New Philadelphia gets registered


By Norm Winick


The remains of the first town in the United States founded by a black were added to the National Register of Historic Places on August 11th after years of painstaking research and efforts by nearby Pike Country residents to protect the archaelogical site.

New Philadelphia, Ill., near Barry, was founded in 1836 by Frank McWorter, an ex-slave who had bought his freedom. He settled about 30 miles inland from the slave trade along the Mississippi River.

Free Frank, as he was known, platted the town and filed plans with Pike County officials in 1836, selling lots to both blacks and whites. Frank used the profits to buy freedom for others of his family members.

The 42-acre site has been the location of several intense archeological digs over the last two summers funded by the National Science Foundation in cooperation with the University of Maryland, the University of Illinois, the Illinois State Museum and the non-profit New Philadelphia Association.

The town survived until the 1880s, never growing above a population of 100, spurred in decline by the railroad which passed it by in favor of Barry. Vestiges of New Philadelphia lasted until the 1930s when all signs of the town had disappeared and been plowed under. It wasn’t easy finding the location after 70 years of farming. High tech equipment was used to scan the soil to identify underground structures and artifacts.

Paul Shackel, an anthropologist from the University of Maryland, said the equipment helps look for anomalies underground.  Michael Hargrove, a geophysical specialist from Havana, Ill. was brought in. He had equipment which checked the electrical resistance underground between two probes. Rocks, compacted soil, and foundations change the reading. They also used magnetometers to check for magnetism in metal pieces buried underground.

 “After the geophysical survey work was done, we looked for the largest concentration of signals nearest the surface,” says Shackel. “We had a computer-generated contour map and did a controlled surface collection. We started with a 20 meter by 20 meter grid at a place the technicians thought had potential in October 2002 and March 2003. We got artifacts in the plow zone and that got us real excited.”

Since then, workers over three summers have marked the locations of buildings and intersections. Much of the markings for intersections are based on the original plat maps filed by McWorter in 1836 since most of the town was never developed.

Larry and Natalie Armistead who own land and live adjacent to the site and are officers in the New Philadelphia Association, could be related to some settlers of New Philadelphia but have no conclusive proof. Their dream was just realized when the site was included on the National Register and will remain protected.

They have been hosting the professors and students and others involved in the digging and have marveled at the tens of thousand of artifacts uncovered.

The site, off the road and marked by a new sign, looks like any other field with patches of fresh dirt and mounds. There are stakes identifying intersections and corners of buildings. Underneath in places are parts of foundations.

Terrance Martin of the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, one of three co-directors of the project, says that they are in the painstaking process of cataloging the artifacts. “We have found a diverse assemblage of artifacts from a number of different locations on the site. We were able to substantiate that below the plow line were intact architectural remains — including foundations and even refuse deposits. We have found a huge variety of durable goods made from metal, glass, bone, pewter and ceramic. We have found toys and thimbles.”

“We have uncovered material that represents domestic activities — opening a window to what they were doing in the buildings. After 150 years, we can identify their dietary habits from the bones in a refuse deposit. I would estimate that two-thirds to three-quarters of the animal remains had been gnawed on by rodents — not buried at the time.”

As for the social history, there is still a lot to learn. “We know it was an integrated community; we don’t know how harmonious it was.”

Others are very interested in the project as well. At a press conference held on June 24, 2005, Dr. Juliet E.K. Walker, Founder and Executive Director of the Free Frank New Philadelphia Historic Preservation Foundation unveiled architectural plans and a scale model for the rebuilding of Free Frank’s historic frontier town. According to Walker, the restoration of New Philadelphia, Illinois was a dream of Thelma Elise McWorter Kirkpatrick, the great granddaughter of Free Frank and her mother.

The Foundation’s undertaking of this project will be an interactive, painstaking rebuilding of the architectural features of the buildings and the social life in New Philadelphia at its height in the 1850s. Visitors will be able to see and experience what is described in Walker’s book, (Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier, University Press of Kentucky, 1983, 1995).

The future of the site itself is yet to be determined. “As for restoring it or making it a park or an interpretive center, that’s way down the road” says Martin. “My goal all along was to get it on the National Register of Historic Places so that it would be protected and not plowed under again. Now that’s been accomplished.”



Published August 18, 2005