Solomon Northup was a free black resident of New York State who was drugged on a trip to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1841 and sold to a slave dealer. Beaten and chained, he was transported by ship to a New Orleans slave market and suffered more than a decade of servitude on Louisiana plantations.
Northup was eventually able to send messages which prompted legal action that secured his freedom. He then wrote a shocking account of his ordeal, Twelve Years a Slave, which was published in May 1853.
Northup’s case and his book attracted considerable attention. Most slave narratives were written by former slaves who had been born into slavery, but Northup’s perspective of a free man kidnapped and forced to spend years toiling on plantations was especially disturbing.
Northup’s book sold well, and on occasion his name appeared in newspapers alongside such prominent abolitionist voices as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass. Yet he did not become an enduring voice in the campaign to end slavery.
Though his fame was fleeting, Northup did make an impact on how society viewed slavery. His book seemed to underscore abolitionist arguments advanced by people such as William Lloyd Garrison. And Twelve Years a Slave was published at a time when controversy over the Fugitive Slave Act and events such as the Christiana Riot were still on the minds of the public.
His story has again come to prominence thanks to a major film, “12 Years a Slave,” by British director Steve McQueen.
Northup's Life as a Free Man
According to his own account, Solomon Northup was born in Essex County, New York, in July 1808. His father, Mintus Northup, had been born a slave, but his owner, a member of a family named Northup, had freed him.
Growing up, Solomon learned to read and also learned to play the violin. In 1829 he married, and he and his wife Anne eventually had three children. Solomon found work at various trades, and in the 1830s the family moved to Saratoga, a resort town, where he was employed driving a hack, the horse-drawn equivalent of a taxi.
At times he found employment playing the violin, and in early 1841 he was invited by a pair of traveling performers to come with them to Washington, D.C. where they could find lucrative work with a circus. After obtaining papers in New York City establishing that he was free, he accompanied the two white men to the nation’s capitol, where slavery was legal.
Kidnapping in Washington
Northup and his companions, whose names he believed to be Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, arrived in Washington in April 1841, just in time to witness the funeral procession for William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office. Northup recalled watching the pageantry with Brown and Hamilton.
That night, after having drinks with his companions, Northup began to feel sick. At some point he lost consciousness.
When he woke, he was in a stone basement, chained to the floor. His pockets had been emptied and the papers documenting that he was a free man were gone.
Northup soon learned he was locked inside a slave pen which was within site of the U.S. Capitol building. A slave dealer named James Burch informed him that he had been purchased and would be sent to New Orleans.
When Northup protested and asserted he was free, Burch and another man produced a whip and a paddle, and savagely beat him. Northup had learned it was extremely dangerous to proclaim his status as a free man.
Years of Servitude
Northup was taken by ship to Virginia and then onward to New Orleans. In a slave market he was sold to a plantation owner from the region of the Red River, near Marksville, Louisiana. His first owner was a benign and religious man, but when he got into financial difficulty Northup was sold.
In one harrowing episode in Twelve Years a Slave, Northup recounted how he got into a physical altercation with a violent white master and was nearly hanged. He spent hours bound with ropes, not knowing if he would soon die.
He recalled the day spent standing in the broiling sun:
What my meditations were — the innumerable thoughts that thronged through my distracted brain — I will not attempt to give expression to. Suffice it so say, during the whole long day I came not to the conclusion, even once, that the southern slave, fed, clothed, whipped and protected by his master, is happier than the free colored citizen of the North.
To that conclusion I have never since arrived. There are many, however, even in the Northern States, benevolent and well-disposed men, who will pronounce my opinion erroneous, and gravely proceed to substantiate the assertion with an argument. Alas! they have never drunk, as I have, from the bitter cup of slavery.
Northup survived that early brush with hanging, mainly because it was made clear that he was valuable property. After being sold again, he would spend ten years toiling on the land of Edwin Epps, a plantation owner who treated his slaves brutally.
It was known that Northup could play the violin, and he would travel to other plantations to perform at dances. But despite having some ability to move about, he was still isolated from the society in which he had circulated prior to his kidnapping.
Northup was literate, a fact he kept hidden as slaves were not allowed to read or write. Despite his ability to communicate, he was unable to mail letters. The one time he was able to steal paper and manage to write a letter, he was unable to find a trustworthy soul to mail it to his family and friends in New York.
After years of enduring forced labor, under threat of whippings, Northup finally met someone he believed he could trust in 1852. A man named Bass, who Northup described as a “native of Canada” had settled in the area around Marksville, Louisiana and worked as a carpenter.
Bass had been working on a new house for Northup’s master, Edwin Epps, and Northup heard him arguing against slavery. Convinced he could trust Bass, Northup revealed to him that he had been free in New York State and was kidnapped and brought to Louisiana against his will.
Skeptical, Bass questioned Northup and became convinced of his story. And he resolved to help him obtain his freedom. He wrote a series of letters to people in New York who had known Northup.
A member of the family which had owned Northup’s father when slavery was legal in New York, Henry B. Northup, learned of Solomon’s fate. An attorney himself, he took extraordinary legal steps and obtained the proper documents that would allow him to travel into the slave South and retrieve a free man.
In January 1853, after a long trip which included a stop in Washington where he met with a Louisiana senator, Henry B. Northup reached the area where Solomon Northup was enslaved. After discovering the name by which Solomon was known as a slave, he was able to find him and initiate legal proceedings. Within days Henry B. Northup and Solomon Northup were traveling back to the North.
Legacy of Solomon Northup
On his way back to New York, Northup visited Washington, D.C. again. An attempt was made to prosecute a slave dealer involved in his kidnapping years earlier, but the testimony of Solomon Northup was not allowed to be heard as he was black. And without his testimony, the case collapsed.
A lengthy article in the New York Times on January 20, 1853, headlined “The Kidnapping Case,” told the story of Northup’s plight and the thwarted attempt to seek justice. In the next few months Northup worked with an editor, David Wilson, and wrote Twelve Years a Slave.
No doubt anticipating skepticism, Northup and Wilson added extensive documentation to the end of Northup’s account of his life as slave. Affidavits and other legal documents attesting to the truth of the story added dozens of pages at the end of the book.
The publication of Twelve Years a Slave in May 1853 attracted attention. A newspaper in the nation’s capital, the Washington Evening Star, mentioned Northup in a blatantly racist item published with the headline “Handiwork of Abolitionists”:
There was a time when it was possible to preserve order among the negro population of Washington; but then the great majority of that population were slaves. Now, since Mrs. Stowe and her compatriots, Solomon Northup and Fred Douglass, have been exciting the free negroes of the North to "action," and some of our resident "philanthropists" have been acting as agents in that "holy cause," our city has been rapidly filling up with drunken, worthless, filthy, gambling, thieving free negroes from the North, or runaways from the South.
Solomon Northup did not become a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement, and he seems to have lived quietly with his family in upstate New York. It is believed he died sometime in the 1860s, but by that time his fame had faded and newspapers did not mention his passing.
In her non-fiction defense of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published as The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe referred to Northup’s case. “The probability is that hundreds of free men and women and children are all the time being precipitated into slavery in this way,” she wrote.
Northup’s case was highly unusual. He was able, after a decade of trying, to find a way to communicate with the outside world. And it can never be known how many other free blacks were kidnapped into slavery and were never heard from again.
Gratitude is expressed to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for the use of images of Solomon Northup.