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Solomon Northup

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Title: Solomon Northup  
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Subject: 12 Years a Slave (film), Twelve Years a Slave, AACTA International Award for Best Actor, List of black Academy Award winners and nominees, Joseph Barton Elam
Collection: 1808 Births, 19Th-Century American Writers, African-American Abolitionists, African-American Non-Fiction Writers, American Memoirists, American People of African Descent, American People of European Descent, American Slaves, Freedmen, Missing People, People from Essex County, New York, People from Hebron, New York, People from Saratoga Springs, New York, People from Washington County, New York, People Who Wrote Slave Narratives, Underground Railroad People, Year of Death Missing, Year of Death Uncertain, Year of Death Unknown
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Solomon Northup

Engraving from his autobiography
Born July 10, 1808? (or 1807)
Minerva, Essex County, New York, U.S.
Died 1863 (aged 55–56)?
Known for Twelve Years a Slave

Solomon Northup[Note 1] (July 1808–1863?)[1][2] was an American abolitionist and the primary author of the memoir Twelve Years a Slave. A free-born African American from New York, he was the son of a freed slave and free woman of color. A farmer and violinist, Northup owned land in Hebron, New York. In 1841, he was enticed to Washington, D.C. (where slavery was legal), kidnapped, and sold as a slave. He was shipped to New Orleans, purchased by a planter, and held as a slave for 12 years in the Red River region of Louisiana, mostly in Avoyelles Parish. He remained in slavery until he met a Canadian working on his plantation who helped get word to New York, where state law provided for aid to free New York citizens kidnapped into slavery. Family and friends enlisted the aid of the Governor of New York, Washington Hunt, and Northup regained his freedom on January 3, 1853.[3]

The slave trader in Washington, D.C., James H. Birch, was arrested and tried, but acquitted because District of Columbia law prohibited Northup as a black man from testifying against white people. Later, in New York State, his northern kidnappers were located and charged, but the case was tied up in court for two years due to jurisdictional challenges and finally dropped when Washington, D.C., was found to have jurisdiction. The D.C. government did not pursue the case. Those who had kidnapped and enslaved Northup received no punishment.

In his first year of freedom, Northup wrote and published a memoir, Twelve Years a Slave (1853). He lectured on behalf of the abolitionist movement, giving more than two dozen speeches throughout the Northeast about his experiences, to build momentum against slavery. He largely disappears from the historical record in 1857 (although a letter later reported him alive in early 1863);[4] some commentators thought he had been kidnapped again, but historians believe it unlikely, as he would have been considered too old to bring a good price.[5] The details of his death have never been documented.[6]

Northup's memoir was adapted and produced as the 1984 PBS television movie Solomon Northup's Odyssey, and the 2013 feature film 12 Years a Slave. The latter won an Academy Award in 2014 for Best Picture.


  • Life 1
    • Family history and education 1.1
    • Marriage and family 1.2
  • Work 2
    • Kidnapped and sold into slavery 2.1
    • Restoration of freedom 2.2
    • Court cases and memoir 2.3
    • Last years 2.4
  • Historiography 3
  • Influence among scholars 4
  • Legacy and honors 5
    • Representation in media 5.1
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Family history and education

Solomon's father Mintus was a freedman who had been a slave in his early life in service to the Northup family. Born in Rhode Island, he was taken with the Northups when they moved to Hoosick, New York, in Rensselaer County. His master, Capt. Henry Northup, manumitted Mintus in his will.[7][8] After being freed by Henry Northup, Mintus adopted the surname Northup as his own. The name appears interchangeably in records as Northup and Northrup.

Mintus Northup married and moved with his wife, a free woman of color, to the town of Minerva in Essex County, New York. Their two sons, Solomon and Joseph, were born free according to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, as their mother was a free woman.[Note 2][9] Solomon described his mother as a quadroon, meaning that she was one-quarter African American, and three-quarters European.[10] A farmer, Mintus Northup was successful enough to own land and thus meet the state's property requirements. From 1821 on, when it revised its constitution, the state retained the property requirement for black people, but dropped it for white men, thus expanding their franchise. It is notable that Mintus Northup was able to save enough money as a freedman to buy land that satisfied this requirement, and registered to vote.[Note 3][8] He provided an education for his two sons at a level considered high for free black people at that time.[11] As boys, Northup and his brother worked on the family farm.[1][8] Mintus and his wife last lived near Fort Edward. He died on November 22, 1829,[8] and his grave is in Hudson Falls Baker Cemetery.

