Migration and the Midwest


What is the Midwest? The region is often discussed as an environmentally distinct area or a cultural idea. It is also a place shaped by the people who have lived and moved through it. Whether forced or voluntary, peaceful or violent, the migration of people in and out of the Midwest provides a useful way to begin understanding the region.

Philippe Buache, Physical Map of the Highest Land of Western Canada (1754)

First and foremost, the Midwest is the home of Indigenous peoples past and present. Well before Europeans arrived on the continent, Indigenous groups migrated across and within the Midwest. They established settlements and conducted trade as well as growing, hunting, and gathering food. From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, Indigenous groups increasingly accommodated the growing, European-driven fur trade that came to dominate the Great Lakes region. The linked lakes in the French map above reflect the knowledge of Indigenous sources that communicated navigation information as a series of rivers and lakes. In the nineteenth century, Euro-American settlers forcibly removed Indigenous nations from the Midwest, often with state and federal backing. Yankees from the East and immigrants from Europe occupied the area, pursuing agriculture, building utopian settlements, or fleeing unrest. Both enslaved and free African Americans also lived in the region over the course of the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century, the Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the South transformed Midwestern cities. War and economic factors brought numerous other groups to the Midwest in the twentieth century and beyond, including formerly interned Japanese Americans who moved to Chicago after World War II.

The Midwest has historically been a dynamic place of movement and encounter, characterized by violent forced migration and racial discrimination as well as promising economic opportunity for migrants and immigrants.

Stories of migration reveal how the Midwest is both distinct from and connected to neighboring regions. Human movement in the Midwest through the nineteenth century relied heavily on water travel, from the Missouri River east to the Ohio River, including the upper Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes region. The expansion of railroads and the forced displacement of Indigenous people was later repeated in the West with even more powerful federal backing. Midwestern and Southern economies also interacted as white slaveowners traveled to North for vacation and work or African Americans moved to the Midwest to escape slavery and, later, sharecropping. Broad trajectories of migration as well as individual stories destabilize the cultural idea of the Midwest as peaceful, white, and homogenous. The Midwest has historically been a dynamic place of movement and encounter, characterized by violent forced migration and racial discrimination as well as promising economic opportunity for migrants and immigrants.

Essential Questions:

  • What are some motivations, shared among various groups, for migrating to and from the Midwest?
  • What is the relationship between European immigration and Indigenous displacement?
  • What roles did the United States federal government play in the migration stories of various groups?
  • What challenges have people faced while migrating to and from the Midwest? How have different groups survived and resisted discrimination and forced migration?

Indigenous Migration

Gilbert Kills Pretty Enemy III, Dakota Access Pipeline Poster (2016)

Simon Pokagon, Pottawatomie Book of Genesis (1901)

Indigenous people moved across the region’s waterways and trade routes for thousands of years before European presence on the continent and for centuries afterward. On the right is an except from a Pottawatomie creation story asserting their origins in the Great Lakes region. The settlement of Europeans in the eastern Great Lakes region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sparked wars and displacement that rippled inland. Indigenous groups throughout the Midwest maintained cultural and political structures though these disruptions and incorporated European traders into kinship networks and economic systems. The fur trade also influenced where and how people lived as Indigenous groups navigated waterways, seasons, and land to secure animal pelts and exchange goods at trading posts.

Iowa Railroad Land Company, Choice Iowa Farming Lands (1870)

In the nineteenth century and beyond, Euro-American settlers and the United States government began to displace Indigenous peoples in the Midwest more systematically and violently. This process of violently replacing an Indigenous group with outside colonists is called settler colonialism. Although Indigenous groups experienced this forced migration differently, displacement in the region followed a broad pattern. First, the United States government used treaties and war to force Indigenous people off their land. Next, railroad companies purchased land from the United States government at a low price and built tracks ahead of settler demand. Then, Euro-American settlers purchased land from the government or the railroad at low prices, often grow crops for eastern markets.

