HADLEY TOWNSHIP, Ill. — Sandra McWorter knelt on the soil and gingerly swept through the dirt with a tiny brush to find hints of her heritage.
The clues hidden beneath the wild grasses and rolling hills could give McWorter insight into what life was like for her pioneer ancestors in the Land of Lincoln. "Free Frank" McWorter bought his freedom from slavery and came here in 1831 to build New Philadelphia -- the first town in the U.S. legally settled, platted and surveyed by an African American.
Regional lore hails the town as a haven of racial harmony: a place where whites and blacks lived side by side, farmed the land, sold their goods, married one another and worshiped together -- more than two decades before the Civil War. But there's no evidence -- no recorded memories, no journals, no newspaper accounts -- that proves or dismisses such camaraderie.
Today, New Philadelphia is a lily-covered pasture, and its Main Street a gravel path to a farmhouse. What remains is a puzzle that has teased scholars, history buffs and New Philadelphia descendants for years: Was this actually an island of racial tranquillity in west-central Illinois, when abolitionists were shot on their doorsteps and bounty hunters roamed the countryside kidnapping freed slaves?
Or is this a case of historical revisionism?
It's a question that has provoked a debate among the McWorter clan and other descendants of the 120 families that settled in New Philadelphia between the 1830s (when Free Frank bought the land and sold off the first parcel) and the 1860s (when the town population reached its peak).
Now, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, archeologists, anthropologists and students from more than a dozen universities are working to settle the matter and preserve the area as a national historic landmark.
The scientists have scanned the land with geophysical equipment to pinpoint where New Philadelphia once thrived and what its residents left behind. Each summer for the last three years, the crews have meticulously combed the earth. The process is painstakingly slow. So far, the scientists have excavated about one-thousandth of the site, or about one-third of a town lot.
The dig and other research already has produced tens of thousands of artifacts: pieces of porcelain dolls in different colors, smoking pipes, photographs of black and white farmers attending the same social events -- enough evidence to confirm that the races lived side by side, but nothing to indicate whether they got along.
The project is unusual, because many digs studying black culture before the Civil War focus on excavating slave quarters, said Paul Shackel, a University of Maryland anthropology professor and one of the project leaders.
"By looking at the remains of a free community, it's helping us fill important gaps we have about America's past," Shackel said.
The descendants of New Philadelphia have joined in the project, as has a group of residents in Barry, Ill., the town closest to the site. Since the late 1990s, the two groups have been raising money to buy Free Frank's hillside graveyard from Pike County. (The rest of the site is held in a private trust.) They've gathered census and land sales records, which the scientists are using in grant applications to further fund the dig. They have scoured the Internet and genealogy databases to locate other New Philadelphia kin, and made regular pilgrimages to the site, even though there's little to see.
To some, finding the truth is a matter of ancestral pride. To others, unraveling the mystery of New Philadelphia is a quest to accurately record history.
"My ancestor was a great, great man," said Sandra McWorter, 65, a Chicago-based graphic artist who considers her great-great-grandfather a visionary. "We want to do everything we can to unearth the truth and celebrate our past. We want to know what really happened."
Examining the ground where a blacksmith shop once stood, Sandra picked up an odd-shaped clump. She used the tip of her fingernail to flick off what appeared to be dirt.
It was a nail, covered in rust.
Sandra carefully placed it into a paper bag filled with that morning's findings: a handful of iridescent glass shards, a dozen other nails and a large pile of iron slag.
Most of the dig is sectioned off in 5-foot-square parcels, which the scientists and archeology students clear an inch at a time. At the end of the five-week dig each summer, the team puts down a porous cloth -- to make it easier to return to that spot the following year -- and refills the holes.
The project began in 2002, when scientists met with the New Philadelphia Assn., a nonprofit group of town descendants and residents in Barry (population 1,400).