Marriage and family

In 1829[Note 4][1][8] Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton. A "woman of color," she was of African, European, and Native American descent.[12] Between 1830 to 1834 the couple lived in Fort Edward and Kingsbury, small communities in Washington County, New York.[13]

They had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo.[14] They owned a farm in Hebron and supplemented their income by various jobs. In his later memoir, Northup describes his love for his wife as "sincere and unabated", since the time of their marriage, and his children as "beloved".[15]


Northup held various jobs, including working as a raftsman. He built a fine reputation as a fiddler and was in high demand to play for local dances. Anne became notable as a cook and worked for local taverns, which served food and drink.[8]

After selling their farm in 1834, the Northups moved 20 miles to Saratoga Springs, New York,[16] for its employment opportunities.[1][8] Northup played his violin at several well-known hotels in Saratoga Springs, though he found its seasonal cycles of employment difficult. He was busy during the summer, but work was scarce at other times. He worked at an assortment of jobs, constructing the Champlain Canal and the railroad, and as a skilled carpenter. Anne worked from time to time as a cook at the United States Hotel and other public houses, and she was highly praised for her culinary skills. When court was in session at the county seat of Fort Edward, she worked at Sherrill's Coffee House in Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls) to earn extra money.[17][18]

Kidnapped and sold into slavery

In 1841, at age 32, Northup met two men, who introduced themselves as Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. Saying they were entertainers, members of a circus company, they offered him a job as a fiddler for several performances in New York City.[1][8] Expecting the trip to be brief, Northup did not notify Anne, who was working in Sandy Hill.[19] When they reached New York City, the men persuaded Northup to continue with them for a gig with their circus in Washington, D.C., offering him a generous wage and the cost of his return trip home. They stopped so that he could get a copy of his "free papers," which documented his status as a free man.[8] His status was a concern as he was traveling to Washington, where slavery was legal.

The city had one of the nation's largest slave markets, and slave catchers were not above kidnapping free black people.[20] At this time, 20 years before the Civil War, the expansion of cotton cultivation in the Deep South had led to a continuing high demand for healthy slaves. Kidnappers used a variety of means, from forced abduction to deceit, and frequently abducted children, who were easier to control.[21]

It is possible that "Brown" and "Hamilton" incapacitated Northup—his symptoms suggest he was drugged with

  • "The Kidnapping Case: Narrative of the Seizure and Recovery of Solomon Northrup" ( 
  • Northup, Solomon; David Wilson. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, Auburn, N.Y.: Derby and Miller, 1853, at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina.
  • Letters by John R. Smith, "Wilbur H. Siebert Content", Houghton Library, Harvard University. Available as online images (Digital Collections tab), detailing Northup's involvement in the Underground Railroad after January 1863.
  • Twelve Years a Slave, in National Archives : Docs Teach
  • The Solomon Northup Trail, LSU's Acadiana Historical project's maps and descriptions of sites mentioned in Northup's memoir, based on Eakin's and Logsdon's 1968 research.

External links

  • Fiske, David; Brown, Clifford W. & Seligman, Rachel (2013). Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave. , a complete biography of Northup
  • Lester, Julius (1968). To Be a Slave. New York. pp. 39–58. , Newberry Honor Medal, ages 10 and up
  • Osofsky, Gilbert, ed. (1969). Puttin' on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup. New York: Harper and Row.  

