Engraving from his autobiography
Solomon Northup[Note 1]
July 10, 1807 or 1808
|Died||between 1857 and 1875|
|Occupation||raftsman, fiddler, labourer, carpenter|
|Known for||Twelve Years a Slave|
Solomon Northup (July 10, 1807 or 1808 - unknown) 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 a free woman of color. A farmer and a professional violinist, Northup had been a landowner in Hebron, New York. In 1841, he was offered a traveling musician's job and went to Washington, D.C. (where slavery was legal); there he was drugged, 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 a slave until he met a Canadian working on his plantation who helped get word to New York, where state law provided aid to free New York citizens who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. His family and friends enlisted the aid of the Governor of New York, Washington Hunt, and Northup regained his freedom on January 3, 1853.
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 because of 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 disappeared from the historical record after 1857, although a letter later reported him alive in early 1863; 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. The details of his death have never been documented.
Northup's memoir was adapted and produced as the 1984 television film Solomon Northup's Odyssey and the 2013 feature film 12 Years a Slave. The latter won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, at the 86th Academy Awards.
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, a great grandson of Stephen Northup, manumitted Mintus in his will. 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] Solomon described his mother as a quadroon, meaning that she was one-quarter African American, and three-quarters European. 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] He provided an education for his two sons at a level considered high for free black people at that time. As boys, Northup and his brother worked on the family farm. Mintus and his wife last lived near Fort Edward. He died on November 22, 1829, and his grave is in Hudson Falls Baker Cemetery.
In 1828 or 1829,[Note 4] Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton. A "woman of color", she was of African, European, and Native American descent. Between 1830 and 1834, the couple lived in Fort Edward and Kingsbury, small communities in Washington County, New York.
They had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. 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".
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.
After selling their farm in 1834, the Northups moved 20 miles to Saratoga Springs, New York, for its employment opportunities. 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.
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. Expecting the trip to be brief, Northup did not notify Anne, who was working in Sandy Hill. 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. 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. 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.
It is possible that "Brown" and "Hamilton" incapacitated Northup--his symptoms suggest that he was drugged with belladonna or laudanum, or with a mixture of both--and sold him to Washington slave trader James H. Birch[Note 5] for $650, claiming that he was a fugitive slave. However, Northup stated in his account of the ordeal in Twelve Years a Slave in Chapter II, "[w]hether they were accessory to my misfortunes - subtle and inhuman monsters in the shape of men - designedly luring me away from home and family, and liberty, for the sake of gold - those who read these pages will have the same means of determining as myself." Birch and Ebenezer Radburn, his jailer, severely beat Northup to stop him from saying he was a free man. Birch then wrongfully presented Northup as a slave from Georgia. Northup was held in the slave pen of trader William Williams, close to the United States Capitol. Birch shipped Northup and other slaves by sea to New Orleans, in what was called the coastwise slave trade, where his partner Theophilus Freeman would sell them. During the voyage, Northup and the other slaves caught smallpox. A slave named Robert died of the disease en route.
Northup persuaded John Manning, an English sailor, to send to Henry B. Northup, upon reaching New Orleans, a letter that told of his kidnapping and illegal enslavement. 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. Henry Northup was willing to help but could not act without knowing where Solomon was held.
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. 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:
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.
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. He sold 17 to a neighboring planter named Compton. Solomon could not pick cotton, however, so Ford found a buyer in a local tradesman.
In the winter of 1842, Ford sold Northup to John M. Tibaut,[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. Ford owed Tibaut money for the work. Since the amount Ford owed Tibaut was less than the purchase price agreed upon for Solomon, Ford held a chattel mortgage on Northup for $400, the difference between the two amounts.
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. 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.
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.
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. With the work unfinished, after about five weeks, Tibaut sold Northup to Edwin Epps.
Epps held Northup for almost 10 years, until 1853, in 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, among other goals. 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.
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. 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.
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.
