Road Trip Through History: Unexpected Stories in Quincy Illinois

Quincy, Illinois, was our final stop on this segment of driving the Great River Road.* It wasn’t so much a stop as a pause on our way home. But it was a good pause, with some unexpected stories.

The town has a number of museums and restored historical homes. It also has an interesting outdoor display about Lincoln’s visit to Quincy for his debate with Stephen Douglas: basically the city’s equivalent of an academic poster session.

It will probably not surprise you to learn that we spent most of our time at the local historical society, which is located in a restored historical home. Like many local historical museums, it had exhibits on the town’s founders,** its early residents, and some of its successful industries. (I addition to All of which is always interesting.

But two exhibits that were less typical caught my imagination:

One room was dedicated to the interactions between the residents of Quincy with Mormon refugees, first in the winter of 1838-1839 when they were driven out of Missouri and again in 1846, when they were forced to abandon their settlement in neighboring Nauvoo.*** I won’t try to condense the history of the Mormon exodus here. It is too complicated. And it wasn’t the focus of the exhibit, which detailed the efforts of a small town to provide food, shelter, medicine, and most important of all, compassion to strangers in need.

Another  room focused on the history of Quincy’s Black residents. While many historical museums today are attempting to add women and people of color to their exhibits—an act I salute—it is quite clear that the Quincy museum’s exhibit predates that effort. Part of the room told Quincy’s role in the Underground Railroad but much of the room focused on individual Black citizens and their contributions as entrepreneurs, educators, abolitionists, and decorated war heroes.

Within that exhibit, one story stood out for me:

“Free Frank” McWorter and his wife Lucy founded New Philadelphia, the first town in the United States to be platted and registered by Black settlers.

McWorter was born a slave in South Carolina in 1777 and then was taken to Kentucky by his owners. There he met Lucy. He was allowed to hire out his time, which meant he could buy their freedom. He bought Lucy’s freedom first, in 1817, which meant any children they had after that date would be born free. He bought his own freedom in 1819, then that of his oldest son.

In 1830, the McWorters moved to the Illinois frontier, where they established a farm. (The same year Abraham Lincoln arrived.) In 1836 , they founded the town of New Philadelphia. The town was racially mixed from the beginning and its residents were active in helping escaped slaves go north. The McWorters also managed to purchase the freedom of at least sixteen more family members.

Like many other frontier towns of the period, New Philadelphia did not last, but it was never forgotten. By 1885, many villagers had moved away looking for new opportunities. By 1940, nothing remained, though descendants of the town’s residents lived in the area until the 1950s.

Today, the New Philadelphia site is the subject of ongoing archaeological explorations, which are uncovering information about daily life in free Black rural communities. There isn’t much to see now, but legislation is in process to make the site part of the National Park System.

*Some of you may be saying, “Finally!”

**Who took advantage of the equivalent of the G.I. Bill for veterans of the War of 1812, in which the government set aside 5.4 million acres in Western Illinois, between the Illinois and Missouri Rivers. Each veteran or his descendants was “entitled” to a warrant for a full quarter section (160 acres), which allowed him to claim land and receive title for it. (The exhibit did not point that Native Americans already lived there, so I will.)

***Which was our first stop, back in 2014, on what has become a multi-year Great River Road adventure. We’ve got at least one more stretch to do. Maybe two.


Travelers’ Tips

Thyme Square Bakery and Cafe in Quincy is an excellent place for lunch. If we’d gotten there earlier, I would have bought a loaf of bread to take home, but the locals had beat me to it.

If you want to visit the New Philadelphia site, do NOT put New Philadelphia, Illinois in your GPS. It will take you to an existing town in the other direction. Trust me on this.

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