Further reading

  1. ^ a b c d e f g profileEncyclopaedia Britannica
  2. ^ African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook (2002) Emmanuel Sampath Nelson, Greenwood Publishing Group, p290 ISBN 9780313314094
  3. ^ a b c "The Kidnapping Case: Narrative of the Seizure and Recovery of Solomon Northrup" ( 
  4. ^ a b c "John R. Smith letter" (1930s), Wilbur Henry Siebert collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University "Wilbur Henry Siebert Collection". 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Genz, Michelle (7 March 1999). "Solomon's Wisdom". Washington Post. Retrieved 19 February 2012. 
  6. ^ a b c Lo Wang, Hansi. 12 Years' Is The Story Of A Slave Whose End Is A Mystery"'". NPR. Retrieved 7 January 2014. 
  7. ^ "Last Will & Testament of Henry Northrop" (recorded 3 October 1797), Rensselaer County, New York Will Book, vol 1, pp 144-145. Accessed 22 October 2013.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s "Solomon_Northup", Oxford African American Studies Center
  9. ^ "The Northup Kidnapping Case," New York Daily Tribune, 14 July 1854, p. 7; "Memorial of Anne," appendix to Twelve Years a Slave
  10. ^ Northup, Solomon; David Wilson. Twelve Years a Slave, Auburn, NY: Orton and Mulligan; London: Samson Low, Son & Company, 1853, p. 1, at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina
  11. ^ Curtis, Nancy. Black Heritage Sites: the South, 1996, p. 118.
  12. ^ Northup (1853), Twelve Years a Slave, p. 21
  13. ^ "Solomon Northup, Kingsbury, Washington, New York". United States Census, 1830. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c d e f African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook (2002) Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson, Greenwood Press, p. 291
  15. ^ Northrup, Solomon; edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon (1968). Twelve Years a Slave. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. p. 7.  
  16. ^ "Solomon Northorp, Saratoga Springs, Saratoga, New York". United States Census, 1840. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  17. ^ Northup (1853), Twelve Years, pp. 25, 28
  18. ^ a b c Worley, Sam. "Solomon Northup and the Sly Philosophy of the Slave Pen", Callaloo, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Winter 1997), p. 245.
  19. ^ Northup (1853), Twelve Years a Slave, p. 30
  20. ^ "The Capital", George Washington University
  21. ^ a b Wilson, Carol (1994). Freedom at Risk. University of Kentucky Press. pp. 10–12. 
  22. ^ Northup, Solomon (1853). Twelve Years a Slave. p. 36. 
  23. ^ Northup, Solomon (1969) [1853]. Osofsky, Gilbert, ed. Puttin' On Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup. Harper & Row. p. 260.  
  24. ^ Northup, Solomon (1853). Twelve Years a Slave. pp. 105–106. 
  25. ^ Northup, Solomon (1853). Twelve Years a Slave. pp. 114–116. 
  26. ^ Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, (1999) Walter Johnson, Harvard University Press, p. 80
  27. ^ Northup, Solomon (1853). Twelve Years a Slave. pp. 153–156. 
  28. ^ Northrup, Solomon; edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon (1968). Twelve Years a Slave. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. pp. 125–126.  
  29. ^ Northrup, Solomon; edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon (1968). Twelve Years a Slave. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. pp. 211–212.  
  30. ^ Fiske, David; Clifford W. Brown Jr. (12 August 2013). Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave. ABC-CLIO. pp. 15–18.  
  31. ^ Szklarski, Cassandra (2013-11-15). "Canadian connection to 12 Years a Slave has descendants buzzing". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2014-01-09. 
  32. ^ Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, p.298
  33. ^ Northup, Solomon (1853). Twelve Years a Slave. p. 184. 
  34. ^ Northup, Solomon (1853). Twelve Years a Slave. pp. 73–74, 270–73, 275, 292, 297–98. 
  35. ^ "Narrative of the Seizure and Recovery of Solomon Northrup". New York Times. Documenting the American South (University of North Carolina). 20 Jan 1853. 
  36. ^ J.C. Derby (1884), "William H. Seward", Fifty Years Among Authors, Books and Publishers, New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., pp. 62–63 
  37. ^ Fiske, David (2012). Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery.  
  38. ^ "Solomon Northup, Queensbury, Warren, New York". New York, State Census, 1855. New York Secretary of State. Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  39. ^ Fiske, David. Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery, 2012, Appendix A.
  40. ^ Fiske, David; Brown, Clifford W.; Seligman, Rachel. Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave. 
  41. ^ American Union (Ellicottville, NY), 12 November 1858
  42. ^ "Poor Sol. Northop". Columbus (Georgia) Daily Enquirer. October 16, 1858. p. 2, citing the New York News. 
  43. ^ "Freedom in Canada". Boston Herald. August 25, 1857. p. 2. 
  44. ^ Mann, E. R. (1879). The Bench and Bar of Saratoga County. p. 153. 
  45. ^ "Ann Northup, Queensbury, Warren, New York". United States Census, 1860. NARA, Washington DC. Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  46. ^ "New York, State Census, 1865 > Saratoga >Moreau".  
  47. ^ 1870 Federal Census for Sandy Hill, Washington County, New York, Household #44
  48. ^ 1870 Federal Census for Moreau, Saratoga County, New York, Household #100
  49. ^ 1870 Federal Census for Fort Edward, Washington County, New York, Household #662
  50. ^ "New York, State Census, 1875 > Washington > Kingsbury, E.D. 03".  
  51. ^ "Vicinity News". Daily Albany Argus. 16 August 1876. p. 4. 
  52. ^ Fiske, David "Authenticity and Authorship: Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, New York State History Blog, 11 December 2013"
  53. ^ Ernest, John (2004). Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861. Chapel Hill: Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 183.  
  54. ^  
  55. ^ a b Northrup, Solomon; edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon (1968). Twelve Years a Slave. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. p. x.  
  56. ^ Silbey, Joel H. by Solomon Northup, editors Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon"Twelve Years a Slave"Review of , Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908–1984), Vol. 63, No. 2 (Summer, 1970), p. 203.
  57. ^ Stampp, Kenneth M. (1956). The Peculiar Institution. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 60, 74–5, 90, 162, 183, 285, 287, 323, 336–7, 359, 365, 380.  Presence of "Twelve Years..." usually revealed by unindexed footnotes.
  58. ^ a b "An Escape From Slavery, Now a Movie, Has Long Intrigued Historians". The New York Times. 23 September 2013. Retrieved 2013-09-26. 
  59. ^ Solomon Northup. "Twelve Years A Slave". Louisiana State University Press. Retrieved 2013-09-26. 
  60. ^ Holland, Jesse. "Black Men Built the Capitol", Democracy Now interview, 20 January 2009.
  61. ^ City of Saratoga Springs. "Solomon Northup Day, A Celebration of Freedom". Press release carried at Saratoga NYGenWeb. 
  62. ^ Solomon Northup Day, in Saratoga Springs Heritage Area Visitor Center.
  63. ^ "Freedom Project". 
  64. ^ "North Country Underground Railroad". 
  65. ^ "Rita Dove" at Facts On File, Encyclopedia of Black Women in America.
  66. ^ Solomon Northup's Odyssey at the Internet Movie Database
  67. ^ "Solomon Northup's Odyssey".  
  68. ^ "Follow the North Star". 
  69. ^ Kroll, Justin (11 October 2011). "'"Fassbender, McQueen re-team for 'Slave. Variety. Retrieved 19 July 2012. 
  70. ^ "Oscars 2014: 12 Years a Slave must clean up. But that doesn't mean it will", Guardian, January 16, 2014
  71. ^ a b Cieply, Michael; Barnesmarch, Brooks (March 2, 2014). "‘12 Years a Slave’ Claims Best Picture Oscar".  


