Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave

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Saturday, 4th January 2014

In an article in yesterday's Guardian, the British director, Steve McQueen, of Oscar-tipped drama 12 Years a Slave, criticised Hollywood for a historical paucity of movies on slavery. The film is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup. McQueen argues the industry has largely ignored the subject of slavery. The article quotes an interview given by McQueen to Sky News: "The second world war lasted five years and there are hundreds and hundreds of films about the second world war and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and there are less than 20 films. We have to redress that balance and look at that time in history."

The same is true of websites in the USA. Do a search at Google for "Solomon Northup" and see what you get. At the top you will get his Wikipedia entry. In its early days Google attempted to give you the best page at the top of its searches. With its reliance of "domain authority"the situation has changed. If Wikipedia has produced a page on a subject, it will appear at the top of any search. Google has a domain authority of 100. Whereas the Guardian has a score of only 96 (American newspapers are rated higher as this is Google's plan to allow its country to dominate mass communications). Even our top universities like Cambridge and Oxford only have domain authority ratings of 94.

The Wikipedia entry is fairly detailed account of his life (this has been increased dramatically since the release of 12 Years a Slave). My problem with the entry for Solomon Northup is that it makes no attempt to capture what it was like to a slave in the United States. There is no excuse for this as Northup produced a magnificent memoir of his experiences. Here for example is Northup describing a slave auction:

"In the first place we were required to wash thoroughly, and those with beards, to shave. We were then furnished with a new suit each, cheap, but clean. The men had hat, coat, shirt, pants and shoes; the women frocks of calico, and handkerchiefs to bind about their heads. We were now conducted into a large room in the front part of the building to which the yard was attached, in order to be properly trained, before the admission of customers. The men were arranged on one side of the room, the women on the other. The tallest was placed at the head of the row, then the next tallest, and so on in the order of their respective heights. Emily was at the foot of the line of women. Freeman charged us to remember our places; exhorted us to appear smart and lively... After being fed, in the afternoon, we were again paraded and made to dance."

Northup then goes on to describe how his friend, Eliza suffered the misery of having her children, Emily and Randall, sold at the auction: "By this time she had become haggard and hollow-eyed with sickness and with sorrow. It would be a relief if I could consistently pass over in silence the scene that now ensued. It recalls memories more mournful and affecting than any language can portray. I have seen mothers kissing for the last time the faces of their dead offspring; I have seen them looking down into the grave, as the earth fell with a dull sound upon their coffins, hiding them from their eyes forever; but never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child. She broke from her place in the line of women, and rushing down where Emily was standing, caught her in her arms. The child, sensible of some impending danger, instinctively fastened her hands around her mother's neck, and nestled her little head upon her bosom. Freeman sternly ordered her to be quiet, but she did not heed him. He caught her by the arm and pulled her rudely, but she only clung the closer to the child.... She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought her self and Emily. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively. Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her.... unless she ceased that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes. Yes, he would take the nonsense out of her pretty quick - if he didn't, might he be dead. Eliza shrunk before him, and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could not wholly silence the afflicted mother. She kept on begging and beseeching them, most piteously not to separate the three. Over and over again she told them how she loved her boy. A great many times she repeated her former promises - how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together. But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it."

Wikipedia is not the only American website that is reluctant to look too closely at the life of Solomon Northup. After several articles by news organizations (in order of domain authority) you get his entry from (domain authority 87). It does contain a 47 word quote from Twelve Years a Slave, but it is a fairly brief look at his life. It is only when you get to my page on Solomon Northup (domain authority 80) do you get a detailed look at his life in his own words. The same is true of the other slaves I have written about (for a full list see my Slavery index page).

The whole premise behind Wikipedia has been that it is possible to write objective history. This is of course nonsense and is in itself an ideological approach to subject. So also is its style of compiling biographies. Its attempt to concentrate on facts, while playing down the emotional aspects of being a human, does a disservice to the process of history writing.

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12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup – extract: 'I thought I must die beneath the lashes'

"Well, my boy, how do you feel now?" said Burch, as he entered through the open door. I replied that I was sick, and inquired the cause of my imprisonment. He answered that I was his slave – that he had bought me, and that he was about to send me to New Orleans.

I asserted, aloud and boldly, that I was a free man – a resident of Saratoga, where I had a wife and children, who were also free, and that my name was Northup. I complained bitterly of the strange treatment I had received, and threatened, upon my liberation, to have satisfaction for the wrong.

He denied that I was free, and with an emphatic oath, declared that I came from Georgia. Again and again I asserted I was no man's slave, and insisted upon his taking off my chains at once. He endeavoured to hush me, as if he feared my voice would be overheard. But I would not be silent, and denounced the authors of my imprisonment, whoever they might be, as unmitigated villains. Finding he could not quiet me, he flew into a towering passion. With blasphemous oaths, he called me a black liar, a runaway from Georgia, and every other profane and vulgar epithet that the most indecent fancy could conceive.

