Twelve Years a Slave: Who Was Solomon Northup? | History Hit

Twelve Years a Slave: Who Was Solomon Northup?

History Hit

04 Jan 2016
Sketch of Solomon Northup
Image Credit: Frederick M. Coffin (engraved by Nathaniel Orr), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Twelve years after being abducted and sold into slavery, Solomon Northup was legally granted his freedom on 4 January 1853. Northup’s story, entitled Twelve Years a Slave, was published in 1853.

Northup was born a free person of colour in 1807 or 1808 in Upstate New York. His father Mintus was a slave but was freed following the death of his master Captain Henry Northup.

Solomon grew up on his family farm and moved to Saratoga Springs with his wife Anne Hampton in 1828, where they raised three children and Solomon worked as a professional violinist.

Abducted and enslaved

But Northup’s life changed forever in March 1841 when he was abducted by two men in Washington and transported to New Orleans where he was sold at a slave market.

Northup went first to the plantation of William Prince Ford, whom he praised for his kindness. But Ford was forced to sell Northup to John M. Tibeats who was not so kind, attempting to whip and even to lynch Northup.

He was sold next to Edwin Epps, a brutal man who subjected his slaves to cruel acts of violence and torture. Northup made several attempts to escape, but in vain.

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A chance encounter

In June 1852 a carpenter named Samuel Bass came to the Epps’s plantation. Bass was an abolitionist and Northup arranged for him to deliver letters to his friends in New York informing them of his plight.

Northup’s wife Anne contacted Henry B. Northup, the grandnephew of Mintus Northup’s former master. Henry obtained the support of New York governor Washington Hunt and set about locating Solomon. The attempt was hindered however by Solomon being known by his slave name Platt.

Despite the difficulties, Henry located Solomon and presented Epps with the documentation proving he was born a free man. Epps had no choice but to sign the papers giving up his claim to Solomon.

Solomon Northup returning home to his family. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Free again

Solomon Northup’s story became a national sensation.

He brought charges against one of his abductors, James H Burch. But the law in Washington prevented Northup from testifying because of his colour, and the charges were dropped.

After the publication of his memoir, Northup embarked on a series of speaking tours across the country. He later disappeared from public view, and possibly joined the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves to reach Canada.

Solomon Northup’s story was made into a feature film, Twelve Years a Slave,  in 2013. It won three Academy Awards.


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