(H)our History Lesson: From Freedom Seeker to Town-Founder, Free Frank McWorter and New Philadelphia

This lesson was adapted by Katie McCarthy from the full-length Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan “New Philadelphia: A Multiracial Town on the Illinois Frontier.” For more information on this topic, explore the full lesson plan.

Grade Level Adapted For:

This lesson is intended for middle school learners but can easily be adapted for use by learners of all ages.

Lesson Objectives:

Students will be able to...

  1. Describe the role of enslaved individuals in securing their own freedom.

  1. Explain how New Philadelphia was built and who lived there.

  1. Identify how we’re learning about New Philadelphia today.

  1. Cite specific textual evidence to support their analysis of primary and secondary sources.

  1. Determine the central ideas or information of a secondary source.

Inquiry Question:

What do you think is happening in this photo? How does it help us learn more about what happened in the past?

Photo of archaeological site.
Archeological Excavation at New Philadelphia 



During the 1600s and 1700s the use of slave labor grew in the North American colonies. Yet, by the late 1700s growing numbers of people opposed the practice. They believed that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of equality and freedom the United States had been founded on. By the time the United States Congress established the Territory of Illinois, slavery was a contentious issue nationwide. Attempts to expand slavery clashed with a growing conviction that the practice should end. This debate divided the nation and led to the Civil War.

In 1818, Illinois joined the United States as a free state that prohibited slavery. Slavery was permitted in Missouri and Kentucky, across the rivers on the new state's southern and western borders. Exceptions to the ban on slavery in Illinois were sometimes made. Enslavers were allowed to use an enslaved labor force to extract salt from saltwater springs in the southern Illinois American Bottoms region. French citizens who enslaved people before the state was created were allowed to continue to enslave them.

Illinois’ growth first as a territory and then as a state was limited by its distance from markets to the East. To promote settlement of the Illinois Territory, the United States government set aside 3.5 million acres of land called Military Tract Land. The land was awarded to veterans for their military service. Private citizens could also buy parcels of Military Tract Land.

Violent conflict between the settlers and the Native American tribes who lived there also limited the number of settlers who moved to Illinois. Settlers and the United States government worked to displace the native tribes from their land to expand their own farms and towns. An armed conflict in 1832 between the settlers and a multi-tribal group led by a Sauk leader named Black Hawk led to the removal of several tribes, including the Ho-Chunks, from Illinois. The displacement of these tribes created more land for settlers, but destroyed the way of life for many Native American peoples.

Canal and river transportation also created new markets and economic opportunities in the region. Because Illinois was a free state, free African Americans began to move there. In response, Illinois became one of many states to enact stringent Black Codes. These laws controlled and restricted virtually every aspect of African American life.

A field from above


Like other enslaved individuals, Frank was called only by his first name. He was born in 1777 in the foothills of South Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains near the Pacolet River. Frank's mother Juda was a young enslaved woman from Africa. Juda's Scotch-Irish owner, George McWhorter, was likely Frank's father. In 1795, while still enslaved, Frank and his owner left South Carolina for Kentucky's Pennyroyal Frontier.

Life on the frontier was focused on survival. There were not enough people to do all the jobs. This, coupled with the determination of enslavers to make as much money as possible, allowed some enslaved individuals to earn cash. Enslaved individuals could hire out their limited extra time to other settlers. In turn, owners profited because they collected a part of the earnings. Those who employed enslaved individuals benefited because they paid enslaved laborers less than free laborers. Frank took advantage of this situation. He used his earnings to buy himself and his family out of bondage one by one.

Frank became "Free Frank" after he purchased his freedom in 1819. He had purchased his wife Lucy's freedom two years earlier. Their son, Squire, born when Lucy was free, was free from birth. Free Frank's status as a free man entitled him to some basic rights under the United States Constitution. This included the right to own property. Property ownership represented economic security and opportunity to free African Americans. It validated citizenship and strengthened their position in legal transactions. After buying his freedom, Frank purchased land in Kentucky. However, he wanted to move to a state where slavery was outlawed.

Aware of Free Frank's interest, local physician Dr. Galen Elliott sold him a piece of land on the Military Tract in Illinois. The federal government had put aside this land to rewarded veterans for their military service. Illinois required that formerly enslaved individuals pay a $1,000 bond when they moved into the state. However, because Free Frank was a landowner, he did not have to pay the bond.

