Monday, November 3, 2014

The Most Amazing Slave Story You've Never Heard

Since I have been researching and blogging about my own family, I find myself a little more in tune to history: local, regional, international. Sometimes you learn about someone or something and the story never leaves you. This is my small attempt at spreading the amazing true life story of "Free Frank."

And it happened completely by chance.

what is left of New Philadelphia

My first encounter with Free Frank was through a 2008 PBS Time Team America television program. It was mostly an archaeological show with a little history for background. The archaeological dig was taking place in rural western Illinois, and I thought, hmm, some day I'd like to check that out.

Friday was that day.

We traveled to the Mississippi River town of Quincy for our son's cross country meet (long trip, long story, good ending!). Along the desolate stretch of Interstate 72, west of Springfield, was this sign:


We had a little daylight left and there was no way I was not stopping. Only a few miles off the interstate were the signs directing us to New Philadelphia, a town that no longer is, but that has an amazing history.

Frank was born in 1777 in South Carolina to an African-born slave. His master, George McWhorter, moved to the new frontier of Kentucky. Frank "married" Lucy, a slave from a nearby farm. Frank was industrious, and in addition to his forced labor, hired himself out (with part of his pay going to George) to other farms. In the wilds of Kentucky during the War of 1812, he was also able to learn to produce saltpeter, the main ingredient in gunpowder.

In 1817, he used his saved money to purchase Lucy's freedom. And then he purchased his own. And then he purchased the freedom of three of his slave-born children. And their spouses. And his grandchildren. All told, he earned and spent about $14,000 to secure freedom for his family (about $250,000 in today's money!).

Frank also started investing in farmland of his own, buying small parcels in Pike County, Illinois. By 1830, he was dangerously traveling back and forth between slave Kentucky and free Illinois, preparing the land for settlement.

Not only did Frank purchase land, he was well-versed in many aspects of property ownership. He and Lucy successfully defended themselves in a civil suit, and he was able to purchase the Illinois land, when every effort to dissuade black property ownership was employed by authorities.

New Philadelphia was officially platted in 1836 - the first town platted by a free black man in the United States

By 1839, Frank owned 800 acres in Hadley Township, all settled by his family and other free blacks. It was likely a stop on the Underground Railroad. By the 1880's, the town faded away as railroads and other improvements were made elsewhere.

Frank, Lucy, and family
1850 US census: Township Five, Pike County, Illinois

Frank died in 1854. I truly wanted to visit the family cemetery, but it is on private property and accessible only by a hike through the brush.

Today, New Philadelphia is merely a rolling farm field of memories. But the perseverance of Free Frank should live forever. It was truly an honor to stand where he stood.




Illinois River, about 10 miles away

rolling farmland near New Philadelphia

Here are some links about Free Frank and New Philadelphia:





History: don't let it pass you by.

© 2014 Sally Knudsen

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