Settler colonialism completely displaced some Indigenous groups from the region. Other communities were restricted to reservations, which limited their ability to farm, hunt, and fish. By the 1850s, the United States government shifted to a policy of allotting reservation lands to individuals in an effort to sell off and further reduce Indigenous land ownership. Policy-makers also considered allotments a way to “civilize” Indigenous people, as private land ownership was a hallmark of Euro-American ideas of “civilization.” Into the twentieth century, Indigenous people in the Midwest continued to face job discrimination and assaults on cultural identify through boarding schools designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-American society.

“The Burns Family in Waukegan” (1950)

In 1956, the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) expanded its relocation program to encourage Indigenous migration from reservations to urban areas like Chicago. Promotional materials, like the page pictured to the right, emphasized job placement and training while showcasing people who found improved quality of life in new communities. The relocation program proved beneficial for some, but others considered it another example of forced migration and did not experience improved conditions in cities. In Chicago, a growing American Indian community founded cultural organizations like the American Indian Center. Indigenous groups throughout the Midwest continued to advocate for cultural self-determination and mobilized around common social causes from the late twentieth century to today. For example, Indigenous groups and allies protested the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline across the Missouri River in 2016. A poster from that protest is pictured at the top of this section.

Questions to Consider:

  1. How does the depiction of waterways at the top of the French map pictured in the introduction differ from the drawings in the lower right-hand section? What do the maps reveal about the differences between Indigenous and French approaches to navigation?
  2. In Simon Pokagon’s Pottawatamie Book of Genesis, what is the relationship between the Anishinaabek and the Great Lake? How does Gilbert Kills Pretty Enemy III depict the relationship between the Missouri River and Standing Rock protesters? What similarities or differences do you observe?
  3. The Meskwaki were one of several Indigenous nations that lived in current-day Iowa. They were forcibly displaced from the region in the early nineteenth century but many returned to the region beginning in 1857 and continue to live there today. (To learn more, visit Midwest Connections: Meskwaki.) How does the Choice Iowa Farming Lands pamphlet erase Indigenous presence on or claim to the land called Iowa?
  4. How did the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) advertise the benefits of relocation with the flyer on the Burns Family in Waukegan? How was the BIA’s strategy similar to or different from previous federal “civilizing” policies like allotments or boarding schools?

European-American (Im)migration

Mary Sackett, Diary (1841).

The European Americans that settled on Indigenous land in the nineteenth century often migrated from the eastern United States or immigrated from European countries. For example, Mary W. Burhans married John Montgomery Roberts in 1831 and moved from upstate New York to southern Illinois to farm. Ten years later, Mary Sackett was a teenager when her father decided to move the family from Brooklyn, New York to Laona, Illinois. Hermann Raster was a revolutionary who fled Germany after the 1848 revolutions and worked as a journalist in New York State. Raster then moved to Chicago where he edited the Illinois Staats-Zeitung, a prominent German-language newspaper. The stories of Sackett, Roberts, and Raster hint at the diverse set of motivations and circumstances that shaped Euro-American migration to the Midwest.

Dear Brother, I now commence the journal which I promised to keep for your reading. I shall not have anything to write I fear that will be very interesting to you. A journal, of such common events and from such a pen as mine will I fear merit but little of your attention, but if you will promise that no eyes but yours shall see this, I will do the best that I can hoping that wherein I fail your better judgement and kindness will allow you to correct me. I shall commence on the 18th of May 1841. After a painful parting with you and our friends we retired to the cabin which we found nearly full of Irish Dutch or English, who were preparing their supper, which they spread upon the cabin table and eat with much apparent enjoyment. We took tea with the Captain whom we found to be quite a jovial sort of a man. he told us that he was going to take his wife on board, as soon as he came to his farm which lay on the banks of the river, and give her a sail for her health, and she would be some company for us. We did not, however, reach the farm before night and were thus deprived of the lady’s society. Her health not permitting her to venture out at so late an hour. The steamboat on which we sailed was called the Commerce and at that time had five boats in tow which were well laden and prevented our going fast. We retired at an early hour with severe headaches which after a night of sound sleep was entirely dispersed.  

