The region’s first residents included the Hopewell (around 200 BC) and Mississippi River mound builders (around AD 700). Both left behind mysterious piles of earth that were tombs for their leaders and possibly tributes to their deities. You can see remnants at Cahokia in Illinois and Mound City in Ohio.
French voyageurs (fur traders) arrived in the early 17th century and established missions and forts. The British turned up soon thereafter. The rivalry spilled over into the French and Indian Wars (Seven Years’ War, 1754–61), after which Britain gained all land east of the Mississippi. Following the Revolutionary War, the Great Lakes area became the new USA’s Northwest Territory, which soon was divided into states.
Settlers flocked in after the region developed its impressive canal and railroad network. But conflicts erupted between the newcomers and the Native Americans here, including the bloody 1832 Black Hawk War that forced indigenous people to move west of the Mississippi.
Industries sprang up and grew quickly, fueled by resources of coal and iron. The work available brought huge influxes of immigrants from Ireland (early and mid-19th century), Germany (mid- to late 19th century), Scandinavia (late 19th century) and southern and eastern Europe (early 20th century). For decades after the Civil War, a great number of African Americans also migrated to the region’s urban centers from the South.
The area prospered during WWII and throughout the 1950s. Then came 20 years of social turmoil and economic stagnation. Manufacturing industries declined, walloping Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland with high unemployment and ‘white flight’ (ie white middle-class families who fled to the suburbs).
The 1980s and 90s brought urban revitalization. Growth in the service and high-tech sectors has resulted in a better economic balance. The area’s population has increased again, notably with newcomers from Asia and Mexico.