  1. ^ In early newspaper articles, the name is spelled both "Northrop"and "Northrup", sometimes both spellings occurring in the same article.
  2. ^ Although Northup gives his year of birth as 1808 in his book, in sworn testimony in 1854, he said he had reached the age of 47 on July 10 that year, making his year of birth 1807, which is consistent with a statement by his wife in 1852 that he was "about 45".
  3. ^ Transcription of New York Constitution of 1821 excerpt. New York State Archives
  4. ^ Northup's text Twelve Years a Slave gives the date as 1829; however, his wife and the Justice of the Peace who performed the wedding gave the year as 1828. See "Memorial of Anne," and statement of Timothy Eddy, both in Appendix B of Twelve Years a Slave
  5. ^ Birch is spelled as Burch in Northup's book
  6. ^ The name is spelled as "Tibeats" in Northup's book, which is likely the way it was pronounced locally.
  7. ^ The historian Carol Wilson documented 300 kidnapping cases in her 1994 book, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780–1865. Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780–1865, University of Kentucky Press, 1994. She believes it is likely that thousands more were kidnapped who were never documented.
  8. ^ Northup described the slave pen owned by William Williams in Washington: "It was like a farmer’s barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there. The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington. Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol! Such is a correct description as it was in 1841, of Williams‘ slave pen in Washington, in one of the cellars of which I found myself so unaccountably confined." "Free blacks kidnapped, sold into slavery in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol", Washington Times 20 October 2013
  9. ^ Another slave market was located at Robey’s Tavern; these sites were located on what is now the Mall between the present-day Department of Education and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, within view of the Capitol.