During this time Radburn was standing silently by. His business was to oversee this human, or rather inhuman stable, receiving slaves, feeding, and whipping them, at the rate of two shillings a head per day. Turning to him, Burch ordered the paddle and cat-o'-nine-tails to be brought in. He disappeared, and in a few moments returned with these instruments of torture. The paddle, as it is termed in slave-beating parlance, or at least the one with which I first became acquainted, and of which I now speak, was a piece of hardwood board, 18 or 20 inches long, moulded to the shape of an old-fashioned pudding stick, or ordinary oar. The flattened portion, which was about the size in circumference of two open hands, was bored with a small auger in numerous places. The cat was a large rope of many strands — the strands unraveled, and a knot tied at the extremity of each.

As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downward, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his cruel labour. All this time, the incarnate devil was uttering most fiendish oaths. At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope.

This was far more painful than the other. I struggled with all my power, but it was in vain. I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes. I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!

At last I became silent to his repeated questions. I would make no reply. In fact, I was becoming almost unable to speak. Still he plied the lash without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke. A man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly.

At length Radburn said that it was useless to whip me any more – that I would be sore enough. Thereupon Burch desisted, saying, with an admonitory shake of his fist in my face, and hissing the words through his firm-set teeth, that if ever I dared to utter again that I was entitled to my freedom, that I had been kidnapped, or any thing whatever of the kind, the castigation I had just received was nothing in comparison with what would follow. He swore that he would either conquer or kill me. With these consolatory words, the fetters were taken from my wrists, my feet still remaining fastened to the ring the shutter of the little barred window, which had been opened, was again closed, and going out, locking the great door behind them, I was left in darkness as before.

Solomon Northup

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Solomon Northup, (born July 10, 1807, Schroon [now Minerva], New York, U.S.—died after 1857), American farmer, labourer, and musician whose experience of being kidnapped and sold into slavery was the basis for his book Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River in Louisiana (1853).

Why is Solomon Northup important?

Solomon Northup wrote Twelve Years a Slave (1853), a memoir of his kidnapping and enslavement. Immensely popular upon its release, it remains one of the most important American slave narratives and is a valuable source of information regarding the daily lives of slaves in central Louisiana.

What was Solomon Northup’s childhood like?

Solomon Northup was born a free person of colour. His father, who had been born into slavery but freed when his master died, acquired a farm and enough land to fulfill the property ownership requirement that African Americans faced in order to vote. Solomon received some education and worked on his family’s farm as a child.

How did Solomon Northup become enslaved?

In 1841 Solomon Northup was recruited by two men, supposedly to join their circus act as a fiddler. The three traveled from New York to Washington, D.C., where Northup was drugged and awoke in shackles. He was sold at a slave market in New Orleans and spent 12 years in slavery in central Louisiana.

What was Solomon Northup’s occupation?

Solomon Northup worked odd jobs and established a reputation as a talented fiddler. Following his kidnapping and 12 years of enslavement, he wrote a best-selling memoir. From 1853 to 1857 Northup, now a national celebrity, engaged in extensive speaking tours. He subsequently disappeared from public view and, the best evidence indicates, joined the Underground Railroad.

Northup was born a free person of colour in what is now Minerva, New York. Though he claimed to have been born in July 1808 in Twelve Years a Slave, a later deposition in which he specified his birth date and age indicates that he was likely born a year earlier. His father, Mintus, had been born into slavery but was freed following the death of his master, Capt. Henry Northup, whose will contained the stipulation that his slaves be manumitted. Mintus eventually acquired his own farm and enough land to fulfill the property ownership requirement that African Americans faced in order to vote. Solomon received some education and worked on his family’s farm as a child.He married Anne Hampton in 1828. In 1834, after selling their farm, the couple moved to Saratoga Springs, New York, where they worked odd jobs to support their three children. Northup also established a reputation as a talented fiddler.

In March 1841 he was recruited by two men who claimed to be circus performers and offered him money to join their act as a fiddler, traveling south from New York. Upon their arrival in Washington, D.C., in early April, Northup was drugged, lost consciousness, and awoke to find himself in shackles in an underground cell. He was conveyed to Richmond, Virginia, and then delivered by ship to New Orleans, where in June he was sold at a slave market under the name Platt Hamilton. He spent the ensuing 12 years in slavery in the Bayou Boeuf plantation region of central Louisiana’s Red River valley.

