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Solomon Northup (July 1808 – c. 1864-1875) 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 arrived with 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 such cases. Held in the Red River region of Louisiana by several different owners, he got news to his family, who contacted friends and enlisted the New York governor in his cause. New York state had passed a law in 1840 to recover African-American residents who had been 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, absent his testimony, the men went free. 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 gave nearly two dozen lectures throughout the Northeast on his experiences as a slave, in order to support the abolitionist cause.
In the early 1860s, Northup, along with another black man, aided a Methodist minister in Vermont in helping fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. The circumstances of Northup's death are uncertain.
Solomon Northup's memoir was reprinted several times late in the 19th century. An annotated version was published in 1968. The memoir was adapted and produced as film in 2013 by Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. Previously, a TV movie had been made of Northup's story, Solomon Northup's Odyssey (1984), directed by Gordon Parks.
Since 1999, Saratoga Springs has celebrated an annual Solomon Northup Day.
Solomon's father Mintus was a freedman, who had been a slave in the early part of his life in service to the Northup family. Born in Rhode Island, he was taken with the Northups when they migrated to Hoosick, New York in Rensselaer County. The master Northup manumitted Mintus by his will; freed as a young man, Mintus took the surname Northup.
Mintus Northup married and moved north with his wife, a free woman of color, to the town of Minerva in Essex County, New York. The couple's two sons were born free there. Solomon described his mother as a quadroon, meaning that she was one-quarter black. A farmer, Mintus Northup was successful enough to meet the state's property requirements for voters and could vote. He provided an education for his two sons, at a level considered high for free blacks at the time. He and his wife last lived near Fort Edward. He died in November 1829, and his grave is located in Hudson Falls Baker Cemetery. His wife died later, during the period of Solomon's captivity.
On Christmas Day in 1829, Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton. She 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. The parents worked at various jobs and thereby made a prosperous life for their family. Northup kept up with the violin, which he played well. Solomon Northup's descendant, the Northup family matriarch Victoria Northup Linzy Dunahm, died in California at the age of 98 in 2008. Other descendants live in various parts of the country, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Syracuse, New York.
After selling the farm in 1834, the Northups moved 20 miles into Saratoga Springs, New York for its opportunities. Solomon played his violin at several well-known hotels in the City of Saratoga Springs; however, he found its seasonal cycles of employment difficult. It was very busy during the summer, but work was hard to find at other times. Solomon worked at different jobs: building the Champlain Canal and the railroad, as a carpenter, and playing his violin. Anne worked from time to time as a cook at the United States Hotel and other public houses, as she was known 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 some extra money. Because of the high demand for slaves in the Deep South, free blacks were at risk of kidnapping, particularly in the border states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.
Even free blacks in more distant states were at risk, and the New York legislature passed a law in 1840 to protect its African-American residents and try to recover any who were kidnapped. Kidnappers used a variety of means, from forced abduction to deceit, and frequently abducted children. In 1841, Northup was looking for work in Saratoga Springs. He 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 some of their performances in New York City. Expecting the trip to be brief, Northup did not write to his wife about his travel. When they reached New York, the men persuaded him to go with them to the circus in Washington DC, offering him a generous wage and the cost of his return trip home. They stopped so that he could get a copy of his "freedom papers," to prove his status as a free man. His status was a concern as he was traveling to Washington DC, where slavery was still legal; the city had some of the nation's larger slave markets, and slave catchers were not above kidnapping free blacks. Brown and Hamilton sold Northup to James H. Burch (spelled as Birch in some accounts), a slave trader in Washington, claiming that he was a fugitive. Burch and Ebenezer Radburn, his turnkey, severely beat Northup to stop him from saying he was a free man. Burch wrongfully claimed that Northup was a runaway slave from Georgia, and sold him as such. Burch shipped Northup and other slaves by sea to New Orleans, for his partner to sell. During the voyage, he and many other slaves caught smallpox.
Northup persuaded John Manning, an English sailor, to send a letter to his family telling them of his kidnapping and illegal enslavement. His wife went for help to Henry B. Northup, a local lawyer and member of the family who had once held her father-in-law as a slave. Henry Northup was willing to help, but could not act without knowing where Solomon was held. The New York legislature had passed a law in 1840 requiring the state to recover any free blacks kidnapped and sold into slavery. At the New Orleans slave market, Burch's partner Thomas Freeman sold Northup under the name of Platt to William Ford, a planter on Bayou Boeuf of the Red River of the South in Louisiana. Ford was a Baptist preacher. In his memoir, Northup characterized Ford as a good man, considerate of the people he had enslaved. He also wrote about falling in love with a slave girl named Jenny who worked on Ford's plantation. 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. The planter came into financial difficulties, and had to sell 18 slaves to settle his debts. Ford owed money to John M. Tibeats, a carpenter who had been working for him on the mills, as well as at a weaving-house and corn mill on Ford's Bayou Boeuf plantation.
