings in the city are blighted or getting there.

  25. An explosion in oil production

    An explosion in oil production

    This gif captures the explosive growth of oil production over the Bakken formation, which spans western North Dakota and stretches into Montana, Wyoming, and Canada. The 2006 discovery of oil at the Parshall Oil Field sparked a big increase in oil production...and as the next map shows, a population explosion that is still continuing.

  26. North Dakota's ridiculously fast population growth

    North Dakota's ridiculously fast population growth

    All of that oil in North Dakota has driven an economic boom, attracting tens of thousands of people to the state. This map of US population growth from 2012 to 2013 shows that, with the possible exception of the Midland-Odessa area of Texas, no region is as big of a hot spot as western North Dakota. Since 2010, North Dakota's population has grown by 7.6 percent, while the US population as a whole only grew 2.4 percent. North Dakota also had the fastest-growing personal income in 2013, up 7.6 percent from 2012, according to the Commerce Department; nationwide, personal income only grew 2.6 percent. One more staggering statistic: North Dakota's Mountrail County saw its employment skyrocket from 2007 to 2011, growing by 138 percent.

  27. Environmental problems

  28. How Chicago could soon become San Antonio

    How Chicago could soon become San Antonio

    In a 2009 report, the Union of Concerned Scientists projected what the Midwestern climate will look like over the next century, should climate change continue. By 2039, temperatures are expected to grow appreciably across the region, by an average of 2.4 to 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit, a number that will only increase as time goes on and the atmosphere's carbon levels keep growing. One way the UCS depicts this is via the idea of "climate migration," or comparing states' future climates with other states' climates today. In the UCS's most extreme, higher-emissions scenario, Illinois' climate will eventually be something like that in southern Texas today. Michigan's lower peninsula, meanwhile, could feel like North Texas today. That means corn and soybean farms could soon be in jeopardy.

  29. How Chicago reversed a river (and messed up the environment)


    How Chicago reversed a river (and messed up the environment)

    In 1900, Chicago achieved an ambitious goal: reversing the Chicago River so that it stopped flowing into Lake Michigan. The idea was to keep their sewers from polluting Lake Michigan (and therefore their water supply), as CityLab explains. The city accomplished this by building the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects the Chicago River and the Des Plaines River, which connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. Altogether, this new system stopped the Chicago River from dumping into Lake Michigan by reversing its exit into the lake and having it instead connect to Des Plaines River. The project worked, stopping water-born illness among city residents. All this sounds like an impressive feat, but today it's causing new problems, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2010. The biggest one is invasive species, particularly the Asian Carp. The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal means those fish can get from the Mississippi to the Chicago River and then into Lake Michigan. These massive, leaping, invasive fish can not only disrupt ecosystems and also pose a threat to boaters. It's not just Asian carp, either; invasive fish have proven capable of getting past an electric barrier constructed to keep them out. To solve the problem, the Army Corps of Engineers earlier this year released eight proposals to keep fish out of the lake, including the possibility of reconstructing the former natural barrier.

  30. A rapidly-drying aquifer

    A rapidly-drying aquifer

    Climate change isn't the only environmental catastrophe the Midwest faces; parts of it also could soon be battling a water shortage. The Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies most of Nebraska, as well as large swaths of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, is at risk of being depleted. An aquifer is an underground source of water, where water is stored in rock or other materials. As Vox's Brad Plumer wrote in 2013, researchers recently found that 30 percent of the aquifer under Kansas was already depleted, with 39 percent more set to be pumped out within the next half-century. This map shows areas where water usage from the aquifer has outstripped rainfall (red areas) … and that's just from 1980 to 1995. Agriculture is the main culprit, so farmers may have to undertake more aggressive conservation techniques.

  31. The lay of the land

  32. Lake Superior isn't just huge; it's deep, too

    Lake Superior isn't just huge; it's deep, too

    They all look huge from above, but not all Great Lakes are created equal. While Lake Superior plunges down more than 1,300 feet, Lake Erie's 210 foot depth looks like barely a puddle. Still, Oregon's Crater Lake wins the depth award among US lakes, at more than 1,900 feet.

