Solomon Northup: 12 Years a Slave

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series The Voice of the Slaves

Solomon NorthupThe new movie sensation, 12 Years a Slave, is based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup. The original book was published in 1853 is subtitled 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.

It tells the story of free African-American who is duped into leaving New York for Washington. On the way he is drugged, bound and kidnapped into slavery. He is transported to New Orleans where he was sold into slavery.

Solomon Northup was born free in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1808. His father Mintus was born a slave but was manumitted by his owner Capt. Henry Northup and he took his former owner’s name. He married a woman that Solomon described as a quadroon meaning that she was three-quarters white. Mintus was a successful farmer who was able to meet the property qualifications to vote. Solomon was one of two sons that the couple had.

Like his father Solomon who was partly white, married Anne Hampton in 1829. Anne, like Solomon’s mother, was of mixed race, with African, European, and Native American ancestry. They had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. They owned their farm in Hebron in Washington County, and worked at various jobs to provide a prosperous life for their children. Northup played the violin well, which is what led to his kidnapping.

In 1834 the Northups had sold their farm and moved into Saratoga Springs where the couple worked a variety of jobs. Solomon played the violin at a number of local hotels but he found the work to be seasonal. He also worked as a carpenter. His wife worked as a cook at a number of restaurants and hotels in the area.

Solomon’s 12 year ordeal as a slave began in 1841 when he was about 33 years of age. He met two men who introduced themselves as fellow performers. Telling him that they needed a fiddler they invited him to journey with them to New York to perform. His wife was working away from their town so Solomon never notified her thinking that he would return in a couple of days.

After the New York performances, the two persuaded Solomon to come with them to Washington for several more performances 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,” to prove his status as a free man. After all, they were going to the capital where slavery was still legal. Due to the high demand for slaves in the Deep South, free blacks were at risk of kidnapping. Kidnappers used a variety of means, from forced abduction to deceit.

The two white men sold Northup to a slave trader in Washington, claiming that he was a fugitive. When Northup claimed that he was a free man the slave trader and his turnkey severely beat him. Claiming that he was a runaway slave from Georgia, the Washington slave trader shipped him to his partner at the New Orleans slave market. During the voyage Solomon caught smallpox but survived.

He convinced a sailor to send a letter to Henry B. Northup, a member of the family that had owned his father, explaining his plight. However, despite legal mechanisms that were meant to protect New York African-Americans, Northup couldn’t him without knowing where he was.

At the New Orleans slave market, Northup (who had been renamed Platt) was sold to William Ford, a planter on Bayou Boeuf of the Red River in Louisiana. Northup characterized Ford, a Baptist preacher, as a good man, considerate of his slaves. At Ford’s place, Northup proposed making log rafts to move lumber down the river, to get logs to market less expensively. His project was a success. He also built textile looms, copying from one nearby, so that Ford could set up mills on the creek. With Ford, Northup found his efforts appreciated.

However in the winter of 1842 the planter had financial difficulties, and was forced to sell 18 slaves to settle his debts. Solomon’s next owner was a man named  John M. Tibaut (the name is given as Tibeats in Northup’s book), a carpenter who had been working for Ford on the mills, as well as at a weaving-house and corn mill on Ford’s Bayou Boeuf plantation.

Tibaut was a cruel man who was soon at odds with Solomon. After running away and returning to Ford, the preacher convinced Tibaut to hire Solomon out to a plantation about 38 miles away, thereby limiting their conflict. Northup and other slaves do the heavy work of clearing cane, trees and undergrowth in order to develop cotton fields for cultivation. With the work unfinished, after about five weeks Tibaut sold Northup to Edwin Epps.

While held by Epps, in 1852 Northup secretly befriended Samuel Bass, an itinerant Canadian carpenter working for Epps. Bass wrote to Northup’s family with details of his location at Bayou Boeuf in hopes of gaining his rescue. After the intervention of the New York governor and several Louisiana politicians, Solomon Northup was returned to freedom on January 4, 1853. Epps cursed the man who enabled Solomon’s freedom. Northup later wrote, “He thought of nothing but his loss, and cursed me for having been born free.”

A New York court case ensued but after four years it was dropped because there was a question if the crime of kidnapping had been committed in New York or Washington, out of the jurisdiction of the New York courts.

Solomon wrote a book about his experience in three months with the assistance of David Wilson, a local writer. Within three years it had sold 30,000 copies. In his memoir Solomon provided details of slave markets in Washington, DC, as well as describing at length cotton cultivation on major plantations in Louisiana.

Solomon Northup became an active abolitionist and gave dozens of lectures throughout the Northeast on his experiences as a slave in order to support the abolitionist cause. He had returned to his wife and family but in 1857 he disappeared.  In 1909, John 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.”

The contemporary historians Clifford Brown and Carol Wilson believe it is likely that he died of natural causes, his kidnapping being unlikely because he was too old to be of interest to slave catchers, but his 1857 disappearance remains unexplained.