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Setting the Stage

Seventeenth-century European explorers and settlers required a force of laborers to tame and cultivate what they called the New World. Indentured servants provided some of the necessary workers, but by the mid-17th century, a slave trade set up in Africa was forcibly bringing men, women, and children to clear land, plant, tend, and harvest crops, and build towns. By the late 18th century, many people thought that the practice of slavery was incompatible with the ideals of equality and freedom on which the newly formed United States of America was based. By the time the United States Congress established the Territory of Illinois in1809, slavery was a contentious issue nationwide. Attempts to expand slavery clashed with a growing conviction that the practice should be abolished, eventually dividing the nation and erupting into the Civil War.

At first, threats to settlers from Native Americans living in the region and dependence on goods shipped from distant markets limited the growth of the Illinois Territory. That territory originally included today's states of Illinois, Wisconsin, northern Minnesota, and the western portion of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Many early residents moved into this area from southern states. To promote settlement of the Illinois Territory, the United States government set aside 3.5 million acres of land between the lower Illinois and Mississippi rivers called Military Tract Land in 1817. The land was parceled into 160 acre tracts and awarded to veterans for their military service; private citizens also purchased affordably priced parcels of Military Tract Land.

Illinois joined the United States in 1818 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 made, however, in some instances. These included the enslaved labor force used to extract salt from saltwater springs in the southern Illinois American Bottoms region and those enslaved individuals owned by French citizens before the state was created.

Settlements on the new frontier flourished after the last American Indian tribes in the region were removed to reservations in 1832. Canal and river transportation also created new markets and economic opportunities in the region. In 1819, alarmed by competition for resources from the influx of free African Americans, Illinois became one of many states to enact stringent Black Codes that controlled and restricted virtually every aspect of African American life. Such was the state of affairs in Illinois when a former slave named Free Frank founded the town of New Philadelphia in 1836.

 

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