  33. Michigan: beach paradise

    Michigan: beach paradise

    You don't often think of Michigan as a beach state, but it actually has almost as much shoreline on the Great Lakes as California has on the Pacific Ocean. Between its two peninsulas, Michigan boasts 3,288 miles of shoreline on the Great Lakes and connecting rivers, according to the state government. That's similar to the ocean shoreline boasted by coastal states like California and Texas, as counted by the Census Bureau. Of course, no state comes even close to Alaska's 33,900 miles of shore, which were too big to even put on this chart without dwarfing everyone else.

  34. Minnesota: beachier paradise

    Minnesota: beachier paradse

    Minnesota is not the land of 10,000 lakes; it's the land of 11,842 lakes. Because of all that water, one fact you'll often hear repeated in Minnesota is that it has 90,000 miles of shoreline — more than Florida, California, and Hawaii combined, according to the Minnesota Secretary of State. That may be common knowledge, but last year blogger Chris Finke set out to prove (or disprove) it. According to data he obtained from Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota has 44,926 miles of lake shoreline. That's more than Florida's 8,400 miles and Louisiana's 7,700 miles, according to the Census Bureau — and while that doesn't include those other states' lakes (and though it comes out to only half the 90,000 mile figure), it's still impressive. Of course, that's just Minnesota's lakeshore compared to other states' ocean shorelines. So Finke also compiled estimates online of lake shoreline in all those states. The result? Minnesota indeed beats those three states combined, but only if you count streams and rivers. Finke's results are shown to the right.

  35. Is Kansas as flat as a pancake? No. It's flatter.

    Is Kansas as flat as a pancake? No. It's flatter.

    Admittedly, this chart is on the fuzzy side, but it's too good not to include. Researchers at Texas State and Arizona State Universities attempted to determine whether Kansas was, in fact, "flatter than a pancake," in a study highlighted on Improbable Research. As it turns out, it is. Researchers compared a pancake purchased at a local IHOP with an east-west topographical profile of Kansas and found out that the state is indeed flatter than the breakfast food. Who knew?

  36. From a bike seat, Iowa doesn't feel all that flat.

    From a bike seat, Iowa doesn't feel all that flat.

    Speaking of Midwestern states' flatness or lack thereof, let's talk about RAGBRAI. Each summer, thousands of bicyclists flock to Iowa to participate the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Tradition is to dip your rear wheel in the Missouri at the start, at the state's western edge, then your front wheel in the Mississippi at the end. The route changes each year; this is 2014's elevation change map. And to anyone riding the course, some of these steep climbs are proof that Iowa isn't entirely flat.

  37. Yes, whatever. Stop calling them the "flyover states."

    Yes, whatever. Stop calling them the "flyover states."

    If you look at a major airline's route map, then yes, fine, parts of the Midwest (and, to be fair, a big chunk of the West) look like they deserve the name "flyover states." Except for two things: 1) Several Midwest cities, like Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, serve as major airline hubs, so there are plenty of Midwestern stopovers. And 2) seriously, using the term "flyover country" is just downright rude (for a much lengthier and more articulate tirade on this topic, read Matthew Wolfson's fantastic dissection of the term and Midwestern culture at the New Republic). So stop saying it. And in the meantime, check out the map (at right) of Delta's flight router. United's is very similar.

  38. Who Midwesterners are and what makes them so special

  39. Lutherans everywhere (but also Methodists) (and some Southern Baptists)

    Lutherans everywhere (but also Methodists) (and some Southern Baptists)

    There's a reason Garrison Keillor goes on about Lutherans: they dominate the upper Midwest. The map at right shows the largest Protestant denomination in each county in the US. Clearly, among Protestants Evangelical Lutheran Church in America members and Missouri Synod Lutherans (dark and light blue, respectively) run the show in Minnesota, the Dakotas, northern Iowa, and parts of Wisconsin … and that doesn't even include Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, who are likely represented by some of the brown-colored counties in Wisconsin. Farther south and east, Methodists (green) are the main denomination. Missouri stands apart in being almost entirely dominated by Southern Baptists. This all at least explains some of the Midwest's religious culture, but it doesn't show where the Catholics are.