See also

  • Former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove wrote the poem "The Abduction" about Northup, published in her first collection, The Yellow House on the Corner (1980).[65]
  • 1984, Twelve Years a Slave was adapted as a PBS television movie titled Solomon Northup's Odyssey, directed by Gordon Parks. Northup was portrayed by Avery Brooks.[66][67]
  • In 2008, composer and saxophonist T. K. Blue, commissioned by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), recorded Follow the North Star, a musical composition inspired by Northup's life.[68]
  • The episode "Division" of the 2010 television miniseries America: The Story of Us depicts Northup's slave auction. Significant emphasis is placed on Eliza being separated from her children, and the actor portraying Northup does voiceover of direct passages from Twelve Years a Slave.
  • The 2013 feature film 12 Years a Slave, adapted from his memoir, was written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen.[69] British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Northup, for which he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards,[70] winning 3—for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, for John Ridley,[71] and Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong'o, who played the slave Patsey in her debut film role.[71]

Representation in media

  • In 1999, Saratoga Springs erected a historical marker at the corner of Congress and Broadway to commemorate Northup's life. The city later established the third Saturday in July as Solomon Northup Day, to honor him, bring regional African-American history to light, and educate the public about freedom and justice issues.[61][62]
  • In 2000, the Library of Congress accepted the program of Solomon Northup Day into the permanent archives of the American Folklife Center. The Anacostia Community Museum and the National Park Service-Network to Freedom Project[63] have also recognized the merits of this multi-venue, multi-cultural event program. "Solomon Northup Day – a Celebration of Freedom" continues annually in the City of Saratoga Springs, as well as in Plattsburgh, New York, with the support of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association.[64]

Legacy and honors

  • In his book Black Men Built the Capitol (2007), Jesse Holland notes his use of Northup's account.[60][Note 9]
  • In 1998, a team of students at Union College in Schenectady, New York, with their political science professor Clifford Brown, documented Northup's historic narrative. "They gathered photographs, family trees, bills of sale, maps and hospital records on a trail through New York, Washington [DC] and Louisiana."[5] Their exhibit of this material was held at the college's Nott Memorial building.[5]
  • The first scholarly edition of the memoir was published in 1968.[59] Co-edited by professors Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, this well-annotated LSU Press publication has been used in classrooms and by scholars since that time and is still in print.[58]
  • Since the mid-20th century, the civil rights movement, and an increase in works of social history and in African-American studies, have brought renewed interest in Northup's memoir.[58]
  • Ulrich B. Phillips, in his Life and Labor in the Old South (Boston, 1929) and American Negro Slavery (New York, 1918), doubted the "authenticity" of most narratives of ex-slaves but termed Northup's memoir "a vivid account of plantation life from the under side".[54][55]
  • Northup's memoir was reprinted in 1869.[53]

Influence among scholars

Northup's full and descriptive account has been used by numerous historians researching slavery. His description of the "Yellow House" (also known as 'The Williams Slave Pen'), in view of the Capitol, has helped researchers document the history of slavery in the District of Columbia.[Note 8]

Northup's biographer, David Fiske, has investigated Northup's role in the book's writing and asserts that he made it authentic.[52]

Twelve Years is convincingly Northup's tale and no one else's because of its amazing attention to empirical detail and unwillingness to reduce the complexity of Northup's experience to a stark moral allegory.[18]

Although the memoir is often classified among the genre of slave narratives, the scholar Sam Worley says that it does not fit the standard format of the genre. Northup was assisted in the writing by David Wilson, a white man, and, according to Worley, some believed he would have biased the material. Worley discounted concerns that Wilson was pursuing his own interests in the book. He writes of the memoir:


Northup was not listed with his family in the 1860 United States Census.[45] The New York state census of 1865 records his wife Anne Northup (but not Solomon, although Anne is recorded as married, not widowed) living with their daughter and son-in-law, Margaret and Philip Stanton, in nearby Moreau in Saratoga County.[46] In 1870, Northup's wife was enumerated in the household of Burton C. Dennis, as a cook.[47] At the time Dennis kept the Middleworth House hotel in Sandy Hill, New York. Northup is not listed among those living at the hotel. That same year, his daughter, Margaret Stanton, and his son-in-law appear in the census schedule for Moreau, New York, [48] but Northup's name is not there, either. Northup's son, Alonzo is included in the 1870 census for Fort Edward, New York, but his household includes only him, his wife and his daughter.[49] In 1875 Anne Northup was living in Kingsbury/Sandy Hill in Washington County, New York,[50] and, in census information, her marital status was given as "now widowed." When Anne Northup died in 1876, some newspaper notices of her death said that she was a widow. One obituary, while praising Anne, says of Solomon Northup that "after exhibiting himself through the country [he] became a worthless vagabond."[51] The 21st-century historians Clifford Brown and Carol Wilson believe it is likely that he died of natural causes.[5] They think a kidnapping in the late 1850s was unlikely as he was too old to be of interest to slave catchers, but his disappearance remains unexplained.[6]

