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Solomon Northup[Note 1] (July 1808 – after 1857) was a free-born African American from Saratoga Springs, New York. He is noted for having been kidnapped in 1841 when enticed with a job offer. When he accompanied his supposed employers to Washington, DC, they drugged him and sold him into slavery. From Washington, DC, he was transported to New Orleans where he was sold to a plantation owner from Rapides Parish, Louisiana. After 12 years in bondage, he regained his freedom in January 1853; he was one of very few to do so in the cases of such kidnappings. Held in the Red River region of Louisiana by several different owners, he got news to his family, who contacted friends and enlisted the Governor of New York, Washington Hunt, to his cause. New York state had passed a law in 1840 to provide legal and financial assistance in order to recover any African-American residents who were kidnapped and sold into slavery.
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. The two men were charged with the crime of kidnapping and remanded into custody on $5000 bail but without Northup's testimony a conviction could not be secured and the men were released. Returning to his family in New York, Northup became active in abolitionism. He published an account of his experiences in Twelve Years a Slave (1853) in his first year of freedom. Northup also gave dozens of lectures throughout the Northeast about his experiences as a slave in order to support the abolitionist cause. The circumstances of Northup's death are uncertain and no contemporary record of him exists after 1857.
Solomon Northup's memoir was reprinted several times later in the 19th century. An annotated version was published in 1968, edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon. Since 1999, Saratoga Springs, New York, has celebrated an annual Solomon Northup Day. The memoir was adapted and produced as an eponymous 2013 film directed and produced by Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup.
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. When free, 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 were born free there. 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 was higher than the property requirement for white males) and could vote. He provided an education for his two sons at a level considered high for free blacks at that time. He and his wife last lived near Fort Edward. He died in November 1829, and his grave is in Hudson Falls Baker Cemetery.
On Christmas Day of 1829, Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton. She was of mixed race, with African, European, and Native American ancestry, and he said she resembled a quadroon. 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, as a carpenter, and playing the violin. 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, Northup met two men, who introduced themselves as Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. Saying they were entertainers, 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 about his trip. 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 "free 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. The expansion of King 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 and sold Northup to James H. Birch (spelled as Burch in Northup's book), a slave trader in Washington, D.C., 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. 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, including one named Robert, caught smallpox, and Robert 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. Henry was willing to help but could not act without knowing where Solomon was held. 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.
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. 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 (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 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 and whipped Tibaut instead. 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 considers this debt to have saved his life.
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, making his way back to Ford. 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. Epps was a cruel master, who frequently punished the slaves and drove them hard. His policy was to whip slaves every day 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 Solomon Northup himself, 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 authorities.
Because he was itinerant and without family, Bass 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, who had come searching for Solomon Northup, Bass revealed that Solomon Northup was the slave known as Platt working at the plantation of Edwin Epps.
Bass wrote several letters: one sent to Cephas Parker and William Perry, storekeepers in Saratoga, was referred to Henry B. Northup. Northup contacted New York Governor Washington Hunt, who took up the case, appointing Henry Northup, who was an 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.
In cooperation with U.S. Senator Pierre Soule and local authorities in Louisiana, Henry located Solomon Northup in January 1853. 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, Northup was free again.
One of the few free blacks to regain freedom under such circumstances, Solomon Northup sued Burch and other men involved in selling him into slavery. (The historian Carol Wilson documented 300 kidnapping cases in her 1994 book, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780–1865. She believes it is likely that thousands more were kidnapped who were never documented.)
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. The New York Times published an article about the trial on January 20, 1853. The men were acquitted.
That year Northup published a book about his kidnapping and years as a slave. 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. 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. Northup never had the satisfaction of legal justice against those who had overturned his life.
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.
Although the book 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 a white man, David Wright. Worley discounted concerns that Wright 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 full and descriptive account has been used by numerous historians researching slavery. His description of the Yellow House, in view of the Capitol, has helped researchers document the history of slavery in the District of Columbia. For example, in his book Black Men Built the Capitol, Jesse Holland notes his use of Northup's narrative. The scholar Kenneth M. Stampp referred to Northup's memoir in his book on slavery, The Peculiar Institution (1962).
After regaining his freedom, Solomon Northup rejoined his wife and children. By 1855, he was living with his daughter Margaret's family in Queensbury, 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. He also spoke abroad; in the summer of 1857, he was reported to have been prevented from speaking in Streetsville, Ontario by a hostile Canadian crowd.
The date, location, and circumstances of his death are unknown. 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. In The Bench and Bar of Saratoga County (1879), E. R. Mann indicated that a Saratoga County kidnapping case against Merrill and Russell was dismissed because Northup had disappeared. Mann wrote, "What his fate was is unknown to the public, but the desperate kidnappers no doubt knew," 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." In letters written in the 1930s, John R. Smith reported that Northup had visited his father, Vermont Methodist minister Rev. John L. Smith, with whom Northup had worked aiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Smith describes these events as occurring after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and hence after January 1863, but this seems unlikely.
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. In 1875 Anne Northup was living in Kingsbury/Sandy Hill in Washington County. 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.
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, and honor the ancestors. 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