New Philadelphia and Free Frank McWorter
Three miles east of the present site of Barry in Hadley Township lies a marker commemorating the frontier town of New Philadelphia, founded in 1836, and giving homage to its founder, Frank McWorter. But this is more than just a marker; here lies an important part of American and Illinois history. New Philadelphia was the first town established by a free African American before the Civil War, and it likely served as a stopping place for the “Underground Railroad” of enslaved African Americans fleeing northward from the oppression of southern plantations.
The story of Frank McWorter and New Philadelphia is one of daring and hard work, luck, and shrewd family leadership, according to the New Philadelphia Association, a not-for-profit organization formed by area residents who seek to preserve a substantial portion of the original town site.
Born a slave in South Carolina in 1777, Frank moved with his owner, George McWorter, to Kentucky in 1795. He married Lucy, a slave from a nearby farm in 1799. Frank was very industrious, and was permitted to hire out his own time in various enterprises. Most notably, he started a saltpeter mining and production operation. With earnings from these activities, Frank purchased freedom for Lucy in 1817 (for $800), and for himself in 1819 (also $800).
Shortly after gaining his freedom, Frank began to invest his earnings in land in a largely undeveloped area of Pike County, Illinois, in a region of hill country between the Mississippi and the Illinois Rivers. Frank and Lucy and four of their children left Kentucky for Illinois in 1830 and moved here. Frank recorded his legal name as McWorter, subdivided and sold tracts of the land he had purchased, and then platted and legally registered the town of New Philadelphia.
New Philadelphia flourished as a racially integrated town at an agricultural crossroad, with an active roadway carrying agricultural products and other goods to the Mississippi River, twenty miles to the west. The town size grew to 160 people, 29 households, and several craftspeople and merchants by 1865. Frank witnessed this growth until his death in 1854.
When the railroad connecting Naples, Illinois to Hannibal, Missouri was built in 1869, it bypassed New Philadelphia. Occupation of the town declined thereafter, and the legal status of the town was dissolved in 1885. But the story doesn’t end there.
The New Philadelphia Association (www.newphiladelphiail.org) is a group of citizens who wish to see New Philadelphia and Free Frank remembered for future generations. The site was named to the list of National Historic places in 2005, and in 2009 was designated as a National Historic Landmark, one of only 2,400 in the country. Efforts are underway to have the New Philadelphia site designated a National Park. NPA has developed a strategic plan for the site, and is working with a number of agencies to make New Philadelphia a major historical, educational, and visitor site.
*Source Pike County Illinois Visitors Guide