What We Get Wrong About the American Heartland

6 minute read

If you were to buzz at bumblebee height over flyover country this month, you would find spring unfurling petal by petal, the crocuses, daffodils, tulips, forsythia and even the indomitable dandelion blooming noticeably earlier than several decades ago. But if your point of reference stretched back several centuries, you wouldn’t be able to benchmark the season by these common harbingers of spring. None of these flowers would be familiar to you, because none are native to the Americas. Although I live in the heart of the heartland, the seemingly all–American place, my state, Illinois, is ecologically un-American. Despite its “Prairie State” moniker, less than one tenth of one percent of Illinois consists of native tallgrass prairie.

The history of global connections that threads through my back yard belies the myth of the American heartland. This myth arose in the aftermath of World War II, offering a national safe space as a refuge from a frighteningly interlocked world. As it enshrines the rural Midwest as the symbolic core of the nation, the heartland myth insists that there is a national core; that insiders can be separated from outsiders; us from them. Those who cherish the heartland of myth fear that it is under siege; critics regard it as a durable bastion of small-mindedness and exclusionary instincts. Love it or leave it, Americans typically imagine the rural heartland as fundamentally local, insulated and isolationist — a white picket-fenced land of corn and apple pie; a siloed place with a long history of wall-building impulses.

I may not be much of a gardener, but I’m historian enough to know that to get to the roots of things, you have to dig. And the more I dig in the warming soil and the deeper, richer stuff of history, the more roots I find that go sideways rather than straight down.

Trace the corn in my cornbelt county back far enough, and you will find Mesoamerican origins. Dig sideways a bit, and you will find that Midwestern dent corn took off as livestock feed, favored by settlers seeking to reach global markets. A century before NAFTA, the farmers in my county fattened Mexican steers on their feedlots. Stung by charges that pioneer pigs produced an oily, unsavory pork that caused dangerous gassy spasms, they turned to the British empire for pedigreed pigs with Chinese ancestors to improve their herds. By the early 20th century, Midwestern farmers had begun to plant East Asian soybeans as fodder.

Stick a fork into the apple pies that the heartland brings to mind, and you will find more stories of immigrant ancestors. From their birthplace in Kazakhstan, apples spread outward across the globe, arriving in the Americas in the early colonial era, with more varieties from central and eastern Europe landing in later importations. Regarding native bees as obstreperous and unproductive, 19th century beekeepers imported honeybees native to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa as pollinators. When the sap-sucking San José Scale from China attacked Midwestern orchards, apple-growers sprayed their trees with whale-oil soap, wrung from the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean. The quintessentially American place of nationalist myth is no more home grown than its pies.

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Keep on delving into the past, and you will find that the pioneers and their restless children yearned for connection, regarding isolation as a drawback to be surmounted, opportunity as a horizon to be pursued. When I moved to central Illinois, I assumed the McKinley Street that runs by my house had been named after President William McKinley, the small-town Ohioan who forged an empire in the Caribbean and Pacific. But instead I found the story of William Brown McKinley, who represented my district in Congress at the dawn of the American century. This McKinley crossed the Atlantic 30 times before the age of air travel to advance the cause of global governance.

As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, William Brown McKinley also circled the world three times and went on several Caribbean cruises to inspect U.S. colonial outposts. Some of the soldiers he met in the Philippines may have later served in his district, stationed in the airbase constructed there during World War I. And these were not the only fellow travelers to be found in central Illinois at the time: Filipino students began attending the University of Illinois in the first decades of the 20th century. There they connected with Chinese, Mexican, South Asian and other foreign students, turning the campus Cosmopolitan Club into a hotbed of anticolonial nationalism.

Dig thoughtfully and hard and you will unearth plenty more histories of empire, some stretching back before the founding of the United States. The Kickapoo people who lived in Illinois when it became a U.S. territory had come as refugees from colonial violence in what is now Ontario and Michigan. The ongoing colonial violence they found in their new home — including the forced expulsions of the removal era — caused some Kickapoos to seek refuge in Mexico. The Kickapoos are not the only Native American nation with border-straddling histories. If seen in the long sweep of time, some of the people who prompt calls for a wall by their desire to come to the United States from south of the Border are in fact heartlanders in exile.

Walls are more than just structures, they are symbols, much like the heartland itself. President Trump’s proposed wall elicits passion, pro and con, because it stands for more than mere border policing: it promises to make the whole country more like the rural heartland of myth, closed off from space and time. But the real heartland, unlike the myth, was never closed off in the first place.

If you can find the world in a grain of sand, you can find it just as well in a patch of the once-great prairie. As the plants drill down into the dark soil of my garden, their buds open wide for the pollinators that skim over the fence.


Kristin L. Hoganson is a professor at the University of Illinois and author of the new book The Heartland: An American History, available now from Penguin Press.

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