Always to the frontier

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Defining the Not-Midwest: Settlement Patterns

"You know, I like Buffalo.  It's not quite northeast, not quite midwest, but its own sort of thing."
-Anonymous friend from Albany.

In recent years, the citizens of West Virginia have been getting uppity.  No longer content to be labeled anything along the lines of "Appalachian" or "borderline southern", the residents have desired to be counted in the census as, wait for this, midwesterners and southerners.  In the north, particularly in the panhandle, the cultural essence of the state shares much in common with the neighboring parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland, right down to local accents and dialects, and even restaurants and common retail outlets.  For whatever reason, and the next few posts will be about theorizing why this is the case, they have instead opted to be considered midwestern, which they think Ohio pretty much is.  Now, Ohio at least has been called this before.  So?  What's the problem?

Well, West Virginia is, uh, due north of the Carolinas, and south of Pennsylvania and New York.  It lies roughly half way into the eastern timezone.  It was a part of Virginia until the Civil War.  Need I go on?  Apparently I do, because it seems that inclusion in the midwest is one of the most desirable things out at the current time; heartland affiliation is passionately sought after by conservatives claiming to be American traditionalists.  That's right.  I brought politics into this.  Why?  Because they are screwing with geography and don't need to!  For the next few days, I am going to go in depth as to what I think the Midwest consists of, and to be up front and honest, I am excluding Michigan, a good third of Ohio, and most assuredly, I am excluding anything to their east.  Now, why?  Well, I am not trying to do this because I dislike the right, the left, or anything called the heartland.  I am trying to do this because I think there is more regional diversity to this country than often gets recognized.  I am doing this because history and geography deserve to be more than just political wands and magic spells.  I am doing this because I LOVE Michigan, northern Ohio, southern Ontario (and look, I just attacked a boundary), and western New York.  I think these places are unique areas that deserve more than being ignored by greater political camps who only use them to their advantage.  East coasters, midwesterners, you have great lands!  East coasters, midwesterners, don't pass these ones off as more of what you are, and come visit us!  Well, with that out of the way...

Let's start off the series with (and note, I am not using the word "lesson" here) a look into Euro-American settlement of the lands beyond the Appalachian crest.

I realize that this is a mess of map, and that some of the colors look alike.  Let's code it down, then, starting with teal.  Teal, in the valleys west of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia, is essentially where the cradle of western expansion lies.  It was from these valleys that the already rustic pioneer population made tracks towards Kentucky, following men such as Daniel Boone through Cumberland Gap, which is the red dot between the two states.  Following, and often with the initial Virginians, would be immigrants from Pennsylvania, including many Germans and other European immigrants who had already been settling there for about 70 years.  The expansion from Cumberland Gap started in 1775, and took off almost overnight.  By 1792, enough people had settled in Kentucky for it to become the first state west of the eastern seaboard.  By 1812, as you can see from the lighter blue on the map, the Kentuckians had spread out along the waterways of the Ohio, Tennessee, Scioto, Miami, Wabash, and finally Mississippi-Missouri rivers.  Today, the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois bear a culture and attitude that was handed down to them by these pioneers.  They are in many ways the first midwesterners, and together with later immigrants who arrived in Chicago and from the National Road, mingled with them, and are the modern midwesterners.

As you can see, however, they did not make it all the way north.  From the upper Potomac and historic core of Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, a great immigrant port, we have those brown arrows and lines, which consisted of migrants of what have since been referred to as the "midlanders".  With the exception of the Mormons and some religious groups from New England, most of the minority Christian religious groups settled this region, and often started here as well.  Their accents and dialects of American English are markedly different from the Virginians and Kentuckians, without much of a drawl of the south, or the nasal characteristics of the north.  The people of this region that did end up constantly pressing west took the valley road down to Virginia and mixed in with the groups in the south that moved past the Cumberland Gap.  Those that stayed often slowly moved into the interior of the Appalachians and Allegheny Plateau.  They followed the valleys and ridges, often along rivers such as the Delaware and Susquehanna.  Others cut further west on the Potomac and raced ahead of the National Road that began construction in 1811.  They settled in places like Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Cumberland, Altoona, and into Ohio.  From around Columbus and eastward, they mingled with the Kentucky crowd, and founded cities like Indianapolis and Vandalia.  In the parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and a tiny bit of the southern tier of New York, they remained a more distinct culture and maintained their dialect and accents.  These regions are also dominated by a staid adherence to colonial architecture, almost as if Philadelphia extended out with the migrants.

