New Philadelphia: Fertile Ground for Freedom
In 1830 – the same year Abraham Lincoln migrated from Kentucky to Illinois – an equally enterprising man made a similar journey.
Born a slave and an entrepreneur, Frank McWorter would become one of the first settlers in Pike County – and in 1836, he formally founded an American town, which he called New Philadelphia. He was the first African-American to do so.
“There were a lot of African-American settlements at the time, but Frank was the first to legally plat and register a town,” says his fifth-generation descendant Dr. Gerald McWorter. “We grew up with the story, and it is a story of freedom.”
While still a slave in Kentucky, Frank McWorter’s owner allowed him to hire out his free time. He earned enough through a saltpeter (an ingredient of the first gunpowders) operation and other enterprises to acquire land, and buy freedom for his wife, himself and his sons.
Once in Illinois, the savvy-but-illiterate businessman settled in Hadley Township and began acquiring hundreds of acres of farmland. After having 42 acres surveyed, he filed a town plat with the county, establishing New Philadelphia.
Driven not by glory or greed, “Free Frank” McWorter laid out the town in order to raise money to free his two eldest daughters and their children from slavery.
“All of his resources were plowed back into the family,” Gerald McWorter says.
Eventually, he sold enough property to purchase 16 family members out of slavery, and New Philadelphia became a thriving, integrated community – where education became available to all.
“New Philadelphia was small but important because it was kind of a service center – with stores, a blacksmith, a post office and a school that also served as a church,” says Terry Martin, Ph.D., curator emeritus of anthropology at the Illinois State Museum.
People of different ethnic groups and regional backgrounds settled in New Philadelphia, where they “lived peacefully together with mutual respect,” says Philip Bradshaw, a local farmer and president of the New Philadelphia Association. Still, he says, “It was hard living, and they had to worry about being captured and sold back into slavery.”
Research shows that New Philadelphia’s population peaked in 1855 with 66 people living in 13 households. Caucasian residents accounted for more than half of the population, and census records show some integrated households.
“Integrated couples were living in New Philadelphia in the 1830s – just 20 miles from a slave state,” McWorter says. “Pike County was not a utopia, but there were areas that were absolutely abolitionist and open to multicultural community.”
Martin also says the town showed no records or evidence of interracial strife. “People came there by choice,” he says.
And so did dozens of researchers who descended upon the site in the 21st century, thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation. In 2004, they began to harvest the history of New Philadelphia, using state-of-the-art science and old-fashioned investigation.
“Along with a suite of archaeological research, we did historical research using things like probate and tax records, genealogy and old newspapers,” says Martin, one of four archaeologists who co-directed the archaeological fieldwork. “When we came in contact with a feature – such as a cellar, cistern or privy – we would gather artifacts to date that feature and identify what it was.”
Those artifacts include nails and brick fragments, broken ceramics, thimbles, and other domestic items – even tiny treasures such as a toy locomotive.
Martin’s favorite, a turn-of-the-century William Jennings Bryan presidential campaign button, tells him that “social movements came through and New Philadelphia participated in them.”
Even animal bones have a story to tell – from the tattered collar clinging to the remains of a once-loved cat to the farm animals that sustained the people of New Philadelphia.
“When people came from Kentucky, we would find [evidence of] a lot of pork, along with occasional wild game,” Martin says. In contrast, residents from New England primarily ate beef.
Though classified as a frontier town, river commerce made New Philadelphia far from primitive.
“Within a few months, anything available in major cities out East was accessible to people in New Philadelphia,” Martin says.
The town brought access to freedom, too, thanks to its role on the Underground Railroad.
“I remember seeing a basement with a false wall where runaway slaves would hide,” says Gerald McWorter, who visited the site as a child. “They knew they could get a pair of shoes and a horse in New Philadelphia, and one of the McWorter boys would take them to Canada.
“It proves that it was not simply abolitionist whites involved in the 19th century struggle against slavery – free African-Americans were very much involved,” McWorter says. “New Philadelphia is part of a larger national story.”
New Philadelphia by the Numbers
1836: Year Frank McWorter founded New Philadelphia
42: Acreage of the town in west-central Illinois
16: Family members Frank McWorter freed from slavery
66: People living in New Philadelphia at its peak
2013: Year the town became part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom
Historians and locals alike now tell that story in more detail.
“Frank McWorter was very intelligent, very ambitious and he just happened to be black,” Bradshaw says. “He accomplished amazing things during the most troublesome time in our country.”
People continued to live there well into the 20th century, but today New Philadelphia exists as a ghost of a town. Yet, even as foundations crumble and memories fade, “Free Frank” McWorter holds an unshakable place in history.