In the winter of 1842, Ford sold Northup to Tibeats at a price that left the carpenter owing money on him. Under Tibeats, Northup suffered cruel treatment. Tibeats took him back to Ford's plantation, where there was more construction to complete. They were supervised by Ford's overseer Chapin, who saved Northup from a lynching after he fought with Tibeats. Chapin reminded Tibeats of his debt to Ford of $400 for the purchase of Northup. This debt saved Northup's life, for Tibeats did not want to lose him because of the money still outstanding on his purchase. After another fight with Tibeats, Northup defended himself from attack with an axe. He ran away, escaping into a swamp and making his way back to Ford. The planter convinced Tibeats to hire out Northup to limit their conflict. 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 order to develop cotton fields for cultivation. With the work unfinished, after about five weeks Tibeats 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. Bass did this at great personal risk; in the bayou country, he likely would have been killed had the secret become known before the intervention of authorities. After receiving the letter, Anne Northup appealed again for help from their friend Henry B. Northup. He contacted the state, and New York Governor Washington Hunt took up the case, appointing Henry Northup as his legal agent. In cooperation with the senator and local authorities of Louisiana, Henry Northup located Solomon. Finally on January 4, 1853, Solomon was free again. When confronted with the evidence that Solomon was a free man, and told that he had a wife and children, Epps cursed the man (unknown to him) who had helped Solomon and threatened to kill him if he discovered his identity. Solomon later wrote, "He thought of nothing but his loss, and cursed me for having been born free."
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 such cases in her book, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865 (1994). She believes it is likely thousands more were kidnapped who were never documented.)
At the time, Northup did not make a claim against the men with the circus as they could not be found, and he initially doubted their complicity. His case was tried in Washington DC where, as a black man, Northup was prohibited by law from testifying against whites. One of the accused men in turn sued Northup, who had to defend himself in court. The charges were eventually dropped, and Northup remained free. The case received national attention. The New York Times published an article on the trial on January 20, 1853.
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. Contacting Henry B. Northup, St. John testified about the events and helped track down the two men. After Solomon Northup recognized them, Merrill and Russell were charged in his kidnapping. The respective courts argued over whether the crime had been committed in New York, where Northup's testimony would have been accepted, or in Washington DC, where it would not. After two years of appeals, a new district attorney in New York did not continue to push the case. Merrill and Russell were never tried; they went unpunished.
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.
Included in the genre of slave narratives, the scholar Sam Worley says that the book does not fit the standard expectations of the genre and was 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 and wrote of it: "'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."
The book has been issued as an electronic version with supporting material at the web site of the University of North Carolina's Documenting the American South. Out of copyright, it is also available free for reading and download at Project Gutenberg and Google Books websites.
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).
Northup rejoined his wife and children. 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 and during the American Civil War.
In 1855 Northup was living with his daughter Margaret's family in Queensbury, Warren County, New York, a carpenter, but he does not appear with his family there in 1860.
He last appeared in records referring to events in 1863, when he reportedly visited Rev. John L. Smith, a Methodist minister in Vermont, with whom Northup had worked aiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Note: John R. Smith, the son of a Methodist minister named John L. Smith, wrote letters years later recalling that Northup and Tabbs Gross (another black man) had assisted his father and fugitive slaves with the Underground Railroad in Vermont. The letters have been preserved among the papers of Wilbur Siebert at Harvard's Houghton Library. Note: The younger Smith wrote that Northup had visited his father sometime after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.
The date, location, and circumstances of his death are unknown. He was not listed in the 1865 New York state census, but his wife Anne Northup was reported as still living in nearby Moreau in Saratoga County, with their daughter and son-in-law, Margaret and Philip Stanton. Northup's wife, Anne, died in 1876. Some newspaper notices of her death said she was a widow. The 1875 New York State census listing for her (living in Kingsbury/Sandy Hill in Washington County, New York) indicates that she was a widow.
Northup probably died between 1863 and 1875, but details of his death have not come to light. The contemporary historians Clifford Brown and Carol Wilson believe it is likely that he died of natural causes. In 1876 a local historian speculated that Northup was kidnapped or killed by persons unknown while in Boston, but contemporary historians think the kidnapping unlikely, as he was too old to be of interest to slave catchers.
Northup's memoir was reprinted in 1869, but over time his story was overlooked. The growth of works in social history and African-American studies in the late 20th century brought it to light again. A newly annotated version of his memoir was published in 1968. In 1984, a 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, Renee Moore, created Solomon Northup Day to honor and celebate Mr. Northup's life, bring American/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 Folklife Center.
In 2001, the City Council of Saratoga Springs, under the leadership of Mayor Ken Klotz (D), inaugurated Solomon Northup Day as the third Saturday in July. Renee Moore directes and coordinates this event each year in the City with Northup descendants in attendance.(See below)
The Smithsonian Institution: Anacostia Museum, and the U. S. Departmentof the Interior, National Park Service-Network to Freedom Project have also recognized the merits of this multi-venue event program. 'Solomon Northup Day – a Celebration of Freedom' continues annually in the City of Saratoga Springs, as well as Plattsburgh, NY through the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association.