Archaeologists unearthing life of early integrated town in Illinois

07/02/04

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Independence Day has taken on new layers of meaning for a team of archaeologists who've been digging in western Illinois this summer. In fact, nearly everything about the excavation in the rolling farmland near Barry speaks volumes about freedom and liberty, nearly everything adds a chapter to the American Dream.

Sponsored by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program and led by staff from one museum and two universities, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the dig in the pastureland formerly known as New Philadelphia is uncovering "the contours of the daily life of the first town incorporated by an African American before the Civil War."

So says project co-director Christopher Fennell, an archaeologist who specializes in 18th and 19th century archaeology and African-American history. His co-directors are Paul Shackel, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland, and Terrance Martin, an archaeologist and associate curator at the Illinois State Museum. Members of a local non-profit association and other scholars with whom those community members had first begun working recruited the leaders for their research expertise.

"As archaeologists, we're interested in the lifeways and social history of the dozens of families who lived in the town, but about whom very little is known," said Fennell, a U. of I. research associate who next month will join Illinois' anthropology department as a professor of archaeology.

New Philadelphia's story is not entirely unknown. Lying in fertile fields between the Mississippi and the Illinois rivers, the town was founded in 1836 by Frank McWorter (1777-1854), a former slave from Kentucky who came to be known as "Free Frank."

Through remarkable entrepreneurial skills, McWorter not only raised the funds to buy his wife, himself and 16 members of his family out of slavery, but also trekked from Kentucky to Illinois, bought 42 acres of land, established New Philadelphia, and then turned it into a thriving prairie community by selling parcels of his land to other enterprising individuals.

It was no small feat that the integrated community succeeded. It was, after all, "one of the toughest time periods in American history and in a landscape that was shaped by racial strife," Fennell said. "People will say Illinois was a free state, but there were all sorts of ways that folks practiced slavery in Illinois, and there was a tremendous amount of social tension over being caught between the winds of Missouri and the neighboring slave states," he said.

Still, New Philadelphia was "a fascinating and unique circumstance," Fennell said, "so we want to discover how it unfolded over time. We will spend years doing research, trying to unpack how this little integrated agricultural community worked, how those families got along and interacted with each other."

Fennell said it is very likely that the townsfolk, including the McWorters, were involved in the Underground Railroad. Hannibal, Mo., was just 20 miles to the east "and there were a number of major abolitionists and grassroots escape routes flowing though that area at the time."

New Philadelphia thrived as an agricultural market center for 50 years, but its life-blood began draining out after the Hannibal & Naples Railroad bypassed it in the 1870s. By 1920, only a few families remained, the others having moved to prosperous towns on the railroad lines. Eventually the town turned, like much of the state, into agricultural land.

But during its good times, the town hummed harmoniously along with families of all kinds: African Americans, "who had their own poignant history," recent immigrants from Ireland, England and Canada, European-Americans, and possibly Native Americans.

Much of Free Frank's fascinating personal story was uncovered by former U. of I. history professor Juliet Walker, herself the great great granddaughter of the man.

According to Fennell, the team has used "a remarkable array of research techniques" to uncover the extinct town and its people. "Juliet Walker's fabulous study gave us leads on how to approach the town history," Fennell said.

In the first phase of the project, dozens of volunteers walked a line over 26 acres of the town site, flagging every artifact on the ground, culling some 7,000 items for their effort.

In the second survey phase, geophysicist Michael Hargrave from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in Champaign conducted a geophysics survey, using electric current and electromagnetic monitors to determine features below the surface of the ground, including potential stonewalls and other foundation remains. Fennell attributes much of the field school's early success to the "cutting-edge approach to layering survey methods before we even chose where to do the in-ground excavation."

The actual digging began May 25. The research team of professionals, graduate and undergraduate students spent the first five weeks of the program in the field, excavating for artifacts and the foundations of houses and other buildings. Now they are working at the Illinois State Museum's Research and Collection Center in Springfield cataloging and analyzing their finds, including artifacts, soil and archaeobiological materials.

Findings "consistent with the time period of New Philadelphia," Fennell said, include broken dinnerware, iron nails and hardware, miniature toys, clay marbles, and all sorts of "personal wares," including buttons, fragments of bone combs and toothbrushes, comprising thousands of additional items for analysis.

For Fennell, the most exciting finds to date have been the "intact foundation remains," exciting in view of one of the team's priorities: to have the entire town placed on the National Register of Historic Places. For that to happen, certain things, for example, intact archaeological and architectural features, should be present.

"So rather than just digging a site and collecting all the artifacts that may have been part of a trash dump, for example, we're specifically interested in finding the remains of the foundations, the footprints of the homes and buildings that were used there," he said. "We've had tremendous success already this summer in that we have five or six such features already uncovered, and so we'll be applying this coming fall to get the entire town on the National Register of Historic Places."

It is rare for an entire town to be placed on this register, Fennell noted. However, there are hundreds of people pulling for that to happen.

"Both the local community and the descendant community -- folks who are descended from the original families but who now live elsewhere -- have been fairly vocal thus far in saying they would like to see an interpretive visitors center built at or near the site, where this incredible story of New Philadelphia will be told, and where you can see some of the archaeological remains and the landscape of the town."

The surrounding communities of Pike County have, in fact, been "just incredibly supportive," Fennell said. "This was the most well-appointed archaeological dig I've ever been on. Through their own fundraising and logistical support, they helped provide us with a large tent and with a trailer that was air-conditioned and had running water. … In addition, a local hunting lodge provided room and board for the students at significantly discounted rates.

"We kept trying to tell the students that this wasn't the way the average archaeological project worked," Fennell said.

The students are a story in themselves, Fennell said: "a remarkably integrated group in terms of their own ethnic and cultural heritage who are studying the history of a remarkably integrated town."

"A primary consideration was to try to attract students who are of an ethnic or cultural heritage that is underrepresented in these kinds of research projects," Fennell said. "Another consideration was to provide such hands-on research experience to students enrolled at smaller liberal arts colleges who would not normally have access to these kinds of scientific research-methods programs during the summer."

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