Northup was owned first by William Prince Ford, whom he praised for his kindness. Ford was, however, forced by financial exigency to sell him to the brutal John M. Tibaut (referred to as John M. Tibeats in 12 Years a Slave) in 1842. (Ford retained 40 percent ownership of him, as the sale was for the repayment of a debt not judged to be worth as much as Northup.) Northup was Tibaut’s only slave. When Tibaut attempted to whip him, Northup resisted and prevailed in the ensuing fight. Infuriated, Tibaut sought help from neighbouring overseers in attempting to lynch Northup, who was rescued by Ford’s overseer, Anderson Chafin (referred to as Chapin in 12 Years a Slave). Northup also prevailed in a second fight and fled to the protection of Ford, who then demanded that Tibaut sell or lease him.

In April 1843 Northup was sold by Ford and Tibaut to Edwin Epps, under whose ownership he remained for the next decade. Epps used Northup both as an artisan slave and as a field hand, occasionally leasing him out to sugar planters and processors. Throughout this time, Northup was often a “driver” in charge of other slaves. Epps, who was proud of his expertise with a lash, had a sadistic streak. Northup contrived to escape several times during that period but was unsuccessful. It was not until an abolitionist carpenter from Canada named Samuel Bass visited Epps’s farm in June 1852 that Northup was able to arrange to have letters delivered to friends in New York to alert them of his situation and set in motion his rescue. One letter was forwarded to Anne Northup, who enlisted the help of Henry B. Northup, a lifelong friend of Solomon and the grandnephew of the person who had manumitted Mintus.

Henry mobilized widespread support for Solomon among the leading citizens of Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls) and Fort Edward, New York, and, under an 1840 statute designed to rescue New York citizens sold into slavery, in November 1852 Gov. Washington Hunt made him an agent of the State of New York to find Solomon. Armed with this array of documentation, along with letters from a senator and a Supreme Court justice, Henry traveled to Louisiana and hired local counsel. With the help of Bass, they were able to locate Solomon, and his freedom was legally obtained on January 4, 1853.

Northup was reunited with his family later that month. His rescue was widely publicized. Stopping in Washington, D.C., en route to New York, he brought charges against James H. Birch (referred to as James H. Burch in Northup’s narrative), the slave dealer who had incarcerated him. Because of his race, though, he was not permitted to testify, and the case was dismissed after two other slave dealers testified on behalf of Birch. That same year, together with local writer David Wilson, Northup penned his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave. The book sold some 30,000 copies in the ensuing three years, and Northup used the proceeds to purchase property in upstate New York, where he lived with his family.

From 1853 to 1857 Northup, now a national celebrity, engaged in extensive speaking tours. As a result of the story’s widespread notoriety, the New York kidnappers were identified, arrested, and indicted in 1854. After much legal maneuvering, the case reached the state supreme court and then the court of appeals, but the charges were ultimately dismissed in May 1857. Northup subsequently disappeared from public view and, the best evidence indicates, joined the Underground Railroad and spent several years in New England helping escaped slaves reach Canada. The time and circumstances of his death, as well as his place of burial, are unknown. His last public appearance was in Streetsville, Ontario, Canada, in August 1857. He was not accounted for in the U.S. census of 1860 and almost certainly predeceased Anne, who died in 1876.

Twelve Years a Slave remains one of the most important American slave narratives. It is a valuable source of information regarding the daily lives of slaves in central Louisiana, including the Christmas celebratory practices in slave culture. Its shrewd but nonpolemical judgments of people described in the narrative have been commented on from the time of the book’s publication.

Twelve Years a Slave went out of print before the turn of the century. However, Louisiana researchers Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon spent several decades researching Northup’s life before, in 1968, releasing an annotated reprint that substantiated many of his claims. An annual celebration known as Solomon Northup Day was established in Saratoga Springs in 1999. Northup’s memoir also provided the basis for director Gordon Parks’s television docudrama Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984) and director Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave (2013).

Who Was Solomon Northup?

Spoiler alert: This section of the column — and only this section — contains some information also covered in the film.

Solomon Northup spent his first 33 years as a free man in upstate New York. He was born in the Adirondack town of Schroon (later Minerva) July 10, 1807 (his memoir says 1808, but the evidence suggests otherwise). As a child, he learned to read and write while assisting his father Mintus, a former slave who eventually bought enough farm land in Fort Edward to qualify for the vote (a right that in many states, during the early days of the Republic, was reserved for landowners). Solomon’s mother, Susannah, was a “quadroon,” who may have been born free herself. Solomon’s “ruling passion,” he said, was “playing on the violin.”

