SOLOMON NORTHUP & 'TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE'
Solomon Northup was an important figure in relation to the history of slavery in the United States. Solomon Northup was an African American that was born free. However, he was famously kidnapped and sold into slavery. After his escape from slavery he wrote about his experiences in his slave narrative ‘Twelve Years A Slave’. The narrative was published in 1853 and was turned into a movie in 2013. Due to his narrative, Solomon Northup is an important figure in the history of slavery as well as the American Abolitionist Movement, which sought to end slavery in the United States. As well, his narrative ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ gave readers important details about what life was like for slaves in the United States.
SOLOMON NORTHUP'S EARLY LIFE
Solomon Northup was born on July 10th in 1807 in the town of Minerva in New York State. His parents were both African Americans who were free from slavery at the time of Solomon’s birth. For instance, Solomon’s father, Mintus, had been a slave earlier in his life but later gained his freedom. Mintus married a free black woman and the two moved to Minerva in New York to buy property and raise a family. For example, Mintus worked as a farmer and the couple had two boys - Solomon and Joseph. Since his parents were both free when he was born, Solomon Northup was also a freeman.
Solomon Northup married in 1828 to Anne Hampton. Together they owned and lived on a farm in New York State where they raised their three children. Northup supported his family by farming and working in several different types of jobs. For instance, he was a talented violinist and used his skill to work as an entertainer. This was an important aspect of his life, as it is what ultimately led to him being enslaved.
SOLOMON NORTHUP'S SLAVERY
Northup was enslaved in 1841 after he met two men who offered him work in New York city as a fiddler. The two men then convinced Northup to come with them to Washington D.C. with the promise of more work. At the time, slavery was legal in Washington D.C., and Northup was quickly drugged and kidnapped upon arriving in the city. He was then sold into slavery and passed off as a fugitive slave. For instance, in his famous narrative ‘Twelve Years a Slave’, Northup stated that his kidnappers “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”.
In Washington, Northup was sold to slave trader James Burch, who held him in a slave prison for a short period of time. However, Northup was abused terribly in the prison and received regular beatings. The slave traders did this to discourage him from claiming that he was a freeman. As well, Burch renamed Northup as ‘Platt’. In his famous slave narrative ‘Twelve Years a Slave’, Solomon Northup wrote the following about being imprisoned in Washington D.C. by James Burch:
“…it was in 1841, ….slave pen in Washington, in one of the cellars of which I found myself so unaccountably confined.
‘Well, my boy, how do you feel now?’ said Burch, as he entered through the open door. I replied that I was sick, and inquired the cause of my imprisonment. He answered that I was his slave— that he had bought me, and that he was about to send me to New-Orleans. I asserted, aloud and boldly, that I was a freeman—a resident of Saratoga, where I had a wife and children, who were also free, and that my name was Northup. I complained bitterly of the strange treatment I had received, and threatened, upon my liberation, to have satisfaction for the wrong. He denied that I was free…
Burch ordered the paddle and cat-o'-ninetails to be brought in. He disappeared, and in a few moments returned with these instruments of torture. The paddle, as it is termed in slave-beating parlance, or at least the one with which I first became acquainted, and of which I now speak, was a piece of hard-wood board, eighteen or twenty inches long, moulded to the shape of an old-fashioned pudding stick, or ordinary oar The flattened portion, which was about the size in circumference of two open hands, was bored with a small auger in numerous places. The cat was a large rope of many strands— the strands unraveled, and a knot tied at the extremity of each.
As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downwards, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his cruel labor. All this time, the incarnate devil was uttering most fiendish oaths. At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope. This was far more painful than the other. I struggled with all my power, but it was in vain. I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes. I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!”
