Author: Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup was born in New York in 1808. His father, who had been a slave until his master had granted him his freedom in his will.
In 1829 Northup married Anne Hampton and worked as a labourer in Hartford. However, Solomon was captured by slave traders while visiting Washington in 1841 and sold as a slave to a man in Louisiana.
His autobiography was published by Darby & Miller in 1853. You can read it HERE.
Solomon Northup: From Freedom to Slavery to Freedom Again
By Michael Kneller
Few people probably would recall Tuesday, January 4, 1853 as a significant day in the history of the United States. On this date, however, a very important meeting was being held in the small town of Marksville, Louisiana. It was at this meeting that the fate of one man was changed forever. For this day marked the release of Solomon Northup from twelve years of involuntary servitude as a slave to various owners throughout the region of Louisiana that sits to the northwest of New Orleans on the Red River. Solomon was not the first slave, nor the last, to be set free from the chains of slavery. What makes his story stand out, however, is that he was not born a slave. As a matter of fact, for the first thirty-three years of his life, Solomon Northup lived a relatively quiet existence as a free black man residing in New York State.
Solomon Northup was born into a free black family in upstate New York in 1808. His father, Mistus Northup, had spent the early part of his own life as a slave to the Northup family of Rhode Island. It was from this family that Mistus derived the last name for his own family, as it was commonplace at that time for slaves to take the last name of his/her last owner. Eventually Mistus moved to Rensselaer County, New York where he was set free upon the death of his owner.
As a young boy, Solomon split his days between working on his father’s farm and finding ways to pass his free time. He spent much of this time consumed in books or learning to play the violin. In 1829 he married a mulatto woman named Anne Hampton. Together the couple would become parents to three children, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. Throughout his adult years, Solomon worked in various jobs, ranging from agriculture to the lumber industry. Each career, although allowing him to provide a decent life for his family, did not satisfy Solomon in his quest to achieve prosperity. It was this desire to provide a better life for his family that led him to take a job offer that would forever change his life.
In 1841, while working in Saratoga Springs, New York, Solomon met two white men named Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. The men overheard Solomon playing his violin and approached him claiming to work for a traveling circus. They proceeded to offer Northup a job providing musical entertainment for the circus at the rate of $1 a day and $3 for each performance. The two men informed him that they would need to travel to Washington D.C., where the circus currently was located but that they would then be traveling back north. Believing he would only be away from home for a short period of time, Solomon did not notify his family that he was leaving. Little did he know that this trip would mark the beginning of the twelve longest years of his life.
Even though Solomon was a free black man, Washington D.C. in 1841 was a place where slavery was legal. Free blacks traveling through areas where slavery was legal needed to furnish papers certifying their free status or face the possibility of being accused of being a runaway slave. Thus, before Solomon and his new companions left the state to begin their trip to Washington D.C., he secured papers declaring his status as a free black citizen of New York. Unfortunately, these papers would not be able to protect Solomon once he reached the nation’s capital.
The three men arrived in Washington in April of 1841. Upon meeting with the other employees of the circus, Brown and Hamilton announced they would remain in the city one more day to pay their respects to the President of the United States, William Henry Harrison, who had just passed away by attending his funeral procession through the streets of the city. Solomon stayed in a hotel room in the back of Gadsby’s Hotel, which was the only place in the establishment where blacks were allowed to stay. After watching the funeral procession for the President, the three men spent the rest of the afternoon at a saloon. It was here that Solomon, never knowing through the rest of his life if he was poisoned or not, became violently ill. He returned to his hotel room with a blinding headache only to be awakened in the middle of the night by the promises he was being taken for medicine. He was so ill that for a period of days he was in and out of consciousness. When he finally did awake, Solomon Northup, a free black man found himself alone in the darkness of a basement in chains. In the course of his sickness, he had been robbed of his documents, money, and ultimately his freedom.
Over the next few days it became clear to him that he was being held in a slave pen owned by a man named James H. Burch. It was Burch who first acquainted Solomon, whose father had been educated about slavery but had never experienced it himself, with the horrors of life for a slave. Burch proceeded to forcibly brainwash Solomon that he was never a free man, instead he was going to assume the identity of a runaway slave from the slave state of Georgia. When Solomon insisted he was free Burch proceeded to beat him repeatedly with a paddle until he submitted. Burch then told Solomon that if he ever told another person about his true identity he would be killed. Solomon never doubted that Burch was true to his word. It would be twelve years before he felt comfortable enough to disclose his true identity to another human being.
Over the time period stretching from his kidnapping in 1841 to his release in 1853 Solomon learned firsthand the ins and outs of the system of slavery. He was eventually sent away from Washington D.C., being sent to a slave pen operated by Burch’s partner Theophilius Freeman in New Orleans, Louisiana. There Solomon witnessed a slave auction, where slaves were sold to prospective owners. At the auction, slaves would be sold to the highest bidder after a degrading inspection which included being stripped naked in many cases. Solomon was sold to his highest bidder for $1,000 dollars to a devout Baptist by the name of William Ford. It was with this purchase that he began his whirlwind tour of life as a slave.
Ford brought Solomon to the Marksville area of Louisiana where he lived. Solomon regarded Ford as a good owner, because he was kind to his slaves. In fact he worked quite hard for Ford as a carpenter out of the respect he had for his owner. Despite how respectable he found Ford to be as a man, Solomon still could never bring himself to tell him his true identity. He would eventually be sold by Ford to a man named John M. Tibeats who never found satisfaction in the slave’s work as a carpenter. It was under Tibeats that Solomon committed a slave crime punishable by death: resisting a whipping. However, Ford saved Solomon’s life by interceding and forcing Tibeats to sell him to another owner. Eventually he became the property of a cruel owner by the name of Edwin Epps. It was under Epp’s that Northup saw the workings of a typical cotton plantation, where slaves worked over three hundred and sixty days a year from sunrise to well beyond sunset, and could be whipped for such actions as stopping to take a rest or not picking the same amount of cotton each day. Throughout the ten years Northup worked for Epps, his motivation to work came not from respect, but from fear of being whipped.
Early in 1852, Solomon’s eleventh year of slavery that a white man named Bass showed up to do some building for Epps. He noticed that Bass was different from most of the white men he met in those days of captivity in Louisiana. He was from Canada and was very outspoken about his hatred for slavery. To most of the white slave owners in the region he was laughed at for his beliefs, but to Solomon he became a beacon of hope. Solomon waited until he felt the time was right and then he told Bass of his real identity. Bass was so interested in the story that he agreed to send letters on behalf of Solomon to New York State to anyone who could confirm his status as a free man. It would be in September of 1852 that the letters reached the hands of people who could help him.
One of the letters sent by Solomon was forwarded to his wife, Anne, who immediately sought the consultation of a lawyer by the name of Henry B. Northrup, who was a member of the family that once owned Solomon’s father. The lawyer reviewed state laws and determined that a New York State Law passed on May 14, 1840 declared that if a free black resident was unlawfully taken into captivity as a slave they must be recovered. Upon hearing the evidence, the Governor of New York appointed Henry B. Northup to travel to Louisiana to reclaim Solomon which he did in that meeting in Marksville on January 4, 1853, despite the attempts by Epp’s to resist. Solomon Northup’s twelve-year nightmare was over. He would soon be on his way back to his home, family, and freedom.