Married at 21, Northup and his wife Anne Hampton (the daughter of a free black man who was also part white and Native American) had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. In 1834, they settled in Saratoga Springs, where Solomon toiled at various seasonal jobs, including rafting, woodcutting, railroad construction, canal maintenance and repairs, farming and, in resort season, staffing area hotels (for a time, he and his wife both lived and worked at the United States Hotel). His “ruling passion,” the violin, also became a way of earning money, and his reputation grew.

In March 1841, Northup was lured from his home by two white men, using the aliases Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, who claimed to be members of a Washington, D.C.-based circus in need of musicians for their sightseeing tour. While in New York City, Brown and Hamilton convinced Northup to journey further South with them, and arriving in Washington, D.C., on April 6, 1841, the trio lodged at Gadsby’s Hotel. The next day, the two men got Northup so drunk (he implied they drugged him) that, in the middle of the night, he was roused from his room by several men urging him to follow them to a doctor. Instead, when Northup came to, he found himself “in chains,” he said, at Williams’ Slave Pen with his money and free papers nowhere to be found. Attempting to plead his case to the notorious slave trader James H. Birch (also spelled “Burch”), Northup was beaten and told he was really a runaway slave from Georgia. The price Birch paid Brown and Hamilton for their catch: $250.

Shipped by Birch on the Orleans under the name “Plat Hamilton” (also spelled “Platt”), Northup arrived in New Orleans on May 24, 1841, and after a bout of smallpox, was sold by Birch’s associate, Theophilus Freeman, for $900. Northup was to spend his 12 years in slavery (actually it was 11 years, 8 months and 26 days) in Louisiana’s Bayou Boeuf region. He had three principal owners: the paternal planter William Prince Ford (1841-1842), the belligerent carpenter John Tibaut (also spelled “Tibeats”) (1842-1843) and the former overseer-turned-small cotton planter Edwin Epps (1843-1853).

Ford gave Northup the widest latitude, working at his mills. Twice Northup and Tibaut came to blows over work, the second time Northup coming so close to choking Tibaut to death (Tibaut had come at him with an ax) that Northup fled into the Great Cocodrie Swamp. Though prone to drink, Edwin Epps was brutally efficient with the lash whenever Northup was late getting to the fields, inexact in his work (Northup had many skills picking cotton wasn’t one of them), unwilling to whip the other slaves as Epps’ driver or too high on his own talents as a fiddler after Epps purchased him a violin to placate his wife, Mary Epps.

In 1852, Epps hired a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass to work on his house. An opponent of slavery, Bass agreed to help Northup by mailing three letters on his behalf to various contacts in New York. Upon receiving theirs, the Saratoga shopkeepers William Perry and Cephas Parker notified Solomon’s wife and attorney Henry Bliss Northup, a relative of Solomon’s father’s former master. With bipartisan support, including a petition and six affidavits, Henry Northup successfully petitioned New York Gov. Washington Hunt to appoint him an agent of rescue. On Jan. 3, 1853, Henry Northup arrived at Epps’ plantation with the sheriff of Avoyelles Parish, La. There was no need for questioning. A local attorney, John Pamplin Waddill, had connected Henry Northup to Bass, and Bass had led him to the slave “Platt.” The proof was in their embrace.

Traveling home, Henry and Solomon Northup stopped in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 1853, to have the slave trader James Birch arrested on kidnapping charges, but because Solomon had no right to testify against a white man, Birch went free. Solomon Northup was reunited with his family in Glens Falls, New York on Jan. 21, 1853.

Over the next three months, he and his white editor, David Wilson, an attorney from Whitehall, N.Y., wrote Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave. It was published July 15, 1853, and sold 17,000 copies in the first four months (almost 30,000 by January 1855). “While abolitionist journals had previously warned of slavery’s dangers to free African-American citizens and published brief accounts of kidnappings, Northup’s narrative was the first to document such a case in book-length detail,” Brad S. Born writes in The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. With its emphasis on authenticity, 12 Years a Slave gave contemporary readers an up-close account of slavery in the South, including the violent tactics owners and overseers used to force slaves to work, and the sexual advances and jealous cruelties slave women faced from their masters and masters’ wives.

Since then, it has been “authentic[ated]” by “[a] number of scholars [who] have investigated judicial proceedings, manuscript census returns, diaries and letters of whites, local records, newspapers and city directories,” wrote the ultimate authority on the authenticity of the slave narratives, the late Yale historian John W. Blassingame, in his definitive 1975 essay, “Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems,” in The Journal of Southern History.

In 1854, Northup’s book led to the arrest of his original kidnappers, Brown and Hamilton. Their real names, respectively, were Alexander Merrill and James Russell, both New Yorkers. Though Solomon was able to testify at their trial in Saratoga County, the case dragged on for three years and was eventually dropped by the prosecution in 1857, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which, in part, denied black people were citizens of the United States (and thus they could not sue in federal court).