Years later, in The Bench and Bar of Saratoga County (1879), E. R. Mann mistakenly wrote that the Saratoga County kidnapping case against Merrill and Russell had been dismissed because Northup had disappeared. Mann speculated, "What his fate was is unknown to the public, but the desperate kidnappers no doubt knew."[44] In 1909 John Henry Northup, Henry's nephew, wrote: "The last I heard of him, Sol was lecturing in Boston to help sell his book. All at once, he disappeared. We believe that he was kidnapped and taken away or killed."[5] According to John R. Smith, in letters written in the 1930s, his father Rev. John L. Smith, a Methodist minister in Vermont, had worked with Northup and former slave Tabbs Gross in the early 1860s, during the American Civil War, aiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.[4] Northup was said to have visited Rev. Smith after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and hence after January 1863.[4]

The location and circumstances of his death are unknown. Rumors ran rife. In 1858 a newspaper reported, "It is said that Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped, sold as a slave, and afterwards recovered and restored to freedom has been again decoyed South, and is again a slave."[41] Shortly thereafter, even his benefactor Henry B. Northup is said to have believed he had been kidnapped from Canada while drunk.[42] During the summer of 1857 Northup was in Canada for a series of lectures. It was widely reported that Northup was in Streetsville, Ontario, but that a hostile Canadian crowd prevented him from speaking.[43] There is no contemporaneous documentation of his whereabouts after that time.[6]

After regaining his freedom, Solomon Northup rejoined his wife and children. By 1855 he was living with his daughter Margaret Stanton and her family in Queensbury, Warren County, New York.[38] He again was working as a carpenter. He became active in the abolitionist movement and lectured on slavery on nearly two dozen occasions throughout the northeastern United States in the years before the American Civil War.[39][40]

Last years

The New York trial opened on 4 October 1854. Both Northup and St. John testified against the two men. The case brought widespread illegal practices in the domestic slave trade to light. Through testimony during the court case, various details of Northup's account of his experience were confirmed.[8] The respective counsels argued over whether the crime had been committed in New York (where Northup could testify), or in Washington, DC, outside the jurisdiction of New York courts. After more than two years of appeals, a new district attorney in New York failed to continue with the case, and it was dropped in May 1857.[8][37] Washington DC declined to prosecute Merrill and Russell, and no further legal action was taken against those who had kidnapped and sold Northup into slavery.

When the book and case were publicized, Thaddeus St. John, a county court judge in nearby Fonda, New York, recalled having seen two old friends, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, traveling with a black man to Washington, DC at the time of the late President Harrison's funeral. He saw them again while returning from Washington, but they were without the black man yet with some new extravagantly expensive items, and he recalled an odd conversation with them during the first trip. They had asked him then to call them Brown and Hamilton when in company with the black man, rather than Merrill and Russell, as he knew them. After contacting authorities, St. John met with Northup, and the two recognized each other from the first encounter on the train. With his identification, Merrill and Russell were located and arrested.

Later that same year, Solomon Northup wrote and published a memoir, Twelve Years a Slave (1853). The book was written in three months with the help of David Wilson, a local writer and journalist.[5] Published by Derby & Miller of Auburn, New York[36] In the period when questions of slavery generated debate and the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe was a bestseller, Northup's book sold 30,000 copies within three years.[5]

At the time, Northup did not file a legal complaint against the men with the circus, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, because they could not be found, having used false names with Northup. At first, Northup had trouble believing they could be complicit.

Following his acquittal, Birch demanded charges be filed against Solomon Northup for trying to defraud him of Northup's $625 purchase price by falsely claiming he was a Georgia slave for sale. Northup, eager to prove the veracity of his own story, urged the trial against himself to proceed. However, upon the advice of his lawyer, Birch withdrew the complaint, against the protests of Northup. Northup was aware that Birch's complaint could only make Birch look bad, since had Northup actually told the tale of being a slave from Georgia, it would not make sense for him to, upon regaining his freedom, risk it only days later by contacting the law to bring charges against Birch.

