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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: New Philadelphia

It was in 1836, during a time of high racial tension in the United States, that Free Frank mapped out a town on 42 acres of his Military Tract land. He laid out 144 lots, each measuring 60 feet by 120 feet. He called his town Philadelphia and sold lots to black and white settlers alike. He farmed and made his home on land adjacent to the town. New Philadelphia, as it came to be known, offered settlers of both European and African descent fertile, affordable land, and economic opportunities on the frontier. Although lots in the town were reasonably priced, few African Americans could comply with Illinois' stringent settlement laws. Nevertheless, the proportion of black individuals living in New Philadelphia was high compared to the state as a whole in 1850. Those black individuals who did live in the town found not only economic opportunities, but a sense of community and security.

New Philadelphia seemed primed for success. An abundant supply of trees stood ready to be crafted into homes, furniture, fences, and wagons, and used for fuel. In 1839, a grocery store opened its doors. Construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal connecting the Great Lakes to the nearby Mississippi River promised access to distant markets. Stage coaches stopped at New Philadelphia and people from miles away brought business to local trades-people when they collected their mail from New Philadelphia's post office. A road linking the town to the commercial hub of Quincy was planned. Land speculators with no intention of living in the town bought most of the lots hoping to make a profit reselling them to settlers as the town grew and the demand for land increased.

The state's decision in 1840 to re-route a major road linking the Illinois River byway of Griggsville to the Mississippi River through Kinderhook made travel to and from New Philadelphia more difficult and may have slowed the town's growth for a time. As a black town owner, Frank McWorter may not have had enough political influence to garner support among state and local legislators to route the road directly through his town.

LeGrange Wilson, who carried mail to the town on his route from Griggsville to Kinderhook, noted only three homes in the village in the 1840s. But by 1850 at least 58 people lived in the town's 11 households. Most residents came from Illinois cities. Occupations were typical of other frontier villages and included farmers, shoemakers, a cabinet maker, a wheelwright, a Baptist preacher, a laborer, and a merchant. While African-American residents represented only 38 percent of the population of the town, this was far above the proportion of African Americans living in the state. Illinois reported only 5,436 black residents in the state, 0.6 percent of the total population of 851,470 in 1850.

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. The community's 21 residents categorized as black and mulatto in the 1860 census accounted for 18% of the town's total population. The census defined mulatto as any person with at least one-quarter black ancestry. Although Illinois was officially a free state, voting records, newspaper articles, and the state's Black Codes reflected many residents' racial prejudice. First enacted in 1819 to discourage settlement and competition for jobs by free blacks, the Illinois Black Codes were the most stringent in the region by 1848. The Black Codes required a certificate of freedom from formerly enslaved individuals already living in the state and those intending to immigrate from elsewhere. Individuals without registered certificates risked arrest. A $1,000 bond was required of formerly enslaved individuals attempting to move into the state. African Americans were restricted from assembling in groups of three or more. This law was sometimes applied to entire communities when they grew too large.

Some local descendants claim that New Philadelphia's citizens lived together harmoniously. However, during this racially tense time, turbulence flared in Griggsville, only 13 miles east of New Philadelphia, after some citizens signed a petition to abolish slavery in the nation's capital and to deny the admission of Texas into the Union as a slave state in 1838. Only 50 miles away, Alton newspaper owner and abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was killed in 1837 while trying to protect his press. It was also during this time that Illinois became a link in the Underground Railroad, a cooperative system of antislavery people that secretly helped enslaved persons escape to northern states or Canada. Oral histories from local residents report that the Underground Railroad was active in the area. New Philadelphia's location at a major crossroad could have made it a prime stop on the escape route for fugitive slaves.

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. The large influx of African Americans may be attributed to the migration of formerly enslaved individuals moving away from the South after the Civil War. Out of the way agricultural communities like New Philadelphia were an attractive alternative for African Americans seeking to avoid the racial hostilities of large urban centers or the confinement of remote farm settings.

By 1853 railroads had begun to displace the stagecoaches, steamboats, and freight wagons that had moved people and goods across the state. In that year, influential local businessmen and farmers formed the Pike County Rail Road Company to map out a route for a railroad linking Hannibal, Missouri, to Naples, Illinois. Communities and towns along the train's route flourished, while settlements bypassed by the railroad withered. Corruption, greed, political influence, and special incentives often influenced the selection of station stops. New Philadelphia had no spokesperson to represent the town's interest on the railroad's board of directors. Although it is not documented, many believe racial discrimination influenced the board's decision to bypass the town.

When the railroad was finally built in 1869, the line traveled due west from a point on the Illinois River to the white town of New Salem, and then arched northward around New Philadelphia. Just past New Philadelphia, the line turned back to the south, returning to its east-to-west trajectory and connecting with Barry, another largely white community. Railroads usually bypassed towns because there were large topographic features that had to be avoided or because other towns were more successful in lobbying to be made station stops. The latter of these potential explanations seems to be the case for New Philadelphia. As the railroad steamed around the town, it took business, trade, and quick access to markets with it.

While towns with railroad access-like Quincy and Barry in Illinois and Hannibal, Missouri-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.

New Philadelphia disappeared as plows turned over the soil and buried any material remains left behind. But the recollections of former townsfolk and their descendants kept the story of Free Frank McWorter's town alive in a variety of publications. These include Grace Matteson's Free Frank McWorter and the Ghost Town of New Philadelphia, Pike County, Illinois, published in 1964; Helen McWorter Simpson's book, Makers of History, published in 1981; Dr. Juliet Walker's 1983 book, Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier; and Lorraine Burdick's 1992 publication, New Philadelphia: Where I Lived. In 1996, local residents and community leaders in Barry and Griggsville formed the New Philadelphia Association to preserve the site of the once thriving integrated community. Descendants of the town and area residents are now members of the association.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why do you think Illinois enacted Black Codes? What was their purpose?

2. What was the racial atmosphere of the area surrounding New Philadelphia?

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

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

5. How did transportation and transportation corridors contribute to the settlement and prosperity of New Philadelphia? How did they harm the community?

6. Why do you think New Philadelphia ceased to exist?

Reading 2 was based on documents and maps prepared for the Center for Heritage Resource Studies at the University of Maryland, especially Archaeology Report, October 3 2005, historic maps of New Philadelphia, and population census schedules for Pike County, Illinois; William D. Walters, Jr., "Time and Town Square," Bulletin of the Illinois Geographical Society, XXII, No. 2 (Fall, 1980), 18-25; Robert Mazrim, Now Quite Out of Society: Archaeology and Frontier Illinois (Urbana: Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002); Juliet E. K. Walker, Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983; 1995 reissue edition; Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, America's First Black Town: Brooklyn, Illinois 1830-1915 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000); Michelle Huttes, "New Philadelphia Town Site" (Pike County, Illinois) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, 2005); and Lorraine Burdick, New Philadelphia: Where I Lived (self-published, 1992).

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