A free man returned from slavery, Solomon Northup remained active in the abolitionist movement lectured throughout the Northeast staged, and performed in, two plays based on his story (the second, in 1855, was titled “A Free Slave”) and was known to aid fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. To this day, the date, location and circumstances of his death remain a mystery. Northup’s last public appearance was in August 1857 in Streetsville, Ontario, Canada. The last recollected contact with him was a visit to the Rev. John L. Smith, a Methodist minister and fellow Underground Railroad conductor, in Vermont sometime after the Emancipation Proclamation, likely in 1863.

Fifty of the 100 Amazing Facts will be published on The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross website. Read all 100 Facts on The Root.

Little Known Black History Fact: Solomon Northup

In 1841, 33-year-old Solomon Northup was a free black man living comfortably in Saratoga, NY with his wife, Anne, and three children – Margaret, Elizabeth and Alonzo. After being lured with the promise of a job opportunity in Washington D.C., Northup was drugged and kidnapped, only to awaken chained in a dark dungeon, awaiting a fate of forced servitude in the harsh Confederate South. Once an educated and accomplished violinist living among those that admired him, Northup was stripped of his name and forced to work in the southern cotton fields of Louisiana as “Platt Hamilton.” His captors were paid $250 for his captivity.

Northup was born in either 1807 or 1808 in Minerva, Essex county, New York, to Mintus Northrup, a freed slave and Susannah Northup, a free woman of black and Indian heritage. He and his brother Joseph were raised near Granville, Washington County, until his father passed away in November 1829. That same year, on Christmas Day, Solomon wed Anne Hampton at age 21. The couple immediately bore children, and Solomon lived as a devoted husband and father until that day of April 7, 1841, when his entire life would change.

Throughout his years as a slave, Northup used his skill as a tradesman of many talents to survive. Forced to suppress his education, it was evident to slave masters that he was more exposed than the other slaves. This proved at a disadvantage to Northup. Within the span of three years, he had been bought and sold to three different owners: William Ford, John Tibaut and finally, Edwin Epps.

Finally, in 1852, with the help of a white Canadian carpenter that was hired by his last owner, Northup was able to get word to his friends and family back home in Saratoga of his whereabouts. His wife, Anne, knew he had been taken against his will, and had spent years looking for her husband. On January 3, 1853, Henry Northup, a friend of his father’s former slave owner, arrived on the Epps plantation to identify and vindicate Northup. Northup returned home to his family seventeen days later.

Though he attempted to go after his kidnappers, as a black man, he was unable to bring them to justice in court.

Now an abolitionist and assistant of the Underground Railroad, Northup recorded his experience in the book 󈫼 Years a Slave” in 1853 with the help of attorney David Wilson. The autobiography would sell 17,000 copies in its initial release. The book contained intimate details of his capture and the unspeakable conditions endured by southern slaves.

On October 18, 2013, African American director Steve McQueen releases the film 󈫼 Years A Slave”, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard and Kelsey Scott. The film is based upon the 1853 novel by Northup and is in select theaters nationwide.

View the 󈫼 Years A Slave” trailer above.

The New York Times’ 1853 Coverage of Solomon Northup, the Hero of 󈫼 Years A Slave”

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For 12 years, violinist Solomon Northup toiled as a slave in Louisiana in secret, after being kidnapped from his home in Saratoga, New York, and sold for $650. Finally, on January 4, 1853, after an allied plantation worker sent several letters north on his behalf, Northup was freed, and returned home.

For the entire period in between, all his friends and family—including his wife and two young children—had no way of knowing where he was. But it didn't take until this past year's Best Picture winner 12 Years A Slave for his story to once again be widely known.

It was first told in his own book, Twelve Years a Slave (full subtitle: Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana). But even before that, mere weeks after his freedom was restored, Northup's case was getting major press coverage—as in this January 20, 1853 New York Times article:

The New York Times' January 20, 1853 article on Northup, just 16 days after his rescue. (Image via New York Times historical archive.)

Despite misspelling Northup's last name in two different ways, the article tells the story of his brutal kidnapping in accurate and lurid detail, beginning with his assault in a Washington, DC, hotel, after he was brought there to perform in a traveling circus and drugged:

While suffering with severe pain some persons came in, and, seeing the condition he was in, proposed to give him some medicine and did so. That is the last thing of which he had any recollection until he found himself chained to the floor of Williams' slave pen in this city, and handcuffed. In the course of a few hours, James H. Burch, a slave dealer, came in, and the colored man asked him to take the irons off from him, and wanted to know why they were put on. Burch told him it was none of his business. The colored man said he was free and told where he was born. Burch called in a man by the name of Ebenezer Rodbury, and they two stripped the man and laid him across a bench, Rodbury holding him down by his wrists. Burch whipped him with a paddle until he broke that, and then with a cat-o'-nine-tails, giving him a hundred lashes, and he swore he would kill him if he ever stated to anyone that he was a free man.

