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Reading 1: Free Frank McWorter

The story of New Philadelphia begins with its founder, a formerly enslaved African American named Free Frank McWorter, and his quest for freedom.

Like other enslaved individuals, Frank was called only by his first name when 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 and it is believed that Juda's Scotch-Irish owner, George McWhorter, was Frank's father. In 1795, while still enslaved, Frank and his owner left South Carolina for the rolling hill and cave region of Kentucky's Pennyroyal Frontier. It was here that Frank met and married Lucy, enslaved on a neighboring farm. Slave marriages were not legally recognized, but Frank and Lucy became man and wife without ceremony in 1799, a union that lasted fifty-five years.

Life on the frontier was focused on survival. That meant clearing land, building dwellings and other structures, and planting crops to transform a wilderness into productive farmland. Shortages of labor on the frontier and the determination of slave owners to make as much money as possible from their human possessions allowed some enslaved individuals to earn cash by hiring out their time to other settlers. Owners profited because they collected a portion of the earnings. Employers benefited because they paid enslaved laborers less than free laborers. Frank's earnings provided seed money toward his goal: to buy himself and his family out of bondage one by one, as he accumulated enough funds.

A resourceful man, Frank supplemented his earnings by producing saltpeter. Saltpeter was used to manufacture gunpowder, a crucial element in frontier living. It was even more in demand once the War of 1812 began. Kentucky's Pennyroyal caves were rich with crude niter, saltpeter's main component. Frank worked on his owner's farm from sun-up to sundown. He mined crude niter and processed the material into saltpeter at night and on days off.

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 freed man entitled him to some basic rights under the United States Constitution, including 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. Free Frank used his hard earned money well. In addition to buying freedom, he purchased land in Kentucky.

Increased prejudice against African Americans and competition with the growing number of European-American immigrants may have been among the factors that motivated Free Frank to move away from the slave state of Kentucky. In addition, his earning power was diminished in 1829 when he traded his lucrative saltpeter production operation for his son Frank's freedom. Young Frank had run away as a fugitive slave to Canada. Through his father's resourcefulness, he returned to his family in the United States as a free man.

Aware of Free Frank's interest in moving to a free state, local physician Dr. Galen Elliott sold him a piece of land on the Military Tract in Illinois. The federal government had created this large tract, located between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, primarily to rewarded veterans for their military service. Land ownership allowed Free Frank to circumvent Illinois' Black Code, which required formerly enslaved individuals moving to the state to post a $1,000 bond.

In 1830, after a year of preparation, Free Frank; his wife Lucy; his son Frank; and his free-born children Squire, Commodore, and Lucy Ann loaded their wagons and left Kentucky behind to begin a new life on the Illinois frontier. Three additional children and several grandchildren born into slavery remained behind. Free Frank promised that he would return to secure 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 and unscrupulously stole or destroyed 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 rudimentary 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 using implements and livestock brought from Kentucky. Their cash crops included oats, barley, potatoes, and flax, as well as livestock, such as cattle, horses, and hogs. Like many women on the Illinois frontier, Lucy contributed to her family's earnings by making butter and cheese, collecting honey, and raising poultry.

By 1835 Free Frank had set aside enough money to buy his son Solomon out of slavery. Securing Solomon's freedom 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 purchase additional family members. Free Frank and his family also used their money to purchase a neighboring 80-acre tract of Military Land directly from the United States Government. It was on a portion of that land that Free Frank laid out New Philadelphia in 1836.

In 1837, Free Frank petitioned the Illinois General Assembly to take the legal last name of McWorter, a variation of his former owner's surname. That technicality would protect his real estate holdings and entitle him to other legal privileges. The petition noted that Free Frank intended to devote the proceeds of his land sales to purchase freedom for family members still bound by slavery 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, and two enslaved grandchildren, in addition to himself and his wife Lucy. In addition, he directed his descendents to purchase the freedom of additional grandchildren and great-grandchildren after his death. All told, Frank McWorter bought the freedom of 16 enslaved individuals at a cost of $14,000, a sum equal to hundreds of thousands of dollars in today's currency. His legacy also included a bustling town whose population grew even larger after his death. 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, Frank McWorter's gravesite also is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Questions for Reading 1

1. How did Frank earn the money to buy his freedom and that of his wife?

2. Why did owners allow slaves to hire out their time to other settlers?

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

4. What advantages did Frank gain by owning property?

5. How difficult do you think it would have been for Frank to collect $14,000 in cash on the Illinois frontier? How would you go about earning the equivalent among of money today for such an important purpose?

Reading 1 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).


Comments or Questions

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