Today’s post was written by Holly Rivet, archives specialist at the National Archives in St. Louis
Free Frank McWorter was an American frontiersman who found fortune, became the first African American to register a town, and spent his life liberating his family. He was born enslaved in 1777 in South Carolina. His mother, Juda had been kidnapped from West Africa and his father is thought to be her enslaver.
Frank moved with McWorter to Pulaski County, KY in 1795, leaving behind his mother. In 1799 Frank married a local enslaved woman named Lucy (b. 1771). His owner-father left Frank to manage the Kentucky farm in order to settle new land in Tennessee. Frank was presumably permitted to hire out his own time, giving him the opportunity to save money. This meant paying his enslaver first, then paying himself. He discovered saltpeter (potassium nitrate) near the farm he managed and began to mine and market this resource. The price of saltpeter, the primary ingredient in gunpowder, rose from $0.17 per pound in 1810 to $1.00 per pound in 1812 due to the War of 1812. By 1817, he had established his own business and had bought his pregnant wife’s freedom for $800. Their son Squire was born into freedom. Two years later he purchased his own freedom (for another $800) and renamed himself “Free Frank”. With his newfound freedom and fortune, he began land speculating and at one point he owned 517 acres in Kentucky. In the 1820’s he became invested in commercial farming. He sold his saltpeter operation in 1829 to buy the freedom of his oldest son Frank Jr. who had escaped American bondage and sought freedom in Canada for the estimated price of $2500. This is roughly $85,000 in today’s currency according to MeasuringWorth.com.
In 1829, Illinois passed an anti-immigration law requiring free Black people to pay a $1000 bond before settling. However, this was only for non-property owners. In order to circumvent this bond, Free Frank purchased two hundred acres in Pike County, Illinois before he moved. As he was already a landowning resident, he avoided this bond when he physically moved. His family left behind their three grown children and several grandchildren, but set out with the intention to return to purchase their freedom as well. By 1836 he had amassed 620 acres, part of which he founded as New Philadelphia.
He mapped out 144 lots and sold them to both Freedmen and European settlers alike. New Philadelphia prospered and by 1865 had a population of 160, 30% of which was African American. In the early 1850’s rail lines began to dominate transport of goods and displaced carriages and steamboats. The town established by Free Frank was skipped by the railroad by more than half a mile in 1869. This is not an isolated incident. This selective designation of rail stops to avoid a Black town also occurred in Allensworth, CA in 1914. Moving crop to market required a close station, thus beginning the decline in the town’s population and prosperity. By the 1870s the town was effectively dead.
Over time, he continued to return to Kentucky to purchase the freedom of more of his children and grandchildren. Overall, he bought fifteen of his family members and with their inheritance, his family bought another seven. Between 1817 and 1857 roughly $14,000 had been spent to free members of the McWhorter family.
Free Frank McWorter passed away September 7, 1854 in the town he founded. He was survived by his wife Lucy, their children Frank Jr., Sally, Judah, and Solomon. The McWorter Cemetery still stands in Pike County, Illinois and has been a National Historic Site since 1988. The New Philadelphia Town Site joined the list in 2005. Learn more about New Philadelphia, the McWorter family, and restoration projects at the Free Frank New Philadelphia Historic Preservation Foundation website.
The whole application for National Historic Site status for Free Frank McWorter, Grave Site (NAID 28893909) can be accessed anytime on the National Archives’ online Catalog. This application comes from the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records (NAID 20812721): Illinois; National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013–2017; Record Group 70: Records of the National Park Service, 1785–2006. These records include all original applications, supporting documents, photographs, and maps.
Visit the ‘The Migration of Free Frank McWorter’ online exhibit on the Smithsonian’s website for photos of the McWorter family and more.
Cover image courtesy Family Archives of Allen J. Kirkpatrick