The term Midwestern has been in use since the 1880s to refer to portions of the central United States. A variant term, Middle West, has been used since the 19th century and remains relatively common. Another term sometimes applied to the same general region is the heartland. Other designations for the region have fallen out of use, such as the Northwest or Old Northwest (from "Northwest Territory") and Mid-America. The Northwest Territory (1787) was one of the earliest territories of the United States, stretching northwest from the Ohio River to northern Minnesota and the upper-Mississippi. The upper-Mississippi watershed including the Missouri and Illinois Rivers was the setting for the earlier French settlements of the Illinois Country and the Ohio Country.
Economically the region is balanced between heavy industry and agriculture (large sections of this land area make up the United States' Corn Belt), with finance and services such as medicine and education becoming increasingly important. Its central location makes it a transportation crossroads for river boats, railroads, autos, trucks, and airplanes. Politically, the region swings back and forth between the parties, and thus is heavily contested and often decisive in elections.