(Update, March 4: 151 years after publishing the article, the Times corrected the spelling errors.)

The article goes on to cover Northup's unlikely rescue, and the 1853 legal proceedings against Burch and the others involved in the kidnapping, noting the fact that during the trial, Northup was unable to take the stand, because Washington law prohibited black witnesses from testifying against white defendants. The owners of the plantations where he'd worked, meanwhile, were fully protected from prosecution: 

By the laws of Louisiana no man can be punished there for having sold Solomon into slavery wrongfully, because more than two years had elapsed since he was sold and no recovery can be had for his services, because he was bought without the knowledge that he was a free citizen.

Ultimately, Burch was acquitted, because he claimed he'd thought Northup was truly a slave for sale, and Northup couldn't testify otherwise. The identities of the two men who'd originally brought Northup to Washington on business and proceeded to drug and sell him remained a mystery.

The next year, however, a New York state judge happened to recall seeing a pair of white men travel to Washington with Northup and return without him: Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell. In July 1854, a case was brought against them in New York—where Northup was allowed to testify—and the Times covered it with a pair of short pieces.

Northup distinctly swears to their being the persons—and told how he was hired at Saratoga Springs in 1841, to go South with them to join a Circus, and treated in Washington with drugged liquor, &c., &c.

Sadly, Northup was unable to bring Merrill or Russell to justice after two years of appeals, the charges were dropped for unclear reasons.

Northup's memoir went on to sell 30,000 copies. In April 1853, the Times covered this book too, in a brief note on new titles to be published in the spring.

An engraving of Northup from his autobiography, depicted wearing his "plantation suit." (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Buried amidst descriptions of new editions of British poetry, the newspaper devoted 11 lines of text to Northup's new title, "a full story of his life and sufferings on the Cotton plantation." The last, blunt sentence has proven most prescient: "It will be read widely."

About Joseph Stromberg

Joseph Stromberg was previously a digital reporter for Smithsonian.

The Documents Behind Twelve Years a Slave

The new movie, Twelve Years a Slave, released nationwide last Friday, November 1st, is based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography. Northup, a free man of color, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Part of Northup’s amazing story can be authenticated by documents found in the National Archives.

First, have students check the 1840 federal census to find Northup living in upstate New York as a free person of color.

Next, have students analyze the most interesting and compelling document, the slave manifest for the Brig Orleans, which proves Northup was sold into slavery. In 1787 the nation’s founding fathers had written into the U.S. Constitution that Congress would not be able to ban the importation of slaves before 1808. A March 2, 1807 Act of Congress—effective in 1808—outlawed foreign importation of slaves. Slave manifests that documented each slave’s name, sex, age, and color were then required. The manifests were checked and signed by customs officials at the port of debarkation and again at the port of destination. They were meant to ensure that slave traders transporting slaves by ship among U.S. ports were not in violation of the law.

When slaves were forced into the hull of the Brig Orleans on April 27, 1841, the Port of Richmond collector Thomas Nelson approved the slave manifest. When the ship docked in New Orleans on May 24, 1841, the inspector matched Solomon Northup’s description to the name Plat Hamilton. Just like that, Solomon Northup the free man of color ceased to exist.

Northup was transported on the Brig Orleans with approximately forty other slaves to New Orleans where he was later sold to Edwin Epps, who owned a cotton plantation in the Louisiana Red River area. Northup was enslaved for the next twelve years. All rights and privileges that come with freedom, beginning with his given name, were stripped away from him.

Finally, explore the 1850 federal census slave schedule for Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana. Could Solomon possibly match the description of one of the slaves living on the Edwin Epps plantation?

If you will be bringing students to see the film, study these documents beforehand to become familiar with the documented facts. Afterward, discuss whether the documents mentioned support the movie, or if the movie script differs from the evidence provided in the documents.

For an opportunity to analyze the documents further and read excerpts from Northup’s autobiography, students can engage in the DocsTeach activity “Twelve Years a Slave.” (Teaching instructions are also available.)

By the time Solomon Northup was freed and returned to his family, the Fugitive Slave Law had gone into effect. What would prevent Solomon or other members of his family from being kidnapped and sold into slavery?

Using primary sources such as these in the classroom allows students to analyze, interpret, infer, compare, sequence and draw conclusions. Primary sources—not just movies—create powerful images for students to remember and get hooked on history!

Abducted and enslaved

But Northup’s life changed forever in March 1841 when he was abducted by two men in Washington and transported to New Orleans where he was sold at a slave market.

