Joel Kotkin, Alicia Kurimska


Until recently, the Heartland’s immigrant legacy lay largely obscured — displaced urban ethnic enclaves, abandoned synagogues and discarded German-language newspapers.

Yet in those mementos lies a tale relevant once again today as the foreign-born once again are re-shaping the region.

Immigrants were a critical part of the Heartland’s story. Starting in the 1830s, German immigrants were critical to the development of Missouri, particularly St. Louis, and residues of German culture remain in cities like Columbus, Cincinnati and Milwaukee. In 1880, nearly half of all children in St. Louis were of German descent, while another 28 percent were from other European countries. As late as 1900, one in five residents was foreign-born and another forty percent were children of immigrants.[i] By 1940, half of Cleveland’s population was foreign-born, and another 30 percent were their offspring.

These newcomers — followed by those from Italy, Poland, Russia and the Middle East — staffed the great factories and shaped the neighborhoods of the Heartland’s urban centers, most famously Chicago. Touring the Midwest in the mid-1940s, John Gunther described the Midwest as the epicenter of the “American melting pot,” a place that needed lots of brawn and brainpower to develop.[ii]

Yet this was far more than just an urban phenomenon.  Half of North Dakota’s farmers in 1910 were foreign-born, the bulk from Scandinavia, Germany, Russia and Canada; they were perhaps prepared to cope with harsh weather, settle the wind-swept prairie and build a society there.[iii]

Immigration soon declined, partly because the parts of the world that had supplied workers no longer sent many after 1950. Today there’s only minimal immigration from places like Sweden, Germany, Ireland and Italy; overall European immigrants account for barely 11 percent of all newcomers, compared to 75 percent in 1960. Among the region’s big metropolitan areas, only Detroit and Chicago have European immigrant populations above.

Due largely to the reliance on chattel slavery and then Jim Crow era repression, relatively few immigrants moved to the South, preferring either the factory economy of the North or to settle amidst the small farm-dominated economy of the Plains. By 1860, only 500,000 of the nation’s four million foreign-born people lived in the slave states– one factor among many in the Confederacy’s critical manpower shortages.[iv]

Of course, there were exceptions, notably New Orleans, which sported a very diverse population from early times and continued to attract Jewish, Italian, Irish and other ethnic migrants to its urban economy. By early in the 20th century, a similar movement was occurring in Texas.  Frederick Olmstead talks about “half German” colonies there, referring to the heavily German and Czech colonies of central Texas that were  populated by even poor migrants who managed to buy farms and “made the happiest progress.”[v]

Today the South, particularly Texas, has emerged as a major lure for immigrants. The current wave of immigrants — mostly from Africa, Latin America and Asia — go there and elsewhere in the Heartland are revive a tradition of migrant enterprise and hard work that built much of the Midwest and the Plains until recently concentrated largely in the big coastal metropolitan areas.[vi]

The return of the foreign-born marks a new chapter, not just in the Midwest or Texas, but also across the entirety of the region. There is a new generation seeking to forge their own “happiest progress.”  The languages, heritage and skin colors may differ from the past, but the spirit of enterprise and hard work that defined their European predecessors has returned in force to the region.

[i] James Neal Primm, Lion in the Valley: St. Louis, 1764-1980, (St. Louis, Mo: Missouri Historical Society,1981). P.143, p.314-315,p. 338

[ii] John Gunther, Inside USA, (New York: The New Press,1946), p.275,pp.4-44-45

[iii] Robinson, p. 246

[iv] Thomas Muller, Immigrants, and the American City, (New York: New York University Press,1993),p.77-8,

[v] Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey Through Texas, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), pp. 428-431

[vi] Muller, pp.127-8