A Look at TAC’s African-American Historical and Archaeological Preserves in the Midwest
Broadly speaking, the mission of The Archaeological Conservancy is to acquire sufficient sites to create a representative sample of the archaeological record of the United States. Mostly we focus our attention on American Indian sites, since they make up the biggest portion of the archaeological record, but we have acquired and preserved a number of other sites that preserve the history of many other communities and groups. These range from historic period sites ranging from French and Indian War forts to a Nineteenth Century tannery. In the Midwest Region we have been privileged to help preserve the archaeological remains of two very significant antebellum communities settled by freed slaves. In Celebration of American-American history month, we want to share those with you here.
Miller Grove, a rural farming community located in Pope County in far southern Illinois, began about 1845 when a Tennessee slaveholder decided to move to the free state of Illinois. Not wanting to break up the families of his slaves, he emancipated them, and they accompanied him and his wife to the Shawnee Hills region of Illinois, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. Through the years, other African-Americans, mostly emancipated slaves who could not remain as free persons in slave states, followed. The population of Miller Grove peaked about 1900 when 20 families totaling 108 people lived there. The population declined afterwards, as soil exhaustion made farming difficult and new opportunities arose in mines and factories to the north. When Shawnee National Forest was created in 1930, most of the town site was incorporated into it. One 20-acre parcel, however, remained in private hands until 2009 when Wilbur McClure, a descendant of one of the town’s founders and the community’s last African-American landowner, passed away. The Archaeological Conservancy purchased the property at fair-market price from McClure’s widow, then sold it at cost two years later to Shawnee National Forest. The Miller Grove archaeological site continues to be used today for public education and outreach, as well as research.
New Philadelphia, located in west central Illinois, was founded by in 1836 and is the first town in the United States founded by a free African-American. “Free Frank” McWorter began life as a slave on a South Carolina plantation, but was able to eventually purchase the freedom of himself, his wife and 13 other relatives. He purchased land in Pike County, Illinois and platted a town that eventually grew to be thriving mixed-raced community. The town peaked in 1865 when it boasted a population of 160 residents in 29 households. The town declined, however, after being by-passed by the railroad and by early in the twentieth century had reverted to farmland.
A local preservation society, The New Philadelphia Association, was founded in 1996 to promote the historical and cultural significance of New Philadelphia with a dream of promoting the town site for heritage tourism. In 2004 archaeologists Christopher Fennel, University of Illinois; Terrance Martin, Illinois State Museum; and Richard Shackel, University of Maryland, began a multi-year cross disciplinary investigation of the New Philadelphia town site. To insure the continued preservation of the town site, in 2009 The Archaeological Conservancy purchased a nine-acre parcel encompassing the downtown of New Philadelphia.
The purchase proved to be a very satisfying investment in preserving history and archaeology. In 2009 The New Philadelphia Town Site was designated a National Historic Landmark, the highest recognition that the United States can bestow upon a historic site. In 2013 the National Park Service recognized the role of New Philadelphia in the Underground Railroad by designating it to the National Underground Network to Freedom. In December 2014 Congress passed and the President signed legislation authorizing the National Park Service to conduct a study of the feasibility of incorporating the New Philadelphia Town Site into the National Park Service.
Resources on Miller Grove
Resources on New Philadelphia