Northup went first to the plantation of William Prince Ford, whom he praised for his kindness. But Ford was forced to sell Northup to John M. Tibeats who was not so kind, attempting to whip and even to lynch Northup.

He was sold next to Edwin Epps, a brutal man who subjected his slaves to cruel acts of violence and torture. Northup made several attempts to escape, but in vain.

Northup was forced to do a variety of tasks while in captivity and never revealed to his peers that he had once lived free for fear of him being sent farther away. He observed and later recounted the plight of others like Eliza, whose young son Randall was sold and taken away from her at an auction in New Orleans.

Northup was eventually sold in 1843 to Edwin Epps, residing in Bayou Beouf. The standards under which Northup survived there were barbaric, with those enslaved forced to endure vile, horribly violent conditions. Northup also came to know Patsey, who was targeted by the sexually abusive Epps while having to fear attacks from his hate-filled wife her story represented the ordeals of many women subjugated in the slavery system.

Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, slave narratives, and the American public

By Mitch Kachun

Like many scholars who study nineteenth century African American history and literature, I am excited by the attention surrounding the newly released film, 12 Years a Slave, based on the experiences of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup’s memoir of those experiences, published in 1853, forms the basis of the film.

Slave narratives—the literary genre of which Northup’s story is a part—generated plenty of attention in the decades before the civil war, with scores of published narratives selling tens of thousands of copies. The narratives exposed the horrors of American bondage through the personal stories of those who experienced those horrors first hand. Proslavery advocates, however, condemned them as fabrications that distorted what southerners claimed was a benign institution in which slaves were well cared for and content. Many others in a profoundly racist American society were skeptical of blacks’ abilities to put such compelling stories on the printed page. Such skepticism has persisted, in one form or another, among scholars studying the narratives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While some slave narrators had limited literacy and relied on white abolitionists to convert their tales to print, a half century of intensive research has convinced most literary and historical scholars today of the general accuracy and authority of their stories.

A recent New York Times article on the film, however, revives some of those troubling questions about slave narratives in general, and Northup’s story in particular—questions that relate to the stories’ accuracy and authenticity. I find it interesting that, in questioning Northup’s veracity, Times writer Michael Cieply relies on scholarly essays published almost thirty years ago. That Cieply zeroed in on those rather dated essays—and not any of the more recent scholarship on the narratives and Northup—seems rather odd. Perhaps Cieply encountered those essays in the summary of Northup’s narrative on the Documenting the American South website. Both essays appear in the 1985 collection, The Slave’s Narrative, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Charles T. Davis.

While there may be legitimate questions about a slave narrative’s accuracy based on the vicissitudes of memory or a narrator’s desire to promote the abolitionist cause, James Olney’s 1985 interpretations regarding Solomon Northup are wildly speculative and rooted primarily in Olney’s assertion that slave narratives were driven more by the desire to fit into popular narrative conventions than by the desire to convey one’s actual experiences.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. (c) Fox Searchlight. Source:

Olney argues that slave narrators’ memories of the events of their lives are largely irrelevant, since they are “most often a non-memorial description fitted to a pre-formed mold.” Olney is correct in pointing out the formulaic character of many antebellum narratives and their unapologetic use as propaganda to further the abolitionist cause. More recently, Ann Fabian has observed that nineteenth-century autobiographers, in general, tended to craft their memories into narrative frameworks that would be readily recognized by the reading public. Yet for Olney to dismiss the memories and authorial voices of former slaves—basically accusing them of making stuff up—goes too far.

Cieply’s Times article also cites an essay from the same 1985 volume by Robert Burns Stepto, but he misappropriates Stepto’s point. While Stepto noted Northup’s concern that some readers might not accept the accuracy of his tale, that hardly constitutes evidence that the tale was not true. In fact, later in the Times piece we learn that recent research has uncovered evidence corroborating some of the specific details in 12 Years a Slave.

While slave narratives served as abolitionist propaganda, they also represent one of the earliest and most profound genres of African American literary expression. The process of recalling and setting down one’s life story must have been cathartic for those who had endured slavery and its torments. Surely many former slaves desired never again to revisit that part of their lives. But many who did record their narratives were empowered by their ability to speak their truths and impose narrative control over the experience of their enslavement and liberation. Jennifer Fleischner argues that slave narratives are imbued not only with the “narrators’ insistence that the stories they tell about their slave pasts are true,” but also that “the violent theft of their memories—of their own selves, and of themselves by others—lay at the sick heart of slavery.”

