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Solomon Northup[Note 1] (July 1808–1863?) was a free-born African American from New York, the son of a freed slave. A farmer and violinist, he owned a property in Hebron. In 1841 he was kidnapped by slave-traders, having been enticed with a job offer as a violinist. When he accompanied his supposed employers to Washington, DC, they drugged him and sold him as a slave. He was shipped to New Orleans where he was sold to a plantation owner in Louisiana. He was held in the Red River region of Louisiana by several different owners for 12 years, during which time his friends and family had no word of him. He made repeated attempts to escape and get messages out of the plantation. Eventually he got news to his family, who contacted friends and enlisted the Governor of New York, Washington Hunt, to his cause. He regained his freedom in January 1853 and returned to his family in New York. 
Northup sued the slave traders in Washington, DC, but lost in the local court. District of Columbia law prohibited him as a black man from testifying against whites and, without his testimony, he was unable to sue for civil damages. Later, in New York State, two men were charged with kidnapping but two years later the charges were dropped.
In his first year of freedom Northup published an account of his experiences in the memoir Twelve Years a Slave (1853) . Northup also gave dozens of lectures throughout the Northeast about his experiences in order to support the abolitionist cause. The details of his death are uncertain.
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. On the death of Henry Northup, the freed Mintus took the surname Northup as his own.
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 there. [Note 2] Solomon described his mother as a quadroon, meaning that she was one-quarter black and three-quarters European. A farmer, Mintus Northup was successful enough to meet the state's property requirements for black male voters which, from 1821, were higher than the property requirement for white males. That he was able to register, is notable for a former slave. [Note 3] He provided an education for his two sons at a level considered high for free blacks at that time. Northup also worked on the family farm as a child. 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 1829 [Note 4] Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton. She was of African, European, and Native American ancestry. Between 1830 to 1834 the couple lived in Fort Edward and Kingsbury (New York). Northup held various jobs, including working as a raftsman and 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.They had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. They owned a farm in Hebron in Washington County, and worked at various jobs to provide a prosperous life for their children.
After selling the 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 very 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 carpenter. Anne worked from time to time as a cook at the United States Hotel and other public houses, and was highly praised for her culinary skills. During court sessions in the county seat of Fort Edward, she returned to Sherrill's Coffee House in Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls) to earn extra money.
In 1841, aged 32, Northup met two men, who introduced themselves as Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. Saying they were entertainers, member 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 left without notifying his wife. When they reached New York, the men persuaded him to go with them to the 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 papers, to prove his status as a free man.  His status was a concern as he was traveling to Washington, where slavery was legal; the city was one of the nation's largest slave markets, and slave catchers were not above kidnapping free blacks. At this time, twenty years before the civil war, the expansion of cotton 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.
"Brown" and "Hamilton" drugged Northrup with belladonna and sold him to James H. Birch, [Note 5] a slave trader in Washington, D.C. for $650, claiming that he was a fugitive slave. Birch and Ebenezer Radburn, his turnkey, severely beat Northup to stop him from saying he was a free man. Birch wrongfully claimed that Northup was a runaway slave from Georgia. Northup was held in the slave pen of trader William Williams, close to the Capitol in Washington DC. Birch shipped Northup and other slaves by sea to New Orleans, where his partner Theophilus Freeman would sell them. During the voyage, Northup and the other slaves caught smallpox, including one named Robert who died en route.
Northup persuaded John Manning, an English sailor, to send a letter to Henry B. Northup reporting Solomon's kidnapping and illegal enslavement. Henry was a lawyer, a member of the family that had once held Solomon's father as a slave, and a childhood friend of Solomon's. The New York legislature had passed a law in 1840 to protect its African-American residents by providing legal and financial assistance to facilitate the recovery of any who were kidnapped and taken out of state. Henry 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 Ford, a small planter on Bayou Boeuf of the Red River in northern Louisiana. Ford was a Baptist preacher. 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.
Northup's regard for Ford did not impede his intention to escape. He made many attempts to get word to his family and friends as to where he was held and made numerous efforts to run away. He had no access to writing paper, which made messaging almost impossible. The slaves were constantly watched and the punishments for non-compliance were brutal.
