Is Missouri the South or Midwest? Here’s what residents said in a new survey
Given the Show-Me state's proximity to the South — and its history as a slave state — researchers decided to ask how Missouri residents thought about their identity.
A new survey of Missourians shows the vast majority claim Midwestern identity.
Scholars with the Middle West Review and researchers at Emerson University asked Missourians: “Do you live in the Midwest or the South?”
About 94% of the poll respondents answered “Midwest.”
Jon Lauck, editor of the Middle West Review, said Missouri’s unique geography and history spurred the researchers to do the study.
“Where does the South begin? The last few counties in southern Missouri? At the Arkansas border? These are the questions we're trying to answer or at least talk about,” Lauck said.
The Missouri poll was an outgrowth of a 2023 regional study that asked people in 22 states if they consider themselves Midwesterners. The U.S. Census Bureau counts 12 states as part of the Midwest, and most of the people in those states responded in the affirmative.
“There are doubters out there who believe that the Midwest doesn't exist, or it's not a place where people have a strong sense of regional identity,” Lauck told the Midwest Newsroom in November. “And this study clearly rebuts both of those claims.”
Missouri, arguably the lowermost state in the Midwest, scored high in the regional survey. More than 90% of respondents said they identify as Midwesterners. There were some unexpected results, too. As it turns out, about 40% of Oklahomans polled think they live in the Midwest. And, about 25% of Ohioans in the study think they don’t.
The 2023 poll included 600 Missouri respondents along with hundreds of people from other states. The new poll had a pool of 2,000 respondents, all Missouri residents.
"These results demonstrate conclusively that Missourians consider themselves Midwesterners. A small number consider themselves Southern,” Lauck said. “They are likely located in the southern tier of the state near Arkansas. These results fit with an earlier survey finding that the vast majority of Missourians consider themselves Midwestern.”
Missouri borders eight states, four of which are considered part of the South by the U.S Census Bureau: Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
“I think there is a general belief that the strongest regional identity in the country is Southern identity, and that perhaps the weakest regional identity is in the Midwest, because the borders are a little more amorphous,” Lauck said after this first poll.
As the new poll’s results show, most Missourians claim Midwestern identity–even in counties that border the South.
An old debate renewed
Google the question “Is Missouri a Southern or Midwestern state?” and you will find a debate of historical proportions. Even an unscientific poll on X (formerly Twitter) prompted a flood of votes and comments.
It honestly depends on what part of Missouri. I am originally from Arkansas, and southern Missouri is just like Arkansas. I now live in Northwest Missouri, and it is not southern in the least. Very Midwestern. Completely Midwestern.— Jess Piper (@piper4missouri) January 30, 2024
“Missouri used to be a bellwether swing state,” Lauck said. “Of course, in the modern era, it has become strongly Republican, but there's an interesting deeper history there.”
Missouri was a slave state, its past irrevocably tied to that of the South. Missouri was also one of the first stops on the Great Migration, when African Americans from Louisiana, Mississippi and other states, made their way north to escape segregation and find economic opportunity. Many stayed in Missouri, notably in and around St. Louis.
“Missouri was a real mix of Southerners, German and Irish immigrants, early French settlers, some Midwesterners, Yankees,” Lauck said. “Missouri was a slave state but also included many Union supporters and so was deeply divided during the war.”
Missouri was once home to a region called Little Dixie near the center of the state. Southern identification was strong there before and after the Civil War. In fact, many residents of Callaway County –part of Little Dixie– still refer to their county as the Kingdom of Callaway, because of an incident involving Confederate sympathizers during the war.
In his 1961 article, “Missouri. A Southern or Midwestern State?” Kenneth R. Walker of
Arkansas Tech University argued that Missouri is tied to the South by its rivers.
“The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries border and flow through the state of Missouri on their journey from the upper Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico,” Walker wrote. “These rivers early linked Missouri to the Midwest and to the South through their transportation of people, furs, and commerce.”
Many Missourians have accents that lean into Southern dialects. And, foodies point to the influence of the South in Missouri cuisine – from barbecue to biscuits. In 2016, a British blogger descrihabed St. Louis as the “Northern City with Southern Exposure.”
And, how the state name is pronounced depends on where you live.
For some, the East-West Interstate 70 corridor is the delineation between Midwest and South in Missouri.
“Missouri is a very unique state and is seen as the crossroads of America, the gateway to the West,” Lauck said.
It's midwest, however south of I-70 it begins to take on more of the southern culture. By the time you get to south Missouri, it's really no different culturally than north Arkansas. So Missouri is midwest, with a heavy influence of southern culture, especially in south Missouri.— Kev Moyé (@Moye06) January 30, 2024
“I think Missouri illustrates the challenges of categorizing or labeling a state,” said Dustin Gann, a professor at Midland University in Nebraska and a scholar of Midwestern history.
In an email to the Midwest Newsroom, Gann said Missouri’s combined past and present make for a complex legacy.
“(Missouri’s) entrance to the Union in 1820 as a slave state and subsequent participation in the series of pre-Civil War battles known as the Border War, or Bleeding Kansas, cemented in the minds of many their status as a Southern state,” Gunn said.
As a native Kansan, he said it’s hard for him to shake this view of Missouri, but:
“Throughout the state's history and through the present day, cities such as Kansas City and St. Louis have attracted residents from varied points of origin. These new arrivals have brought with them previously held attitudes - both Northern and Southern sensibilities - which have made clear classification of the state difficult.”
I use armadillos as my indicator. pic.twitter.com/Iw3FHcmpqb— Amy Axtell 🧡 (@amybett) January 30, 2024