Further north still was another great gateway of American expansion, New York City.  From here we see a dark blue stream emerge, with migration that began during the American revolution, and that really got underway after the construction of the Erie Canal.  Unlike the wilderness pioneers of the Cumberland route, or the small town and farm mentality of the National Road expansion, these settlers would be largely urban, extremely diverse, and continue as a stream of immigration well into the 1890s.  Here the American and German majorities would be joined by large groups of Irish, Italian, and Polish settlers.  In the first half of their colonization, and this is key now, they would settle in the areas around Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, and would pretty much settle most of interior New York, lakeshore Pennsylvania and Ohio, and nearly all of the lower peninsula of Michigan.  Starting with waves of Irish immigrants who started coming to the United States (instead of formerly to just Canada) in the 1840's, the second half of this migration found European immigrants, notably those listed above, also coming to these areas.  More and more, however, the great destination became the interior gateway of Chicago, wherein they settled and spread out across the west to help form part of the modern midwestern culture.  Again, however, such a mixing did not largely happen in Michigan, northern Ohio, and so on.  These areas are to this day largely devoid of Kentuckian influence.

Of particular note are two sub-groups that took part in the early stages of this migration.  The bright yellow stands out a bit, in more ways than one.  As you can see, it starts in Connecticut and joins the Erie Canal route, but then promptly leaves the lakeside migrant routes in northeastern Ohio.  You see, back when the 13 colonies were chartered, they tended to have no western boundary and theoretically shot all the way to the Pacific.  The shore colonies from Delaware northwards were hemmed in by their western neighbors in this regard, but a few of them claimed land beyond the Appalachian frontier anyway.  Connecticut claimed the north shore of Ohio, and until 1800, when it gave up its claim, sent its emigrants to the area.  The "northwestern reserve", to this day, feels like a little bit of New England, with much of the architecture and city plans a spot on match for those back home in the "Constitution state".  The salmon arrows (sorry, I realize salmon looks almost like pink, I have a limited color selection to choose from) that extend from Albany and Buffalo towards Canada are the routes taken by the loyalists of the northeast as part of their exodus from the United States.  Much of southern and eastern Ontario, and a good portion of the land around Montreal, contains the descendants of these people.  Of course, they were not fortunate in having a canal to escape on.  By 1812, they had been joined by Americans taking the water level route through New York, and they with other immigrant groups, mainly from the British Isles and some from Germany, formed the cultural area that has since become southern Ontario.  The region, of course, has many similarities with Michigan and many more with western New York, with the key difference being obvious.

Finally, we have the pink lines representing French colonization.  The French were very compact in their colonization process, probably because they were largely frontiersmen looking to trade and hunt with the native peoples.  Their path of settlement is quite linear compared to the other migrant pathways, and they usually stuck quite densely to the waterways, especially along the St. Lawrence and Detroit rivers.  Much of their presence in the interior of the continent outside of Canada is now largely in names of cities,counties, and rivers, with the exception of places such as northern Maine, the eastern upper peninsula of Michigan, the metro-Detroit area (where many family names are still French), and scattered locales such as Vincennes, Indiana.  Though largely an evaporated influence, the French-Canadian-American presence still adds something unique to parts of the interior, notably southeastern Michigan.

So how do we know how much this has impacted the land, aside from romanticizing the effect immigration has had on this country largely considered to be a melting-pot in which immigrants are absorbed into the American cultural machine?  Well, we could stop to remember that absorb is perhaps a less effective word in describing the evolution of a nation that was essentially added to by all these peoples.  We drink far more coffee than tea, spaghetti is a common place dinner, more perogis are consumed here than anywhere else on earth outside of Poland, and Lutherans and Catholics far out populate Episcopalians.  That said, Lutherans are going to be a lot more common west of Lake Michigan than east of it, perogis are common menu items in Detroit and Buffalo, and you will be hard pressed to find a Tim Horton's in the United States outside of western New York, northern Ohio, or Michigan.  Interesting cultural coincidences, no?  Still skeptical?  Well, come back for the next few days as we delve into this a bit deeper.  You can also check out this interesting linguistic map in the meantime.

Now, I am sure my cultural familiarity with the places and peoples mentioned will be contested, but I can at least be counted on to be an authority on things Michigan, western New York, and Ontario, having lived most of my life in one of these three places.  Come by tomorrow to read more of why I think the Lakes/Nearwest region is unique, and of course, check out this earlier post that explains what I think is unique and special about the actual Midwest.  As always, feel free to leave comments, even and especially if you want to tear me apart on this.  My blog is not a place for totalitarian academic speeches, it is a place where perspectives are shared.

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