Free Frank: New Philadelphia Illinois  
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History of Free Frank: Introduction
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No aspect of America's history has so captured the nation's imagination as the frontier experience. From the beginning of the seventeenth century, the new American challenged and conquered a vast continent, spectacularly rich in land and natural resources. Black pioneers shared in building the new country, but a national image which portrays successive waves of westward-moving pioneers fails to reflect the full extent of black participation in the development of America's frontiers. The subject of this book—Free Frank, a black pioneer—played an active role in the development of three successive frontiers as the new nation moved westward in the era between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Few contemporaries shared his distinctive experiences—an Afro-American frontiersman who as a slave established his own extractive mining operation and then, after purchasing his own freedom, was a frontier land speculator, commercial farmer, stockraiser, town founder, and town developer. Free Frank's diverse business activities were motivated by an overwhelming drive to buy his family's freedom. Over a period of forty years he purchased sixteen family members, including himself, from slavery. The total cost—some $15,000—Free Frank earned during his lifetime as a pioneer entrepreneur on the new nation's western frontiers.

Free Frank lived as a slave for forty-two years. In the South Carolina Piedmont frontier where he was born in 1777 he experienced the turmoil of the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Before the turn of the century he was taken to the new Kentucky Pennyroyal frontier, where he labored for fifteen years to subdue a desolate wilderness land and to develop his owner's pioneer farm homestead. By 1810 Free Frank began hiring his own time, and with markedly shrewd enterprise he set up a saltpeter manufactory during the War of 1812. From the profits which remained after paying his owner for allowing him to hire his own time, he purchased first his wife's freedom in 1817 and then his own in 1819.

With freedom came the expansion of Free Frank's entrepreneurial activities on the Kentucky frontier. While he continued to manufacture saltpeter, frontier land speculation and commercial farming were added to the growing list of his enterprises. Then in 1830 he made the westward move to Illinois, where he established a pioneer homestead on the highly productive but undeveloped and sparsely populated frontier of the Illinois-Mississippi River Valley. In Pike County the black pioneer continued his speculation in land, and stockraising broadened the scope of his commercial farm enterprise. Caught up in the Illinois town-platting boom of the mid-1830s, Free Frank founded his town, New Philadelphia, and as its proprietor promoted its development until his death in 1854 at the age of seventy-seven.

Free Frank's life story provides new evidence that Afro-American economic activities where they existed on the nation's antebellum frontiers contributed to the transformation of wilderness areas into established communities. From another perspective, his activities as a black pioneer entrepreneur provide additional insights into the multiplicity of responses by Afro-Americans as they contended with life in the new nation before the Emancipation Proclamation's promise of freedom. Few historical studies fully document the wide range of activities of the pioneer slaves who developed the southern frontiers. Nor has serious historical inquiry been directed to the lives of those comparatively few free blacks whose experiences differed little from those of the white pioneers who forged the Old Northwest frontiers. Although free blacks averaged 10 percent of the Afro-American population from 1790 on, plantation slavery, urban slavery, and industrial slavery have been the areas of paramount interest for students of the Afro-American historical experience. Recently free blacks in the cities of the new nation have also become a subject of historical research. This examination of the life of Free Frank appraises a seriously neglected but important area in Afro-American and western frontier history.

The origin and development of Free Frank's town, New Philadelphia, comprise another important part of this study. The New Philadelphia town records provide the only documented case of a town founded by a black man in antebellum America. Thus Free Frank's activities as an Afro-American town founder, proprietor, promoter, and developer are important. His pioneering role foreshadowed the direction that would be taken by other blacks who founded or promoted towns on the nation's frontiers after the Civil War. Certainly it appears that for black town founders throughout the nineteenth century, America's frontiers provided less restraint of economic activities than did life in established, densely populated communities. With the increasing interest in black town founding in Afro-American historiography, New Philadelphia's development into a biracial antebellum frontier town provides a distinct contrast with most black towns founded after the Civil War.

  Reprinted With Permission from Dr. Juliet E.K. Walker; ©Copyright Juliet E.K. Walker, Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983, 1995). Reproduction in Whole or In Part is Prohibited without Written Permission.