Meinig has stated:
My paternal grandparents emigrated from a village in Saxony to Iowa in 1880, following the path of some kin. My grandfather was a cobbler and worked at that a bit, then got a laboring job on a railroad, and before long had purchased a farm. He had three sons (my father being the youngest and the only one born in America) and as they were reaching adulthood he heard that good farm land in Washington State could be had for a third of the price in Iowa, and so in 1903 he moved there and settled his family on a fine 400-acre place. My mother’s parents were born in upstate New York and what is now West Virginia, met in Minnesota, where she was born, and about that same year migrated to the same town in eastern Washington, where my grandfather dealt in insurance and real estate. 
Meinig studied foreign service at Georgetown University, and then earned graduate degrees in geography from the University of Washington in 1950 and 1953, under the supervision of Australian geographer Graham Lawton; he was also strongly influenced by historian Carroll Quigley.  Starting in 1950, Meinig held a faculty position at the University of Utah. However, in 1958 he left Utah for a visiting position at the University of Adelaide in Australia, under a Fulbright scholarship,   and in 1960 he joined the Syracuse faculty.  He was chairman of the geography department at Syracuse from 1968 to 1973,  became Maxwell Professor at Syracuse in 1990,  and retired in 2004. 
Meinig's work focuses on historical geography, regional geography, cultural geography, social geography, and landscape interpretation. His most ambitious and well known work is the four volume series "The Shaping of America" (published 1986, 1993, 1998, and 2004). He also concentrated on literary spaces and geography, stating, "Literature is a valuable storehouse of vivid depictions of the landscapes and lives of modern day society."
His principal publications include:
- The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 4: Global America, 1915-2000 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004).
- The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 3: Transcontinental America, 1850-1915 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995).
- The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2, Continental America, 1800-1867 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992).
- The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 1, Atlantic America, 1492-1800 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1986).
- (Editor, with John Brinckerhoff Jackson) The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes (New York, Oxford University Press, 1979).
- Southwest: Three Peoples in Geographical Change 1600-1970 (New York, Oxford University Press, 1971).
- Imperial Texas, An Interpretative Essay in Cultural Geography (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1969).
- The Great Columbia Plain, A Historical Geography, 1805- 1910 (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1968).
Meinig was a Fulbright Scholar, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He was the first American geographer to be elected as a corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, in 1991.  In 1965 the Association of American Geographers awarded him a citation "For Meritorious Contribution to the Field of Geography," and the American Geographical Society gave him their Charles P. Daly Medal in 1986.  Meinig received an honorary doctorate ( D.H.L.) from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in 1994.  The Geographical Review devoted a special issue to him in July 2009.  In 2010, he was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 
- Zelinsky, Wilbur (2009), "Thanking Donald Meinig", The Geographical Review, 99 (3): 293–296, doi: 10.1111/j.1931-0846.2009.tb00433.x.
- Maxwell faculty awards and honors, Maxwell School, Syracuse University, retrieved 2010-01-30.
- Meinig Receives Fulbright Grant, Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 15, 1958.
- Haskin prize lecturer: Donald W. Meinig, American Council of Learned Societies, retrieved 2010-01-30.
- Wyckoff, William; Colten, Craig E. (2009), "A tribute to Donald Meinig", The Geographical Review, 99 (3): iii–x, doi: 10.1111/j.1931-0846.2009.tb00432.x.
- Bedford, Richard (2001), Bedford, R.; Longhurst, R., eds., "Honouring New Zealand's geographers: Dame Evelyn Stokes" (PDF), New Zealand Geographer, 57 (2): 3–5, doi: 10.1111/j.1745-7939.2001.tb01603.x, archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-10-14. Reprinted in Datum: Newsletter of the New Zealand Map Society, no. 23, November 2005.
- Recipient of Honorary Degrees, Syracuse University, retrieved 2010-01-31.
- Donald W. Meinig: Shaping American Geography, The Geographical Review 99 (3), July 2009.
- SU’s Meinig elected member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, retrieved 2010-08-13.