Frank McWorter (1777-1854)

Frank McWorter was born in Union County, South Carolina, the son of a West African woman held in slavery by the planter George McWorter. McWorter moved to Kentucky in 1795, and Frank proved so adept at managing his master's holdings that he was left to run them when George began the development of a new property in Tennessee. Frank married an enslaved African-American woman named Lucy, who lived on a neighboring farm in Kentucky, in 1799. Frank soon proved that his business talents extended beyond the management of a farm for George McWorter. During the War of 1812 he began the mining and production of saltpeter, a necessary ingredient in gunpowder. Combined with earnings he had accumulated by taking on other wage work on neighboring farms, the proceeds of Frank McWorter's industry enabled him to purchase the freedom of his wife in 1817, and his own in 1819. For each he paid $800. Ultimately he purchased freedom for a total of sixteen members of his family, spending approximately $14,000.

Shortly after gaining his freedom, Frank began to invest his remaining capital by purchasing land in Pike County, Illinois, near the Mississippi River. Moving to Illinois in 1830. McWorter subdivided and sold tracts of the land he had purchased there, and then incorporated the town of New Philadelphia. He and his family developed their own farmstead near the town, and raised crops and livestock. 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. Frank McWorter became well known as "Free Frank," especially among African Americans in the West. He died in 1854. Like so many other frontier settlements, the town of New Philadelphia eventually proved unable to survive the nineteenth century's economic changes. By 1885 it had become a collection of empty buildings. Today none survive, and farm fields cover the site.


Walker, Juliet E. K. Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

New Philadelphia, Illinois, Founded by Free Frank McWorter