The History of the Upper Midwest: An Overview

  • The Lay of the Land Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota form the northernmost tier of states in the Old Northwest. They all bound the upper Great Lakes (Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron). Their abundant waters empty east into the St. Lawrence river and south into the Mississippi. (The waters of much of northwestern Minnesota follow a different course, emptying north into Hudson Bay.) The three states share a common northern...
  • The Indians at the Time of Contact, 1600-1850 Native American cultures had occupied the Upper Midwest for centuries before whites arrived in the region. The invading whites were properly impressed by the thousands of burial mounds then to be found in the southern portions of the region, left behind by the extinct Hopewellian and Mississippian cultures. The Indians encountered by the whites at the time of contact depended upon fishing and hunting...
  • The French Lead the Way: c. 1500-1763 France took the lead in colonizing the Upper Midwest region. From the early sixteenth century on, French soldiers, missionaries and fur traders left their slight mark upon the St. Lawrence valley, the upper Great Lakes and points west. For the early French explorers, the more continent they discovered the more their hopes were frustrated. They had hoped that the vast St. Lawrence-Great Lakes waterway...
  • The British Take and Lose Control, 1763-1812 When the British government attempted to consolidate its vast North American holdings after the French withdrawal in 1763, it found itself confronted by what turned out to be insoluble problems about how to control and pay for its new empire. The government immediately established a Proclamation Line along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains, beyond which white settlement was to be prohibited. A decade...
  • The Northwest and the Ordinances, 1783-1858 In many respects, the definition of political institutions and provisions for the surveying of land in the Old Northwest set the pattern for the rest of the new nation. Once eastern states renounced their claims in the Ohio country, there was a need to specify how those older states were to relate to whatever took shape in the largely unpopulated area. The Northwest Ordinance...
  • The Yankee Empire, 1820-1890 Early migration to Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota from the east came disproportionately from New England and New York. That pattern was mightily reinforced by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which funneled Yankees and ex-Yankees from New York into the southern portions of the Upper Midwest. Each state in turn for a time dubbed itself "the New England of the West." Yankees...
  • The Pineries (1820-1900) and the Mines (1850-) Timber and mining areas in the north followed an altogether different trajectory than did the rural culture that took hold in the southern part of the Upper Midwest region. The timber boom exploited the vast pine forest belt that at one time stretched from New England to western Canada, including all of Michigan, the northern half of Wisconsin and the northern and eastern portions...
  • American But More So By 1890, the Upper Midwest was firmly integrated into the national economy. A fully-developed railroad system moved the region's products east through Chicago to New York. Wheat cultivation shifted to the north and west as yields within the region diminished and new lands elsewhere demonstrated their superiority. A spectacular example of the new wheat lands was the Red River valley in far northwestern Minnesota...