Next, Northup was transported south by sea to New Orleans where he was to be sold. At the time, slavery was a profitable venture in the Southern states. In fact, throughout the period of the 1840s, the demand for slaves grew due to the introduction of the cotton industry in states such as: Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Cotton became an important crop in the Southern states and was heavily reliant on the practise of slavery. In fact, the harvesting of cotton was extremely labor-intensive, and the use of slaves allowed it to be a profitable industry by keeping labor costs low for plantation owners. The profitability of the situation caused some to kidnap free African Americans from the Northern states and sell them into slavery in the South, which is what happened to Solomon Northup.
In New Orleans, Northup was sold to William Ford, who was a preacher and farmer. In general, Northup viewed Ford as a good man, but his time with Ford was to be short-lived. For instance, in 1842 Northup was conditionally sold to a local carpenter named John M. Tibaut. This meant that Ford had sold Northup to Tibaut, but Tibaut had yet to pay off the outstanding debt for buying the slave. Opposite to Ford, Tibaut was abusive towards Northup and regularly whipped and beat him. In fact, in one instance, Northup fought back against Tibaut. This caused Tibaut to attempt to hang Northup to death (lynching). Tibaut was only stopped when a worker for Ford arrived prevented the lynching. Ford had yet to be fully paid for Northup and did not want him killed. The violence between Tibaut and Northup continued, and eventually Tibaut sold Northup to Edwin Epps.
Epps owned property in central Louisiana upon which he harvested cotton. In total, Northup was owned by Epps for ten years. According to Northup, Epps was known for severely beating his slaves if they did not pick enough cotton. Thus, these were a very difficult ten years for Northup. However, in 1852, Northup’s fortunes changed when a man named Samuel Bass came to the Epps property. Bass was a Canadian who came to the Epps property to complete work. While there, Bass was approached by Northup for help. Specifically, Northup wanted Bass to contact some of Northup’s former friends to assist in his escape from slavery. Northup told Bass of his former freedom and how he was kidnapped years earlier. Bass agreed and set straight away to help Northup.
Bass helped Northup by writing and delivering letters to Northup’s friends. The letters were meant to tell Northup’s friends of his location and what had occurred to him. In fact, Bass’ assistance proved to be important because the letters that he delivered eventually reached back to New York State and Northup’s wife – Anne Hampton. This caused Anne to seek help from a family friend, Henry Northup, who had previously helped Solomon’s dad escape from slavery. In fact, Mintus Northup took his last name from Henry. Henry Northup took up the cause of travelling to Louisiana and finding Solomon. After finding Epp’s property, Henry Northup convinced Epp to free Solomon. This angered the slave owner but he gave in and signed papers freeing Solomon. As a result, Solomon gained his freedom on January 4th, 1853. He had been a slave for twelve years.
SOLOMON NORTHUP'S LATER YEARS
After gaining his freedom, Solomon returned home to New York state. Upon arriving he and Henry Northup carried out a series of court cases against the people originally responsible for Solomon’s kidnapping and slavery. For instance, he filed two separate court cases. The first took place in 1853 and was against James Burch, the man from Washington D.C. who had first sold Solomon Northup into slavery. The second case took place in 1854 and was against the two men who was hired Solomon Northup and taken him to James Birch. Unfortunately for Solomon Northup, he was unsuccessful in both cases and no one was ever held responsible for his kidnap and enslavement.
Another significant event that occurred during this time was that Solomon Northup wrote and published his famous narrative titled ‘Twelve Years a Slave’. First published in 1853, the book was a slave narrative about the life and experiences of Solomon Northup during the years of his enslavement. It recounted the abuses he experienced and suffered as a slave.
In the years that followed, Solomon Northup returned to his family in New York state and worked as a carpenter. It is reported that he also gave several speeches in Canada and the United States related to his experiences as a slave. However, by 1858, Solomon Northup seems to have disappeared. In fact, historians don’t completely understand what happened to him as there is conflicting reports. Some reports suggest that he was kidnapped again and sold into slavery. Other reports state that he abandoned his family and travelled across Canada and the United States. With that said, is it generally believed that he died sometime in the late 1850s or early 1860s. However, this is no record of his death.
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