At Ford's place in Pine Woods, Northup proposed making log rafts to move lumber down the narrow Indian Creek, to get logs to market less expensively. He was familiar with this procedure from his previous work, and 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. But the planter came into financial difficulties and had to sell 18 slaves to settle his debts.
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 as well as at a weaving-house and corn mill on Ford's Bayou Boeuf plantation. Tibaut did not have the entire purchase price, so Ford held a chattel mortgage on Northup of $400, meaning Tibaut owed Ford $400 and Northup was the security for the loan. Under Tibaut, Northup suffered cruel and capricious treatment. Tibaut took him back to Ford's plantation, where there was more construction to complete. At one point, Tibaut decided to whip Northup because he didn't like the nails Northup was using. But when Tibaut seized his whip, Northup fought back. Ford's overseer Chapin saved Northup from being lynched by Tibaut and Tibaut's friends. Chapin reminded Tibaut of his debt to Ford of $400 for the purchase of Northup, and said that killing Northup would result in charges against Tibaut as a result of the debt. Northup considered this debt to have 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 was ill-regarded in the region, decided at another point to kill Northup. When the two men were alone, Tibaut seized an axe and swung to hit Northup, but Northup 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 Northup was hired out to Mr. 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 do the heavy work of clearing 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. He was a cruel master, who frequently punished slaves and drove them hard. His policy was to whip slaves if they did not meet the work quota he had set for them. Northup wrote that the sounds of whipping were heard every day on Epps's farm from sundown until lights out. Epps sexually abused a young enslaved woman named Patsey. 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, 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 to Northup's friends with general details of his location at Bayou Boeuf in hopes of gaining his rescue. Bass did this at great personal risk; in the Bayou country, he may have been killed had the secret become known before the intervention of the authorities.
Bass wrote several letters: one sent to Cephas Parker and William Perry, storekeepers in Saratoga. He was referred to Henry B. Northup, the son of Mintus' 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, New York had passed a law committing the state to help any residents kidnapped into slavery. Once Northup's family was notified, his rescuers had to do detective work to find the enslaved man. Proofs of citizenship and residence had to be unearthed and affidavits sworn. During this time Northup did not know if his letter had even been delivered and had no word from anyone. 
Bass was itinerant and without family. He left the area before Northup's friends arrived with the legal documents to reveal to Epps the Northup's true identity and engage in the legal proceedings to free him. Even so, the risk was sufficiently great that Bass did not reveal his own name in the letter. When contacted by Henry Northup, Bass revealed that Solomon was the slave known as Platt working at the plantation of Edwin Epps.
In cooperation with U.S. Senator Pierre Soule and local authorities in Louisiana, Henry arrived in Marksville on 1 January 1853. Tracing Northup was made more difficult by the fact that he was known locally by his slave name. When confronted with the evidence that Northup was a free man and told that he had a wife and children, Epps first demanded of the enslaved man why he hadn't told him this at the time of purchase. Then he said had he known that men were coming to take "Platt," he'd have taken measures to ensure they could never have taken him alive. He cursed the man (unknown to him) who had helped Northup and threatened to kill the man if he discovered his identity. Northup later wrote, "He thought of nothing but his loss, and cursed me for having been born free." Epps' lawyer convinced Epps that it would be futile to contest the free papers in a court of law, so the planter conceded the case and signed the papers giving up all claim to Northup. Finally on January 4, 1853, four months after meeting Bass, Northup was free again.
At the time, Northup did not make a claim against the men with the circus because they could not be found, and he initially doubted their complicity. The courts had argued jurisdiction, finally ruling that the case had to be tried in Washington. But, as a black man, Northup was prohibited by the District's law from testifying against whites. One of the accused men intended to sue Northup, but he dropped the charge. Northup remained free. The case received national attention and The New York Times published an article about the trial on January 20, 1853. The men were acquitted. The case brought the widespread illegal practices to light and the details of Northup's narrative were confirmed by the court. 
