Historic New Philadelphia Comes to WIU

Feb 24, 2010

Dr. Terrance Martin, Curator of Anthropology at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, was invited to WIU by Dr. Timothy Roberts, Assistant Professor of History, to give a presentation on February 23 to WIU History and Anthropology students on "Archaeological Investigations at New Philadelphia: A Multi-Racial Community on the Illinois Frontier." Dr. Martin's presentation was organized by Dr. Roberts of the WIU Department of History and co-sponsored by the WIU Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

The excavations at the New Philadelphia site, in Pike County, are part of a collaborative project involving the Illinois State Museum, the University of Illinois, the University of North Carolina, the University of Maryland, and DePaul University. The project is part of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. Students chosen to participate in the NSF's REU program at New Philadelphia conduct summer field work at the site, as well as laboratory work on plant and animal remains and artifacts collected at the site. Nine college students from around the country are chosen to participate in the NSF's REU program each summer. WIU students interested in applying should visit the New Philadelphia Field School web site for more information and/or see Dr. Jessica White of the WIU Department of Sociology and Anthropology. See the links in the blue box to the upper right for more information on New Philadelphia, the research project, and a lesson plan on the town's history.

New Philadelphia was the first town in the United States to be platted and registered by an African American, "Free Frank" McWorter, who was born in slavery but was later able to purchase his freedom (and that of many other family members). In 1836 he established New Philadelphia, a 42-acre community in Hadley Township, in the Military Reserve District of Illinois, northwest of Pittsfield, the county seat of Pike County. New Philadelphia was home to both black and white people, who moved there from both New England and the Upland South, including former slaves like McWorter, as well as fugitive slaves seeking freedom via the "underground railroad."

The site of the town, which no longer exists, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2009. This recognition followed archaeological surveys conducted with the help of local college students, which began in 2002.

Dr. Martin pointed out that the investigations at the New Philadelphia site combine archaeological, historical, and geophysical research. Geophysical techniques -- including the use of electrical resistivity, magnetometers, ground-penetrating radar, and aerial thermal imaging -- are used to locate appropriate places to excavate. Archaelogical excavations uncover, among other things, roads, building foundations, animal bones, and physical artifacts. The archaeological field work is combined with historical research into the community, using primarily census records (kept in the basement of the Pittsfield County Jail), nineteenth-century maps of the region, and contemporary newspapers from region.

Historical and archaeological investigations have revealed that New Philadelphia, a farming community, continued to be inhabited long after the railroad passed it by in 1869. In addition, many of the artifacts identified at the site challenge the stereotypes of "frontier" life on the Illinois prairie, indicating that New Philadelphia, despite its relatively isolated location, was still part of a thriving market economy in the mid-nineteenth century.

Dr. Martin's presentation on the archaeological and historical research being done at New Philadelphia was part of WIU's Black History Month schedule of events.

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