As Solomon Northup and Henry Northup made their way back to New York, they first stopped in Washington DC to file a legal complaint with the police magistrate against James H. Birch, the man who had first enslaved him. Birch was immediately arrested and tried on criminal charges. However, Northup was unable to testify at the trial due to laws in Washington DC against black men testifying in court. Birch and several confederates who were also in the slave trade business testified that Northup had approached them to tell them that he was a slave from Georgia and that he was for sale. No note of the sale was made in Birch's accounting ledger, however. The prosecution consisted of Henry B. Northup and another white man asserting that they had known Northup for many years, and he was born and lived a free man in New York until his abduction. With no one legally able to testify against Birch's tale, Birch was found not guilty. However, the sensational case immediately attracted national attention, and The New York Times published an article about the trial on January 20, 1853, just days after its conclusion and only two weeks after Northup's rescue.[3][35]

Northup was one of the few free black people to regain freedom after being sold into slavery. Represented by attorneys Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, a General Clark, and Henry B. Northup, Solomon Northup sued Birch and other men involved in selling him into slavery in Washington, DC.[Note 7][3][5]

Court cases and memoir

Northup later wrote, "He [Epps] thought of nothing but his loss, and cursed me for having been born free."[8][33] Attorney Henry B. Northup convinced Epps that it would be futile to contest the free papers in a court of law, so the planter conceded the case. He signed the papers giving up all claim to Northup. Finally on January 4, 1853, four months after meeting Bass, Northup regained his freedom.[14][34]

In cooperation with U.S. Senator Pierre Soulé from Louisiana and other local authorities, Henry B. Northup arrived in Marksville on 1 January 1853. Tracing Northup was difficult as he was known locally only by his slave name of Platt. When the attorney confronted Epps with the evidence that Platt/Northup was a free man, with a wife and children, Epps first demanded of the enslaved man why he had not told him this at the time of purchase. Then Epps said, had he known that men were coming to take "Platt," he would have ensured they could never take the slave alive. Epps cursed the man (unknown to him) who had helped Northup, and threatened to kill him if he ever learned his identity.

Bass was itinerant and had no local family (unbeknownst to his friends in Louisiana, he had left a wife and children in Canada. He also lived with a free black woman in Louisiana). He had left the area before Henry B. Northup arrived with legal documents to demonstrate to Epps that Northup was a free man of New York, which provided an additional hurdle to identification. Henry B. Northup also took the precaution of bringing with him the sheriff of Marksville, the parish seat, to enforce the law. Because of the risk, Bass did not reveal his own name in the letter. Henry Northup managed to find him, and Bass revealed that Solomon Northup was held by Edwin Epps on his plantation.[32]

Bass wrote several letters: one reached Cephas Parker and William Perry, storekeepers in Saratoga. They contacted attorney Henry B. Northup, the son of Solomon's father's former master. Henry B. Northup contacted New York Governor Washington Hunt, who took up the case, appointing the attorney general as his legal agent. In 1840, the New York State Legislature had passed a law committing the state to help any African-American residents kidnapped into slavery. Once Northup's family was notified, his rescuers still had to do detective work to find the enslaved man, as he had partially tried to hide his location for protection in case the letters fell into the wrong hands, and Bass had not used his real name. They had to find documentation of his free status as a citizen and New York resident; Henry B. Northup also collected sworn affidavits from people who knew Solomon Northup. During this time, Northup did not know if Bass had reached anyone with the letters. There was no means of communicating, due to the secrecy they needed to use, and the necessity of preventing Northup's owner from knowing their plans.[8][18]

Restoration of freedom

Bass did this at great personal risk as the local people would not take kindly to a person helping a slave and depriving a man of his property. In addition, Bass's help came after passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which increased federal penalties against people assisting slaves to escape.[31]

In 1852, itinerant Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass came to do some work for Epps. Hearing Bass express his abolitionist views, Northup eventually decided to confide his secret to him. Bass was the first person he told of his true name and origins as a free man since he was first enslaved.[29] Along with mailing a letter written by Northup, Bass wrote several letters at his request to Northup's friends, providing general details of his location at Bayou Boeuf, in hopes of gaining his rescue.[30]

Epps held Northup for almost 10 years, until 1853, in what is Avoyelles Parish. He was a cruel master who frequently and indiscriminately punished slaves and drove them hard. His policy was to whip slaves if they did not meet daily work quotas he set for pounds of cotton to be picked and other goals.[28] Northup wrote that the sounds of whipping were heard every day on Epps' plantation, from sundown until lights out. Epps sexually abused a young enslaved woman named Patsey, repeatedly raping her. This led to additional severe physical and mental abuse prompted by Epps's wife, the mistress of the plantation.