Solomon Northup published an account of his experiences, Twelve Years a Slave (1853). The book was written in three months with the help of David Wilson, a local writer. Published when the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was a bestseller, Northup's book sold 30,000 copies within three years. It helped identify the kidnappers, whose actual names were Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell.
Thaddeus St. John, a county court judge in Fonda, New York, recalled having seen two old friends, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, traveling with a black man to Washington at the time of the late President Harrison's funeral. He saw them again while returning from Washington, no longer with the black man, and recalled an odd conversation with them during the first trip. They had asked him to call them Brown and Hamilton when in company with the black man, rather than as Merrill and Russell, as he knew them. Contacting authorities, St. John met with Northup, and the two recognized each other from that earlier encounter. Merrill and Russell were located and arrested.
The case re-opened on 4 October 1854. Both Northup and St. John testified against them. The respective counsels argued over whether the crime had been committed in New York (where Northup could testify), or in Washington, outside the jurisdiction of New York courts. After more than two years of appeals, a new district attorney in New York did not pursue the case, which was dropped in May 1857. No further legal action was taken against those who had kidnapped and sold him into slavery.
After regaining his freedom, Solomon Northup rejoined his wife and children. By 1855, he was living with his daughter Margaret Stanton's family in Glens Falls, Warren County, New York, as a carpenter. He became active in the abolitionist movement and lectured on slavery throughout the northeastern United States, on nearly two dozen occasions in the years before the American Civil War.  In the summer of 1857, it was widely reported that he had been prevented from speaking in Streetsville, Ontario by a hostile Canadian crowd.
The location, and circumstances of his death are unknown. Rumours ran rife. In 1858, a local 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 he had been kidnapped from Canada while drunk. These kidnap rumors persisted. Years later, in The Bench and Bar of Saratoga County (1879), E. R. Mann indicated 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." Sometime in the summer of 1857, Northup had been in Canada, preparing to give a lecture. 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." In letters written in the 1930s, John R. Smith reported that Northup had visited Smith's father, Vermont Methodist minister Rev. John L. Smith, with whom Northup and former slave Tabbs Gross had worked in the early 1860s aiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Smith describes the visit as occurring after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and hence after January 1863, but this seems unlikely.
There is no contemporary evidence of Northup after 1857. Northup was not recorded with his family in the 1860 United States Census. The New York state census of 1865 records his wife Anne Northup (but not Northup himself) living with their daughter and son-in-law, Margaret and Philip Stanton, in nearby Moreau in Saratoga County.[Note 8] In 1875 Anne Northup was living in Kingsbury/Sandy Hill in Washington County.[Note 9] 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 later kidnapping 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 the memoir does not fit the standard format of the genre. It was also overlooked for many years in part because Northup was assisted in the writing by David Wilson, a white man. Worley discounted concerns that Wilson was pursuing his own interests in the book and wrote of the account: "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.
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 10]In his book Black Men Built the Capitol, Jesse Holland notes his use of Northup's narrative. [Note 11] The scholar Kenneth M. Stampp referred to Northup's memoir in his book on slavery, The Peculiar Institution (1962).
Northup's memoir was reprinted in 1869, but over time his story was largely overlooked. The growth of works in social history and African-American studies during the late 20th century brought it to light again. The first scholarly edition of his memoir was published in 1968. 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. In 1984, a PBS made-for-TV movie based on Northup's memoir was directed by Gordon Parks.
In 1998, a team of students at Union College in Schenectady, New York, with their political science professor Clifford Brown, undertook a project to document Northup's historic narrative. "They gathered photographs, family trees, bills of sale, maps and hospital records on a trail through New York, Washington and Louisiana." Their exhibit of this material was held at the college's Nott Memorial building.
In 1999, Saratoga Springs erected an 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 and celebrate his life, bring African-American history to light, educate the public about freedom and justice issues.   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  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
Twelve Years a Slave was adapted as a PBS television movie titled Solomon Northup's Odyssey (1988), directed by Gordon Parks. Northup was portrayed by Avery Brooks. The feature film 12 Years a Slave was released in October 2013. It is directed by British director Steve McQueen, with Northup's memoir adapted for the screen by John Ridley. The British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup. It is nominated for nine Academy Awards. 
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).  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 story.