In 1830, after a year of preparation, Free Frank and his family loaded their wagons and left Kentucky. Frank brought with him his wife Lucy, his son Frank, and his free-born children Squire, Commodore, and Lucy Ann. Three more children and several grandchildren born into slavery remained behind. Free Frank promised that he would return to buy their freedom as soon as he accumulated enough money. The journey to Illinois was dangerous. The family risked capture by the slave catchers who were continually on the prowl. Slave catchers might steal or destroy freedom papers. Without this documentation, freedmen and women could be sold back into bondage.

Free Frank and his family saw their new land for the first time in the spring of 1831. According to maps of the time, Free Frank set up his farm at the edge of a stand of trees, near a spring and running creek in Hadley Township, Pike County, Illinois, about 20 miles from the Mississippi River. Once a farmstead was set up, Free Frank and his family set about planting and harvesting crops. They also joined and became active members of the local Baptist church. By their second year in Illinois, Free Frank and his family farmed about 80 acres of their land. They used tools and livestock brought from Kentucky.

By 1835 Free Frank had set aside enough money to buy his son Solomon out of slavery. Freeing Solomon meant a return to Kentucky and once again facing the threat of capture by slave hunters. It was a risk Free Frank undertook several times as he earned the funds to buy more family members. Free Frank and his family also used their money buy a neighboring 80-acre tract of Military Land from the United States Government. It was on a part of that land that Free Frank laid out New Philadelphia in 1836.

Free Frank mapped out 144 lots, each measuring 60 feet by 120 feet. He sold these lots to Black and white settlers alike. He farmed and made his home on land next to the town. New Philadelphia offered settlers of both European and African descent fertile, affordable land. Although land in the town was reasonably priced, few African Americans could comply with Illinois' stringent settlement laws. Still, the proportion of Black individuals living in New Philadelphia was high compared to the state as a whole in 1850. Those Black individuals who lived in the town found economic opportunities and a sense of community and some measure of security.

In 1837, Free Frank petitioned the Illinois General Assembly to take the legal last name of McWorter. A last name would protect his real estate holdings and entitle him to other legal privileges. The petition noted that Free Frank intended to use the earnings from his land sales to buy freedom for family members still enslaved in Kentucky. Fourteen white Pike County citizens attested to Free Frank's good character. By the time of his death in 1854, Frank McWorter had purchased freedom for:

  • all four of his seven children born in slavery

  • his daughter-in-law Louisa

  • two enslaved grandchildren

  • himself and his wife Lucy.

In addition, he directed his descendants to buy the freedom of additional grandchildren and great-grandchildren after his death. In total, Frank McWorter bought the freedom of 16 enslaved individuals at a cost of $14,000. This equals hundreds of thousands of dollars in today's currency. Frank McWorter, along with Lucy and his children, lie buried in the black cemetery about a half mile east of the site of New Philadelphia. In addition to the townsite, which is a National Historic Landmark, Frank McWorter's gravesite also is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

After Frank McWorter's death in 1854, New Philadelphia continued to attract new settlers. The 1860 federal census reported 114 people living in the town. New Philadelphia's population peaked in 1865 with 160 individuals. State census takers recorded that 30 percent of the townsfolk were black, nearly double the number reported on the federal census just five years earlier.

By 1853 railroads had begun to displace the stagecoaches, steamboats, and freight wagons that had moved people and goods across the state. Communities and towns along railroad routes flourished, while settlements bypassed by the railroad withered. New Philadelphia was one of the towns bypassed by new railroad lines. As the railroad steamed around the town, it took business, trade, and quick access to markets with it. While towns with railroad access grew, the federal census of 1880 recorded only 87 people residing in New Philadelphia. People moved away in search of jobs closer to market centers. A few townsfolk stayed until the 1940s, but by 1885 about one-third of the land was in agricultural use.

Today, none of the original buildings remained above ground. The land was used for farming and pasture for livestock for many years, but now prairie grass and wildflowers cover the fields. Archaeology is helping historians learn about New Philadelphia. The first extensive archeological investigation of New Philadelphia took place in 2002 and 2003. By 2006 archeological excavations had exposed building foundations, underground structures, and many artifacts. Archeological finds tell us about the day-to-day lives of New Philadelphia's townsfolk. For example, the discovery of an ink bottle and decorated glass flasks manufactured in the Ohio Valley, along with English ceramics, confirms that New Philadelphia's merchants traded with market centers such as St. Louis, Missouri. By telling the story of New Philadelphia, archeology is giving a voice to people neglected by American history and painting a more accurate portrait of our nation's past.

Reading Questions:

  1. Why did enslavers allow the people they enslaved to hire out their own time to other settlers? How did this benefit enslaved people as well?