For no author can the use of autobiography be more powerful than for the early slave narrator. Gates and Davis rightly observed that Western thinkers like Hume, Kant, Jefferson, and Hegel all viewed literary capacity and a sense of collective history and heritage as central to any people’s claims to humanity. Gates and Davis succinctly capture this argument’s logic: “Without writing, there could be no repeatable sign of the workings of reason, of mind without memory or mind, there could exist no history without history, there could exist no humanity.” Aside from any other motivations, African American autobiographers’ writings implicitly refuted the notion that blacks lacked those fundamental human characteristics. The indisputable black voices at the heart of their stories, their insistence on embracing their memories, and the collective thematic unities among their narratives established not merely a black literary tradition, but also demonstrated the race’s humanity and intellectual capacity.

One can only hope that the release of 12 Years a Slave will generate interest in Northup’s story among the broader reading public, and will draw more attention to the study of nineteenth century African American literature, and the ongoing and pervasive influence of African American people on American history and culture. If the movie does well at the box office, perhaps we can look forward to more of these powerful American stories reaching the mass audiences they deserve.

Mitch Kachun is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the History department at Western Michigan University. He is author of Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 (Massachusetts 2003) co-editor of The Curse of Caste or, the Slave Bride, a Rediscovered African American Novel by Julia C. Collins (Oxford 2006) and currently completing a manuscript for Oxford, tentatively titled First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory.

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The True Story of 12 Years a Slave

The moving —and utterly brutal—film 12 Years a Slave tells the real story of Soloman Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American man living in Saratoga who is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley film were largely faithful Northup’s 1853 biography, Twelve Years a Slave. Here’s how the film and the biography match up:

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

Soloman Northup was a free man living in upstate New York with a wife and two children before being enslaved

Ruling: Mostly Fact

Soloman Northup was indeed a free man who played the violin. He had a wife and three children, not two: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo, who were 10, 8 and 5, respectively, at the time of his kidnapping. Sent to Louisiana, Northup is given the name Platt and is beaten when he protests he is a freeman. As a result of the incident, he hides his true identity for years.

On the South-bound ship, one of the slave traders murders one of the slaves

Ruling: Fiction

As in the movie, Northup and two others try to plan an escape from the ship. They got very close to executing their plan, but then one of Northup’s co-conspirators got smallpox and died. He was not knifed to death trying to save a woman from being raped as they show in the film.

Northup is sold to Edwin Epps after he gets into a fight with planation overseer of his first owner

Ruling: Mostly Fact

As shown in the movie, Northup’s first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a much more lenient man than the other plantation owners in the film and holds some affection for Northup. However, Northup had to be sold to a much crueler master, Epps (Michael Fassbender), when he got into not one, but two, conflicts with the overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano). The first one—in which Tibeats attacks Northup, and Northup is able to overcome him in the attack by hitting and whipping Tibeats—is depicted accurately in the film: Tibeats tries to hang Northup for revenge, but Ford stops him. The second incident, not in the film, involved Tibeats chasing Northup with an axe.

Armsby betrayed Northup by telling Epps that Northup was trying to write a letter to his friends in New York

Ruling: Fact

Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) was trying to obtain a position as an overseer with Epps, which is presumably why he ratted out Northup’s attempts to write home. As in the film, Northup is able to convince Epps that Armsby’s story is a lie. What the movie doesn’t show, though, is that this wasn’t the first time Northup had asked someone to send a letter for him. A sailor on the ship that brought Northup south sent a letter to Northup’s friends (but was unable to share Northup’s whereabouts).

Mary Epps injures Patsey in a jealous rage

Ruling: Fiction

Northup does write in his autobiography about Epps’ affection for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) — and the jealousy aroused in Epp’s wife. However, he never writes anything about Mary (Sarah Paulson) becoming moved to violence or, as the movie shows, hurling a decanter at her face. Patsey did, however, suffer greatly from Epps’ alternative affection and rage, getting both raped and beaten, especially when Edwin was trying to prove to Mary his lack of affection for Patsy.

Northup was forced to whip Patsey

Ruling: Fact

Patsey leaves the plantation to borrow a bar of soap from a neighbor. Epps did not believe Patsey’s story and compelled Northup to whip her as punishment.

Northup is saved, thanks to a letter written by a kind-hearted carpenter named Bass

Ruling: Fact

Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) did have a discussion with Epps about slavery as portrayed int he movie, leading Northup to believe he could trust Bass with a letter home. Bass sent the letter and had several nighttime meetings with Northup to report back on the letter’s progress. For a good deal of time, the letter received no response, and Bass even offered to go up to Saratoga himself and tell Northup’s friends about the situation once he could afford to do so. However, Northup’s friends received the letter sooner than that: they make the trip South and save Northup.

Watch the video: The Descendents of Slaves and Slave-Owners Meet Face-to-Face. The Oprah Winfrey Show. OWN (December 2022).

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