From Newberry Transcribe

For more on reading transcriptions see the Skills Lesson: Reading a Transcription.

Selection: Mary Robert’s Diary (1831)

May the 18th. This morning took leave of my Dear Brother. Oh! what agony filled my breast whence I imprinted on his cheek the last kiss. I received his last embrace. Where shall I find relief for this aching heart. Oh! my Dear dear Brother I never knew how much I loved you until called to part with you. My heart is ready to burst with anguish when I think I may never gaze upon those dear features again, that I cannot be near you in health to sympathise [sic] with and console you in affliction that in sickness I am refused the pleasure of attending you and administering to your necessities. Oh that our days had always been days of childhood that we might have been near each other. But it is a vain and wicked wish. May God give us minds to be contented in the situation in which he has placed us yet [in the?] excep [sic] of grief we forget all things but the cause of it and murmur against that hand who sends it to share us the rarity of this and the fallaciousness of promises. 

May the 14th My heart refuses to be comforted. I can think of nothing but parting with my beloved brother & sisters leaving my dear native place where rest the remains of the kindest and best of parents. Oh! that I might be reconciled to my fate [2] And think that – all things work together for our good. yet it is cruel, passing cruel, to be torn from the warm embraces of those dear ones with whom we spent the early days of childhood and whose voices have grown so familiar that they almost seem our own, although I go with one to whom I am bound by the most sacred ties and who has promised to protect me with his life. 

Sunday May the 15th – Rode to Durham to church my heart so oppressed that I could not enjoy the services of the day.  Left is some measure sensible of my depravity felt that God alone was able to give peace to my aching heart. 

May the 17th A delightful day. Yesterday visited a freind [friend] whom I love much her agreeable conversation and engaging manners contributed not a little to alleviate the sorrows of my heart. 

Oh! who would be devoid of sympathy who would have a heart so callous that it cannot feel another’s woe, I pity them they know not what luxury of soul other reap by giving cards 

the tale of distress and sympathizing and administering consolation to their afflicted and disconsolate fellow beings.  How often have I found releif [sic] by pouring forth to each this of some confidential and fellow person my causes for greif [sic] and they consoled in the endearing language of friendship. take away everything but give that susceptibility of heart which at the [3] recital of another woes will call forth the pitying tear 

Friday May the 27th Rode 3 miles on horseback to see a freind felt a slight pain in my side in the afternoon started for home about dark the pain in my side increased to such a degree that it was with difficulty I rode home it soon became so violent that I thought I could not live sent immediately for a physician. Distant six miles suffered the most extreme pain untill the came and afforded me some releif thought of my past-life had some serious thoughts on death, judgement, and eternity. this morning found myself much better continued so during the day. 

Sunday 29th a pleasant day could not enjoy it on account of my ill health. 

Monday the 30 have suffered a good deal today with the pain in my side felt unable to stand but was obliged to exercise myself a considerable. 

Teusday the 31st Called a Doctor last night felt extremely weak today with much severe pain in my side thought much of my beloved brother. [?] who in sickness much depend upon the charity of strangers. O what a blessing is home where kind parents can watch over sick beds I have the best attention and am treated with much kindness, yet I feel that “be it ever so humble there is no place like home, we know then that our wants are relieved by those whose duty and whose pleasure it is to help us. 

Transcribed by Elizabeth Laurie       

For more on reading transcriptions see the Skills Lesson: Reading a Transcription.