  1. Why are some of the reasons that Free Frank might have wanted to leave Kentucky?

  1. What advantages did Frank gain by owning property?

  1. How difficult do you think it would have been for Frank to collect $14,000 in cash on the Illinois frontier? Using an inflation calculator, how much is that in today’s currency? (You can find an inflation calculator online.)

  1. How would you go about earning the equivalent among of money today for such an important purpose?

  1. Why do you think Free Frank sold land in the town to both white and black settlers?

  1. Why do you think European American settlers were attracted to New Philadelphia? Why do you think African-American settlers were attracted to New Philadelphia?

  1. How is archeology helping us learn about New Philadelphia?


Each of the following activities encourage participants to think critically and creatively about how New Philadelphia connects to a larger national story. In the first, learners design their own frontier town. In the second, participants research the lives of other enslaved individuals who bought their own freedom.

Activity 1: Map a Town

In 1836, Frank McWorter began mapping New Philadelphia, a town that would exist in some way until 1940. At its peak, the town was home to 160 people, including farmers, shoemakers, wheelwrights, merchants, cabinet makers, and a preacher. Frank McWorter, his family, and the people who moved to New Philadelphia built the town from scratch; and now it’s your turn! As you design a frontier town, consider the following questions:

  1. What does the map of your town look like? How are the roads spaced out?

  1. What types of businesses do you need? Where would they be placed in your town?

  1. Where do people live in relation to the businesses?

  1. How would you advertise that people could move to your town?

  1. What kind of government would your town have?

  1. How would you keep people safe in your town? What kind of laws would you have?

  1. How do you make sure your town is a fair place for people from all backgrounds to live in?

Activity 2: Research Narratives of Freedom

Prior to the Civil War, enslaved individuals could free themselves either by escaping to northern states or, like Frank McWorter did, purchasing their freedom from their enslavers. After becoming free, some described their experiences in personal narratives. Some of these narratives can be found on the National Humanities Center’s resource sheet, “On Buying One’s Freedom: Selections from 18th- & 19th-Century Slave Narratives.” Longer versions of the passages by Venture Smith and Elizabeth Keckley can also be found at the National Humanities Center's page “Buying Freedom.”

Have participants read one or more of the narratives. As they do, participants should use an online inflation calculator to better understand the prices the narratives' references to money.

After reading, discuss the following questions as a group:

  1. What dangers did the authors of these narratives face in purchasing freedom for themselves and other family members?

  1. How do you think they decided which whose freedom to purchase first?

  1. How were the experiences of the authors similar and different from each other?

  1. What kind of audience do you think these authors are writing for? How do you think that affects how they tell their story?


  1. The town of New Philadelphia no longer exists, but we know about it through primary sources and archaeological digs. Why is it important that we learn about the town and the people who lived there?

  1. What did you find most interesting or surprising about Free Frank McWorter’s story?

  1. Where might you go in your town to learn about the enslaved or formally enslaved people who might have lived there in the past?

  1. Frank McWorter and his family showed a lot of perseverance as they escaped from slavery and began a new life in the Illinois Territory. Who is someone in your life who has persevered through something hard?

This reading is based on Juliet E. K. Walker, Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983; 1995 reissue edition); the Historical Landscapes of New Philadelphia, Illinois website at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Grace Matteson, "Free Frank" McWorter and the "Ghost Town" of New Philadelphia, Pike County, Illinois (Pittsfield, IL: Pike County Historical Society, 1964); Bruce Tomlinson, "Slave Founded Pike Village," Quincy [Illinois] Herald-Whig, May 29, 1977; Tamara Browning, "Preserving a Legacy of Freedom" [Springfield, Illinois] State Journal Register, February 10, 2002; Paul A. Shackel, Terrance J. Martin, Joy D. Beasley and Tom Gwaltney, "Rediscovering New Philadelphia: Race and Racism on the Illinois Frontier," Illinois Antiquity (March 2004); Michelle Huttes, "New Philadelphia Town Site" (Pike County, Illinois) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, 2005).

Additional Resources:

Center for Heritage Resource Studies, University of Maryland
A link to New Philadelphia on the Center for Heritage Resource Studies website provides information on the archeology project at New Philadelphia, the history of the town, research reports, census, tax and deed records, oral histories, and other material.

The New Philadelphia Association
This website contains information about an association founded by residents of communities near New Philadelphia to preserve the site in honor of Free Frank McWorter. It contains useful background information, links to other New Philadelphia sites, and membership information.

National Historic Landmarks
New Philadelphia is one of many National Historic Landmarks. You can learn more about these sites from the National Park Service’s website.

Part of a series of articles titled Claiming Civil Rights .

Last updated: May 5, 2023