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New Philadelphia

Beginning in the summer of 2002, Paul A. Shackel, Director of the Center for Heritage Resource Studies, began a long-term project to locate, document, and study the growth and eventual demise of a town once known as New Philadelphia, Illinois.  The story of New Philadelphia is compelling and nationally significant:  it is the earliest known town founded and registered in a state by an African American in the antebellum United States. 

New Philadelphia is a nationally significant site that adds to our understanding of racism during the antebellum era.  The goal of this interdisciplinary project is to make the story of New Philadelphia part of the national public memory.

This program is a cooperative project between the University of Maryland, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, Illinois State Museum, the New Philadelphia Association, and the University of Central Florida. The project was initiated and is also supported by the New Philadelphia Association. Members of the New Philadelphia Association and members of the community have been instrumental in furnishing logistical support for the project.

In 2005, Michele Huttes, a graduate student at the University of Illinois – Springfield, wrote the nomination that placed the town site of New Philadelphia on the National Register of Historic Places. The archaeological survey provided enough information to make a case that the resources are significant and can help answer important questions about life on the western frontier. In 2008, Charlotte King, a graduate of the University of Maryland, along with members of the New Philadelphia Association and Patricia McWorter as spokesperson for her family, presented their case to list the town site as a National Historic Landmark. In January 2009, the Secretary of the Interior listed the town site as a National Historic Landmark because of its archaeological significance and its potential to answer questions related to race on the western frontier. Currently, the Archaeological Conservancy is working with the New Philadelphia Association to purchase and preserve the most significant archaeological portions of the site.

There is now a lesson plan related to some of the research related to New Philadelphia titled New Philadelphia: A Multiracial Town on the Illinois Frontier. Written by Charlotte King for the Teaching with Historic Places program in the National Park Service, provides and history and a set of questions related to the development of the town.

Please scroll down to read more about the project.

The Making of New Philadelphia

The story of New Philadelphia begins with Frank McWorter, an African American who hired out his own time and established his own saltpeter mining operations while enslaved in Kentucky.  With the money he earned he purchased his freedom, and in 1836 McWorter acquired lands in a sparsely populated area known as Pike Country, Illinois, situated in the rolling hill region between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. He had the town professionally surveyed and registered it with the state of Illinois. He then subdivided it and sold lots. McWorter used the revenue from these sales to purchase the freedom of family members.

Both whites and blacks purchased property in New Philadelphia and the town existed as an integrated community well into the twentieth century. New Philadelphia stood 20 miles from the Mississippi River where the slave trade prospered and the McWorters and other black members of the community were always under the threat of being kidnapped and sold “down river.” McWorter’s activities as town founder, proprietor, promoter, and developer foreshadowed the direction that other African Americans would take on the nation’s frontiers after the American Civil War.

After the Illinois frontier closed, racism set limits to New Philadelphia expansion. County planners lobbied to have the railroad routed adjacent to another community. By the 1880s the town was unincorporated, and by the early twentieth century only a few houses survived. Today, all signs of the town have been removed from the landscape and the fields are planted in prairie grass and wheat.

Archaeological and Historic Research at New Philadelphia

During three long weekends in October and November (2002) and March (2003) Dr. Shackel led an archaeology survey team to located New Philadelphia. The survey team included UM graduates Cheryl LaRoche, Robin Whitt, Joy Beasley, and Tom Gwaltney (HistArc). Terrance Martin (ISM) and Lynn Fisher (UI-S) coordinated the field effort that included volunteers from the Illinois State Museum, Illinois College, Hannibal-LaGrange College, UI-S, Lincoln Land Community College, and the New Philadelphia Association.  The project was initiated and is also supported by the New Philadelphia Association with Mr. Philip Bradshaw as its president.

Without any visible signs of preexisting landscape features the research team used historic and topographic maps and aerial photographs to determine the general location of the town. Local farmers plowed the fields and the archaeological survey consisted of a systematic walkover of original 42-acre town. The archaeology team located pieces of ceramic, window glass and nails in discrete concentrations that indicate the location and remains of domestic houses and commercial enterprises. All of the archaeologically documented sites appear to cluster around the town’s known commercial district.

Plat lines of historic New Philadelphia superimposed
over the modern landscape.

Plot of the locations of domestic artifacts recovered
during the archaeological survey.

Terrance Martin (ISM) directed volunteers who have logged about 350 hours cleaning, labeling, and rebagging the artifacts from the survey.  After being processed at ISM the artifacts were catalogued in the spring of 2004.

One of the caretakers of the property, the New Philadelphia Land Trust, also sees the importance of preserving and studying the property.  This group, along with the research team, believes the story of New Philadelphia is unique because it is about the personal struggle of an African American to exist in a racist society while incorporating and settling in an integrated town on the western frontier.  They hope that one day the story of New Philadelphia will become part of the national story by designating it a state or a national park.

For more information on Frank McWorter, see:
Walker Juliet E.K.
(reprinted 1995)

Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier. University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

Some of this material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #0353550. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recomendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation


Research Reports

Recent Research on New Philadelphia


Organizations and People Working to Rediscover New Philadelphia

Participants in Initial Archaeological Survey*
New Philadelphia Association
and Friends

Philip Bradshaw
Joe Conover
Carol McCartney
Natalie Armistead
Larry Armistead
Marvin Likes
Pat Likes
Carolyn Dean
Shirley Johnson
Roger Woods

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Chris Fennell

University of Illinois, Springfield

Lynn Fisher
Sridhar Gaddam
Sreekanth Vudumula

Illinois State Museum

Terrance Martin

University of Central Florida

Vibert White

University of Maryland

Joy Beasley
Carrie Christman

Tom Gwaltney

Charlotte King
Cheryl LaRoche
Paul Shackel
Robin Whitt


(from Illinois State Museum, Illinois State Historic Preservation Office and local volunteers and students from Hannibal LaGrange College, Illinois College, University of Illinois-Springfield, and Lincoln Land Community College)

Heather Bangert
Erin Brand
Greg Butterfield
Roberta Codemo
Jessica Dix
Brandon Eckoff
Sarah Edminston
Cinda Farris
James Farris
Justin Garcia
Jeff Gheens
Tammy Hamilton
Michelle Huttes
Fran Knight
Ellen Marr
Norval McIntyre
Donald McWilliams
Elizabeth Netherton
Terry Ranson
Lisa Schnell
Tim Sorrill
Mary Thomas
Debbie White
Heather Wickens
Seth Wilson
Lisa Winhold
Linda Woods
Carolyn Wrightam


* For lists of additional participants in the New Philadelphia Project please consult the 2004 and 2005 Archaeology Reports

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