Hermann Raster, Letter to mother-in-law Anna Oppenheim (May 8, 1870)

R. B. Weston, Letter to George C. Weston from Nauvoo (1844)

In addition to individual and family settlers, groups migrated into and through the Midwest to establish ideal, utopian communities. Two such groups—one Mormon, the other Icarian—passed through Nauvoo, Illinois in the mid-nineteenth century. Joseph Smith and fellow members of the Mormon church arrived in western Illinois in the late 1830s after facing violence in Ohio and Missouri. Smith purchased the town of Commerce from a land speculator who had secured land from the United States government after the forced removal of local Meskwaki communities. Smith oversaw the draining of the swampy region, renamed the town Nauvoo, and began constructing a temple. The town’s population grew until hostility from nearby residents started brewing. Smith was arrested and killed in 1844, and continued antagonism from local Illinoians forced the Mormons to migrate westward to Utah.

Brief History of Icaria (1880)

arthage July 15th 1844 

Dear Brother I take the presant [sic] time to inform you of our situation and condition, We received your letter of May 10th we have also received three papers with pleasure, I would sent you a paper but could not get any you have probably received my leter [sic] by Mr. Holman before this time and learned what bad luck I had at the South. When I got home here there was quite a prospect of business being good, and did engage some jobs for which I was to have had some money but there has been so much rain that I have not been able to do any thing of consequence for two moths past there will be no corn nor potatoes raised about here this year but I have news that is worse than all the rest we are in continual fear of the  of the Mormons they have sworn vengeance against us, there has been an army of about two thousand men here in order to force the execution of the laws which have so long been troden [sic] under foot by the mormons [sic] they distroyed [sic] a printing press at Nauvoo which was got up by ceceders [sic] from them it was called the press of the Nauvoo expositer [sic] Jo ordered it to be distroyed [sic] a Writ was got out against them they refused to come to trial fortified their City and took up arms against the officers Governor Ford was sent for he come and has been trying to do something he has made them give up the arms which belongs to the United States took Jo and some others they were tried and bound over to Court they were to have had another trial on Saturdady, June 27, for treason on 26th they were comitted [sic] to jail the 27 they Jo and his B Hiram were kiled [sic] by a party of men from Missoury [sic] who overpowered the guard an shot them both previous to this the Governeor [sic] has disbanded the army with the exceptions of companies and one of their companies went to guard the Governor to Nauvoo an express was sent to the governor that Jo & Hiram were kiled [sic] when he got the news, he come with speed to Carthage ordered the town to be evacuated and removed the head quarters the Quincy We are all up and in arms all business is suspended all except Mormons are getting out of the County as fast      

Transcribed by Elizabeth Laurie       

For more on reading transcriptions see the Skills Lesson: Reading a Transcription.

After the Mormons were expelled from Nauvoo, much of the town’s housing stood vacant. A group of Icarians purchased buildings in Nauvoo to establish a permanent settlement after failing to start a colony in Texas. A utopian movement founded in France, the Icarians embraced the principles of equality and communal living in Étienne Cabet’s novel, Voyage en Icarie (Voyage to Icaria). After a short period of prosperity in Nauvoo, the community went bankrupt and moved westward to Corning, Iowa.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What similarities emerge n the first few pages of Roberts’ and Sackett’s diaries? Consider what they document, their motivations for writing a diary, and their feelings about their trips.
  2. What does Raster choose to write about? What differences can you infer about his life in the United States in contrast to his life in Germany?
  3. What role did choice play in the migration of Roberts, Sackett, and Raster?
  4. What similarities and differences do you notice in the experiences of the Mormons and Icarians in Nauvoo, particularly in the circumstances of each group’s arrival and departure?
  5. The sources in this section include diaries, correspondence, and an official history. What unique insight does each primary source format provide?

African-American Migration

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, “Railroad Worker” (1948)

Well before the Great Migration, many African Americans—often born into slavery in the South—moved to the Midwest. In some cases, white slaveowners brought enslaved people with them while traveling for vacation or work. In one infamous example, U.S. Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson kept Dred Scott, his wife Harriet, and their children Eliza and Lizzie enslaved even as they traveled through Midwestern territories where slavery was illegal. Scott sued for his freedom based on his residence in free territories, but the Supreme Court ruled that he did not even have the standing to sue because he was enslaved. The national story of slavery and the lives of enslaved people contribute to the Midwest’s history as a site of forced migration.

