From its beginning, Indianapolis possessed a significant population of native and former residents of the Upland South, a region that includes the Appalachian portions of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, and all of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. The capital city’s proximity to the region, its linkages via road and rail to the Ohio River, and its economic growth over the decades lured thousands of migrants from that area, giving Indianapolis the unofficial title of “the most southern of northern cities.”

In 1850, the first year that the federal census recorded inhabitants’ birthplaces, the Upland South accounted for 31.3 percent of people migrating to Indianapolis. This constituted a larger portion than any other region except the Old Northwest, which supplied 32.4 percent of the city’s residents (Ohio alone accounted for 30.8 percent). Natives of Kentucky constituted 15.4 percent; North Carolina, 6 percent; Virginia (then including West Virginia), 5.6 percent; Maryland, 3.1 percent; and Tennessee, 1.3 percent. Perhaps in response to the nation’s political and social turmoil following the Civil War, the Upland South portion of Indianapolis’ population declined to 18.5 percent in 1870, though Kentucky remained the largest source of the city’s settlers (11.9 percent).

Although the Panic of 1873 temporarily halted postwar activity and growth, the economic resurgence of the late 1870s helped to increase Indianapolis’ population to 75,000 by 1880. Upland Southerners, most likely drawn by employment opportunities as well as by existing cultural ties with the Hoosier capital, constituted 22.3 percent of the non-Indiana born population of Indianapolis. Kentucky alone accounted for 14.2 percent. In subsequent years, natives of Kentucky and Tennessee came to increasingly dominate the Upland South immigrant stream to Indianapolis.

The 1910 census indicated that 29.4 percent of U.S.-born migrants to Indianapolis were native to the Upland South. Only those from the east north central region (Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin) provided more immigrants (29.5 percent). In the following years, out-of-state immigrants became a decreasing portion of the city’s population, but the Upland South component continued to expand. By 1920, natives of the region accounted for 42.7 percent of Indianapolis’ immigrants; by 1930, they comprised 44.5 percent.

Upland Southerners came increasingly from Kentucky and Tennessee, which together provided 25.2 percent in 1910 and 40.8 percent in 1930. Migrations from Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, however, decreased. Kentucky became not simply the leading state of origin for Upland Southerners but also the single largest source of out-of-state immigrants to Indianapolis—1910, 21.1 percent; 1920, 30 percent; 1930, 30.9 percent. The percentage of Tennessee natives rose from 4.1 percent in 1910 to 9.9 percent in 1930.

Beginning with the 1940 census, different data regarding population origin was collected. Rather than requesting state of birth for U.S.-born natives, census canvassers asked a sample of the population to identify their place of residence five years previously. Thus, these data points were not directly comparable to the simple birthplace data of earlier censuses. In addition, the most recent published censuses do not include detailed information on birthplace or internal migration.

The leading source of American-born (excluding Indiana-born) migrants to Indianapolis in 1940 was the east north central region, where 43.6 percent had lived in 1935. Illinois (19.1 percent) and Ohio (14.4 percent) were the major suppliers. The Upland South sent the next largest group to the city (24.3 percent), with Kentucky providing 16.8 percent of the migrants and Tennessee 4.9 percent.

By 1960, the Upland South’s proportion of American-born immigrants to Indianapolis had increased by nearly the same percentage as the east north central region’s proportion had decreased. Based upon residences five years previous, 34.4 percent moved from the east north central region (12.9 percent from Illinois, 11.5 percent from Ohio) and 31.8 percent came from the Upland South. Kentucky provided a larger percentage of the immigrants (16.2 percent) than any other state; Tennessee supplied 8.1 percent, Virginia 2.6 percent, and West Virginia 2.3 percent.

The 1970 census published regional birthplace information that revealed 38.8 percent of Indianapolis’ American-born immigrants were born in the east south central region (Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi), compared to 28.6 percent in 1960.

Extrapolating from trends seen in previous censuses, one can safely assume that the vast majority hailed from the Upland South. This steady increase of Upland Southerners in post-World War II Indianapolis illustrated their efforts to escape the poverty and limited economic growth in Appalachian regions by pursuing industrial and service employment opportunities in nearby growing cities such as Indianapolis.

A connection also exists between Upland Southerners and African Americans in Indianapolis. Black citizens comprised 6.5 percent of the city’s 1850 population, a much larger proportion than the 1.1 percent they formed statewide. Given the proportional distribution of the Black population in the United States in 1850, it is not surprising that individuals born in southeastern states comprised the majority of African Americans in Indianapolis. Black migrants to the city, however, tended to come primarily from the Upland South portions of those states.

The largest group of Black residents of Indianapolis were born in North Carolina (38.5 percent of the immigrants), which probably reflected the close association between African Americans and the North Carolina Quakers. The second-largest group was native to Kentucky (22.3 percent). Other sources of Black migration were Virginia (then including West Virginia, 13.2 percent), Tennessee (7.2 percent), and Maryland (1.7 percent).

By 1930, African Americans formed 12.1 percent of the city’s population. Mirroring the change in origins for the entire Upland Southern population, Virginia and North Carolina became far less significant sources of Black immigrants (less than 3 percent). Kentucky and Tennessee were more significant, providing 42.4 percent and 24.4 percent, respectively, of non-Indiana born residents of Indianapolis. The only state not in the Upland South providing a considerable group of citizens to the city was Ohio, from which 4.9 percent of the immigrants hailed.

Using internal migration statistics from the 1940 and 1960 censuses, sources of African American immigrants can be determined. In 1940, the Upland South provided 49.9 percent of Black migrants; 30 percent originated in Kentucky, 17.1 percent in Tennessee, and 1.3 percent in West Virginia. Although the total number of African American migrants had increased by 1960, the Upland South’s proportion declined, accounting for only 20.7 percent of the immigrants (Tennessee, 9.8 percent; Kentucky, 9.0 percent).

The major southern source of Black migrants to Indianapolis was now the Deep South. In 1940, 9.6 percent had lived in Mississippi and 4.6 percent in Alabama; by 1960, 9.2 percent came from Mississippi (the percentage was less than 1940 but the number was over three times larger) and 2.4 percent from Alabama. Also in 1960, much larger percentages of black Americans came to Indianapolis from Georgia, Illinois, and Ohio than had 20 years previously.

Information about region of birth from the 1960 and 1970 censuses provides another perspective on the origin of Indianapolis’ African American population. In 1960, 73.7 percent of Black immigrants to the city had been born in the east south central region (Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi) and 9.3 percent in the south Atlantic region (Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida). According to the 1970 census, 68.9 percent had been born in the east south central region and 11.4 percent in the south Atlantic region. African American southerners were primarily from the Upland South, especially Kentucky and Tennessee, with increasing proportions from the Deep South.

The increased number of Indianapolis immigrants from southern Indiana, which had been settled primarily by Upland Southerners, heightened the southern flavor of the capital city. Many cultural geographers have identified southern Indiana as part of a transitional zone between northern and southern cultural regions. This zone typically extends from the Ohio River to the National Road (U.S. 40) and includes southern Ohio and southern Illinois where cities, such as Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, display a strong degree of Upland Southern population and cultural influence.

The influence of Upland Southerners in Indianapolis has been strong from the city’s founding. While their early dominance may have reduced or discouraged the immigration of settlers native to other regions, as principal settlers, Upland Southerners set the tone for future developments in the city, including personal anecdotes and jokes, family histories, cultural characteristics (such as Speech And Dialect), and traditions of the city’s past and present inhabitants.

Revised June 2021

Help improve this entry

Contribute information, offer corrections, suggest images.

You can also recommend new entries related to this topic.