  40. The new, less-Midwestern Big Ten

    The new, less-Midwestern Big 10

    For decades, the Big Ten athletic conference was based in the Midwest (with the exception of Penn State, which as we established earlier, is not in the Midwest). This year, with the addition of Rutgers and the University of Maryland, it's becoming a little more East Coast. In addition, Johns Hopkins is a member for the sport of men's lacrosse.

  41. Where lutefisk is a way of life

    Where lutefisk is a way of life

    Mmmmmm. Dried cod soaked in lye until it's gelatinous. Many Upper Midwesterners line up outside community centers and churches during the winter for (strong-smelling) holiday lutefisk feeds. The tradition of eating lutefisk started in Scandinavian countries, but as Smithsonian Magazine wrote in 2011, it might be more popular among Minnesotans than it is among Norwegians themselves. At the very least, the Upper Midwest dominates lutefisk interest in the US, with the most searches by far done in North Dakota and Minnesota.

  42. Ranch dressing, cheddar cheese, and dip

    Ranch dressing, cheddar cheese, and dip

    When they're not eating lutefisk, Midwesterners apparently like to chow down on ranch dressing, cheddar cheese, and dips of some sort, according to data compiled by FastCo.Design from Food Genius. The ranch dressing belt isn't purely Midwestern; it extends south and also claims Vermont. Either way: gross.

  43. What if there were an East and West Dakota?

    What if there were an East and West Dakota?

    North and South Dakota went their respective northern and southern ways when they couldn't agree on a capital. But what would have happened to their populations if they had gone east and west, with the Missouri River as a dividing line? Joseph Kerski crunched the numbers for mapping company ESRI's blog. East Dakota would have more than 1.1 million people as of 2010, nearly three times West Dakota's 367,000. Even without a formal split, the east-west distinction matters; people in the Dakotas feel a cultural east-west divide, referring to people as either "East River" or "West River" Dakotans, depending on which end of the state they're from. One Dakotan tour guide, Shebby Lee, actually leads tours of the states broken down by East and West Dakota.

  44. It's pop, not soda (and definitely not "coke")

    It's pop, not soda (and definitely not "coke")

    In the great war of soda v. pop v. coke, the Midwest is firmly pop country. Most of the Midwest, plus a bit of the upper West, prefers the term pop, according to data from the Harvard Dialect Survey compiled by Joshua Katz of North Carolina State University. However, soda-preferring St. Louis and Milwaukee seem to have missed the memo.

  45. How cow tipping would work, if it really ever happened

    How cow tipping would work, if it really ever happened

    Chances are excellent that your Midwestern friends never actually tipped any cows. You'd think it would be easy, since cows have that high center of gravity on those spindly-looking legs. But get right up close to a full-grown Holstein and you'll realize that you'd have to be a linebacker to even have a chance at tipping it. Modern Farmer did an excellent dissection of the physics of cow-tipping last year, complete with mathematical calculations of the amount of force you'd need to actually pull off this feat. The answer: you'd need two people to tip a cow that wasn't putting up a fight. Once the cow did start to fight back, that number increases to five or six people.

  46. One of the most iconic marching band formations out there

    One of the most iconic marching band formations out there

    The Ohio State marching band is known for being one of the best college marching bands in the nation. One of their best-known tricks is spelling out "Ohio" in cursive (and sending a tuba player to "dot the i" is a time-honored tradition). This diagram shows exactly where each player stands in the formation. According to the OSU marching band site, all of the players know the whole thing by heart: "Each member memorizes the entire formation, and everyone is expected to hit the exact spots charted at exactly the right time. … In fact, if you were to select any band member at random, he or she could lead Script Ohio without a single misstep."

  47. Bob Dylan, Motown, and Slipknot

    Bob Dylan, Motown, and Slipknot

    The Midwest is responsible for giving the world a host of ridiculously great music: "Girl from the North Country," "Purple Rain," and "Seven Nation Army" (an army that's going to Wichita, no less), just for starters. There are so many fantastic bands from the Midwest that you might not even be able to read them on the map to the right. Click through to get a better look. Also: you're welcome, America.


Correction: This article originally stated Crater Lake is in Utah. It is in Oregon. This post has also been updated to clarify and emphasize that the map of denominations only depicts Protestant Christians, not Catholics.


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