Restored Epps plantation house. Now located on the Louisiana State University of Alexandria campus

Tibaut hired Northup out to a planter named Eldret, who lived about 38 miles south on the Red River. At what he called "The Big Cane Brake", Eldret had Northup and other slaves clear cane, trees, and undergrowth in the bottomlands in order to develop cotton fields for cultivation.[14][27] With the work unfinished, after about five weeks, Tibaut sold Northup to Edwin Epps.

Tibaut, who had a low reputation locally, decided at another point to kill Northup. When the two men were alone, Tibaut seized an axe and swung it to hit Northup, but he again defended himself. With his bare hands, he strangled Tibaut to the point of unconsciousness. Northup ran away through swamps so that dogs could not track him, making his way back to Ford, with whom he stayed for four days. The planter convinced Tibaut to "hire out" Northup to limit their conflict and take the fees he could generate.

Under Tibaut, Northup suffered cruel and capricious treatment. Tibaut used him to help complete construction at Ford's plantation. At one point, Tibaut whipped Northup because he did not like the nails Northup was using. But Northup fought back, beating Tibaut severely. Enraged, Tibaut recruited two friends to lynch and hang the slave, which a master was legally entitled to do. Ford's overseer Chapin interrupted and prevented the men from killing Northup, reminding Tibaut of his debt to Ford, and chasing them off at gunpoint. Northup was left bound and noosed for hours until Ford returned home to cut him down.[25] Northup believed that Tibaut's debt to Ford saved his life. Historian Walter Johnson suggests that Northup may well have been the first slave Tibaut ever bought, marking his transition from itinerant employee to property-owning master.[26]

In the winter of 1842, Ford sold Northup to John M. Tibaut,[8][Note 6] a carpenter who had been working for Ford on the mills. He also had helped construct a weaving-house and corn mill on Ford's Bayou Boeuf plantation. As Tibaut did not have the full purchase price, Ford held a $400 chattel mortgage on Northup. Tibaut owed Ford $400 and Northup was the security for the loan.[24]

At Ford's place in Pine Woods, Northup assessed the problem of getting timber off Ford's farm to market. He proposed making log rafts to move lumber down the narrow Indian Creek, in order to transport the logs more easily and less expensively than overland. He was familiar with this process from previous work in New York, and Ford was delighted to see his project was a success. Northup used his carpentry skills to build looms, copying from one nearby, so that Ford could set up mills on the creek. With Ford, Northup found his efforts appreciated. But the planter came into financial difficulties and had to sell 18 slaves to settle his debts.

Northup's regard for Ford did not lessen his drive to escape. He made many attempts to get word to his family and friends as to where he was held, and numerous efforts to run away. He had no access to writing paper or the postal service, which made communication almost impossible. The slaves were constantly watched, and the punishments for non-compliance were brutal.[8]

In my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.[8]

At the New Orleans slave market, Birch's partner Theophilus Freeman sold Northup (who had been renamed Platt) to William Prince Ford, a preacher who engaged in small farming on Bayou Boeuf of the Red River in northern Louisiana.[1][8] Ford was then a Baptist preacher. (In 1843, he led his congregation in converting to the closely related Churches of Christ, after they were influenced by the writings of Alexander Campbell). In his memoir, Northup characterized Ford as a good man, considerate of his slaves. In spite of his situation, Northup wrote:

Northup persuaded John Manning, an English sailor, to send, upon reaching New Orleans, a letter to Henry B. Northup reporting Solomon's kidnapping and illegal enslavement.[23] Henry was a lawyer, the son of the man who had once held Solomon's father as a slave and freed him, and a childhood friend of Solomon's. The New York State Legislature had passed a law in 1840 to protect its African-American residents by providing legal and financial assistance to aid the recovery of any who were kidnapped and taken out of state and illegally enslaved.[21] Henry Northup was willing to help but could not act without knowing where Solomon was held.

A slave named Robert died of the disease en route. [14].smallpox During the voyage, Northup and the other slaves caught [8][1], where his partner Theophilus Freeman would sell them.coastwise slave trade, in what was called the New Orleans Birch shipped Northup and other slaves by sea to [14].United States Capitol Northup was held in the slave pen of trader William Williams, close to the [22]

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