Free Frank

Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier

Juliet E.K. Walker
Copyright Date: 1983
Edition: 1
Pages: 240
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Free Frank
    Book Description:

    The story of Free Frank is not only a testament to human courage and resourcefulness but affords new insight into the American frontier. Born a slave in the South Carolina piedmont in 1777, Frank died a free man in 1854 in a town he had founded in western Illinois. His accomplishments, creditable for any frontiersman, were for a black man extraordinary.

    We first learn details of Frank's life when in 1795 his owner moved to Pulaski County, Kentucky. We know that he married Lucy, a slave on a neighboring farm, in 1799. Later he was allowed to hire out his time, and when his owner moved to Tennessee, Frank was left in charge of the Kentucky farm. During the War of 1812, he set up his own saltpeter works, an enterprise he maintained until he left Kentucky. In 1817 he purchased his wife's freedom for $800; two years later he bought his own liberty for the same price. Now free, he expanded his activities, purchasing land and dealing in livestock.

    With his wife and four of his children, Free Frank left Kentucky in 1830 to settle on a new frontier. In Pike County, Illinois, he purchased a farm and later, in 1836, platted and successfully promoted the town of New Philadelphia. The desire for freedom was an obvious spur to his commercial efforts. Through his lifetime of work he purchased the liberty of sixteen members of his family at a cost of nearly $14,000.

    Goods and services commanded a premium in the life of the frontier. Free Frank's career shows what an exceptional man, through working against great odds, could accomplish through industry, acumen, and aggressiveness. His story suggests a great deal about business activity and legal practices, as well as racial conditions, on the frontier.

    Juliet Walker has performed a task of historical detection in recreating the life of Free Frank from family traditions, limited personal papers, public documents, and secondary sources. In doing so, she has added a significant chapter to the history of African Americans.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4851-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    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...

  7. CHAPTER ONE A Slave Who Would Be Free
    (pp. 7-12)

    Free Frank was born a slave in 1777 near the Pacolet River in South Carolina’s Union County.² In an age marked by revolution and war, his birthplace differed little from other desolate outpost settlements on the upcountry frontier, where few pioneers failed to escape the conflict that quickly devastated the newly developing Piedmont region in the late 1770s.³ The American Revolutionary War had moved into its second year at the time the slave was born. Union County, located in the old Ninety-Six District, South Carolina’s last frontier, was isolated from the densely populated Tidewater low country, a fact that seemed...

  8. CHAPTER TWO The Formative Years
    (pp. 13-27)

    By the time of Free Frank’s birth, Union County, South Carolina, already had a history of conflict and protest. Until 1761 it was the home of the Cherokee nation and the scene of several decisive battles in the Anglo-Cherokee wars which forced the Indians to relinquish their land. The threat from the Cherokees had been largely removed when the family of George McWhorter, who became Free Frank’s owners, settled the undeveloped up-country of Union County in 1763. George was one of four sons of John and Eleanor McWhorter. John, who was Scotch-Irish, had immigrated early from Ireland to the American...

  9. CHAPTER THREE “For a Valuable Consideration”
    (pp. 28-48)

    In the early years of the nineteenth century, George McWhorter hired Free Frank out as a farm laborer and jack-of-all-trades. Sheer raw labor was required to develop the new wilderness land, and agricultural work and farm life were neither simple nor easy. A white settler who had spent his young life on the early Pennyroyal recalled, “Everything was done by main strength. The heavy lifting made men stoop-shouldered and old at forty and fifty.… [and] there seemed to be no ingenuity to lessen or lighten labor.”² Labor resources were shared on that sparsely populated frontier, but access to a more...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR Speculation in Freedom
    (pp. 49-70)

    After his manumission in 1819, Free Frank continued to live in Pulaski County. Many areas of the Pennyroyal remained undeveloped, and the services and commodities that pioneer blacks could provide still proved a necessary and even integral part of that region’s developing economy. Throughout the 1820s Free Frank carefully expanded his business activities. Land speculation and the improvement of those holdings for sale to prospective farm settlers were added to his own commercial farming activities. His saltpeter manufactory, too, showed continued growth and became even more profitable. Perhaps it was his business success that prompted the litigation in which he...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE Black Pathfinders on the Illinois Frontier
    (pp. 71-92)

    After spending more than a year in careful preparation for the move north, Free Frank sold his farm homestead in September 1830 as his final step before leaving Kentucky to settle a new frontier. The family left in the fall of that year: Lucy, now approaching her sixtieth birthday; their three freeborn children, Squire, Commodore, and Lucy Ann; and their slave-born son Young Frank, whose manumission had been secured the previous year. Free Frank was intent on making the westward trek before winter set in. Adequate food provisions to sustain the family during the cold and barren season had been...

  12. CHAPTER SIX Land Acquisitions and New Philadelphia’s Origin
    (pp. 93-121)

    The town of New Philadelphia was platted on an eighty-acre tract that Free Frank had purchased from the federal government for $100 in 1835.² While this tract was the first of eight that Free Frank and his sons would buy within the next four years, the town’s site was the only land purchase made that year. Solomon’s manumission from slavery had been Free Frank’s paramount objective. With that accomplished, and with both Young Frank and Solomon working the family’s farm, Free Frank intensified the cultivation of their 160-acre farm holdings. In the following year, with money earned from the sale...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN The Development of New Philadelphia
    (pp. 122-146)

    By 1840 the financial crisis had depressed property values throughout Illinois, but the effects on town development were catastrophic. At the height of the depression, especially from 1840 to 1843, as Pooley shows, “the little towns suffered. Land and town lots became almost worthless; improved lands could be bought for a dollar and a quarter an acre.” Perhaps the most tragic consequence was that “much property was forfeited because of the inability of the owners to pay taxes.” Only two of the six Pike County towns founded by single proprietors during the speculative period of town platting would survive; New...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT The Achievement of a Dream
    (pp. 147-163)

    Free Frank’s activities to earn money for his family’s freedom, while at the same time working to promote New Philadelphia’s growth, were carried out in a period of increasing legal proscription of blacks. Illinois’s new 1848 constitution included a proviso that would allow the statutory exclusion of free blacks; it would also be illegal for slaveowners to bring their slaves into the state for the purpose of freeing them.² Finally passed in 1853, the law provided that a fine of $100 to $500 would be imposed on any person who brought free blacks into the state, and that if a...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 164-174)

    The 1850s marked an end to the saga of Free Frank—an Afro-American freedom fighter, a man who struggled a lifetime to liberate his family, determined that they would be free. Even after his death in 1854, Free Frank’s determination and the intensity of his efforts were still felt in Pike County, as evidenced by the indulgence of the county court. Even before the estate was finally settled, Solomon was allowed to purchase those family members still remaining in slavery. By 1860 it appeared that all the family was free.

    Solomon, who had been his father’s business partner, had never...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 175-206)
  17. Bibliographic Note
    (pp. 207-214)
  18. Index
    (pp. 215-223)