Selection: Horace Gray, A Legal Review of the Case of Dred Scott (1857)
Selection: Rufus Estes, Good Things to Eat, As Suggested by Rufus (1911)
LeFlore Family Ledger, (1867)

Other African Americans moved to the Midwest as freedpeople to make a living. The ledger to the left is an example of the conditions they left in the South. It records the work and debts of sharecroppers on a cotton plantation in Carroll County, Mississippi, just after the Civil War. Some, like Rufus Estes, migrated to urban areas. Estes was born into slavery in Murray County, Tennessee and moved to Nashville with his mother after the Civil War. Estes found employment at restaurants in Nashville and Chicago before working at the Pullman Company for fourteen years, providing service in private dining cars. In 1907, he began his tenure as chef for the United States Steel Corporation in Chicago. Other black families moved to rural areas in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, Era Bell Thompson was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1905 and moved with her family to Driscoll, North Dakota when she was nine years old. In 1945, while on fellowship at the Newberry Library, Thompson wrote American Daughter, an autobiography about her family’s experiences as one of the only African American families in North Dakota.

Era Bell Thompson, American Daughter (1946)

From World War I through World War II, six million African Americans moved from the South to the urban North, including Midwestern cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Indianapolis. Wartime industry created a large supply of wage jobs that appealed to many rural black southerners, including sharecroppers. In Midwestern cities, however, African Americans frequently encountered job and education discrimination, exclusion from labor unions, and restrictive housing segregation.

Questions to Consider:

  1. In which current Midwestern states did Dr. Emerson enslave Dred Scott and his family? How does the Dred Scoot case complicate the idea that slavery was a strictly southern problem?
  2. Using clues from the documents in this section, what were some of the advantages and disadvantages of wage work in the urban Midwest in contrast to sharecropping in the South?
  3. How did racism manifest in the classroom experience described by Era Bell Thompson?

Japanese-American Migration

Japanese American immigration to the Midwest began in the late nineteenth century but was limited by restrictions on Asian immigration in the early twentieth century. For example, the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 banned Japanese immigration to the United States altogether. Chicago had the largest Japanese-American population in the Midwest in the early twentieth century with just two-to-three hundred residents, many of whom ran small businesses in the city. During World War II, the United States forcibly relocated more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in the West to internment camps. Both Issei (Japanese-born) and Nisei (born in the United States) were interned. Some Nisei left the camps to join the United States military. The War Relocation Authority also allowed camp residents to relocate to Midwestern cities—including Chicago, Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Detroit, Cleveland, and Indianapolis—to pursue higher education or employment. Japanese-American communities continued to grow after the war, as many interned Japanese Americans had lost their homes and possessions in the West. Chicago’s Japanese-American community in particular expanded significantly, as demonstrated in a yearbook that lists Japanese-American housing, churches, and civic organizations and showcases advertisements from Japanese-American businesses in the city.

Selection: Kalifornians Enterprise, Chicago Japanese-American Year Book (1947)

Questions to Consider:

  1. How does Brother Theophane Walsh describe Japanese-American migration to Chicago on page ten?
  2. What kinds of businesses and organizations are highlighted in the yearbook?
  3. Do you notice any patterns in the biographies on pages 13 through 20? Consider the migration trajectories, timelines, motivations, and values each biography emphasizes.

Selected Sources

Danziger, Edmund Jefferson Jr. Great Lakes Indian Accommodation and Resistance during the Early Reservation Years, 1850-1900. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2009.

Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Hirsch, Arnold R. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Hyde, Anne Farrar. Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Kiel, Doug. “Untaiming the Mild Frontier: In Search of New Midwestern Histories.” Middle West Review, fall 2014, 20.

Schwalm, Leslie. Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Sisson, Richard, Chris Zacher, and Andrew Cayton, editors. The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Sugrue, Thomas J. Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empire, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York, Oxford University Press, 2011.