Bass wrote several letters: one reached Cephas Parker and William Perry, storekeepers in Saratoga who knew Northup. Parker or Perry forwarded the letter to Northup's wife, Anne, who 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, as well as guaranteeing a jury trial to alleged fugitive slaves. 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, because of the secrecy they needed to maintain, and the necessity of preventing Northup's owner from knowing their plans.
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 woman of color in Louisiana.) Because of the risk, Bass did not reveal his own name in the letter. Henry Northup still managed to find him in Louisiana, and Bass revealed that Solomon Northup was held by Edwin Epps on his plantation. Henry B. Northup took the precaution of bringing with him the sheriff of Marksville, the parish seat, to enforce the law.
In cooperation with U.S. Senator Pierre Soulé from Louisiana and other local authorities, Henry B. Northup arrived in Marksville on January 1, 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.
Northup later wrote, "He [Epps] thought of nothing but his loss, and cursed me for having been born free." 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 papers giving up all claim to Northup. Finally on January 4, 1853, four months after meeting Bass, Northup regained his freedom.
Northup was one of the few kidnapped free black people to regain freedom after being sold into slavery. Represented by attorneys Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, General Orville Clark, and Henry B. Northup, Solomon Northup sued Birch and other men involved in selling him into slavery in Washington, DC.[Note 7]
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. But, Northup was unable to testify at the trial due to laws in Washington DC against black men testifying in court. Birch and several others, who were also in the slave trade, testified that Northup had approached them, saying he was a slave from Georgia and was for sale. No note of his purchase 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.
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 to proceed. Upon the advice of his lawyer, Birch withdrew the complaint, against the protests of Northup. Northup knew that a trial related to Birch's complaint could only rebound against Birch and make him look bad. If Northup had in fact claimed to be a slave from Georgia, it would not have made sense for him to risk his freedom, days after regaining it, by contacting the law to bring charges against Birch.
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.
Later that same year, Solomon Northup wrote and published his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave (1853). The book was written in three months with the help of David Wilson, a local writer and journalist. Published by Derby & Miller of Auburn, New York 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, also becoming a bestseller.
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 in 1841. He saw them again while returning from Washington, but they were without the black man. They wore and carried 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. The two recognized each other from the first encounter on the train in 1840. With this identification, Merrill and Russell were located and arrested.
The New York trial opened on October 4, 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. 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. Washington, DC authorities declined to prosecute Merrill and Russell, and no further legal action was taken against those who had allegedly kidnapped and sold Northup into slavery.
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. He was working again 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.
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. There is no contemporaneous documentation of his whereabouts after that time. 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." Shortly thereafter, even his benefactor Henry B. Northup is said to have believed Solomon had been kidnapped from Canada while drunk.
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." 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." According to John R. Smith, in letters written in the 1930s, he said that 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 Civil War, aiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Northup was said to have visited Rev. Smith after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which was made in January 1863.
Northup was not listed with his family in the 1860 United States Census. The New York state census of 1865 records his wife Anne Northup (but not Solomon); she was recorded as married, not widowed, and living with their daughter and son-in-law, Margaret and Philip Stanton, in nearby Moreau in Saratoga County. In 1870, Northup's wife was enumerated as a cook in the household of Burton C. Dennis. At the time, Dennis kept the Middleworth House hotel in Sandy Hill, New York. Solomon 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, but Northup's name is not there, either. Northup's son, Alonzo, is included in the 1870 census for Fort Edward, New York; his household includes only him, his wife and his daughter.
In 1875, Anne Northup was living in Kingsbury/Sandy Hill in Washington County, New York, 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".
The 21st-century historians Clifford Brown and Carol Wilson believe it is likely that he died of natural causes. They think a kidnapping for slavery in the late 1850s was unlikely, as he was too old to be of interest to slave catchers, but his disappearance remains unexplained.
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:
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.
Northup's biographer, David Fiske, has investigated Northup's role in the book's writing and asserts authenticity of authorship. 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]