It has come to my attention recently that a movie titled “Twelve Years a Slave” will be coming out this coming month in a limited number of locations. The movie is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free-born African-American from Saratoga Springs, New York. Since Northup is from the area, I thought I would write a brief article about his story.
Before we can talk about Solomon’s life, we must first talk about his father. Mintus, had been a slave under the Northup family when he was a young man. The family moved to Hoosick, NY and took Mintus with them. Minuts’s owner, Captain Henry Northup, manumitted Mintus in his will, making Mintus a freedman. Mintus would later take his master’s last name, Northup. Mintus moved north to Minerva, NY and got married to a freed woman of color. Later, in the early 1800s, Solomon and his brother were born. Being born of two freed parents also made Solomon and his brother freedmen as well.
On Christmas Day in 1829, Solomon married Anne Hampton, a woman of mixed race (African, Native American, and European). They had three children and owned a farm in Hebron, NY. In 1834, the couple sold their farm and moved their family to Saratoga Springs, NY hoping to find better economic opportunities. Solomon played the violin and worked odd jobs as a carpenter and even worked on the construction of the Champlain Canal and the railroad. Anne worked as a cook in various places around the town, as she was well-known for her culinary skills. The two found living in Saratoga Springs difficult at times; in the summer, it would be busy and they would be working and earning plenty of money, but in the fall and winter things in the town slowed down, much as it still does today.
Living in New York, a free state, was dangerous in the 1800s for blacks, freed and runaways. Due to a high demand for slaves in the Deep South, freed blacks were at risk of being kidnapped by slave catchers and bounty hunters, especially in the border states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. The problems with the kidnappings of freed blacks caused the New York State legislature to pass a law in 1840 to protect its African-American residents by providing ways to recover anyone who had been kidnapped and taken out of the state. Kidnappers used a variety of ways to get their victims, including forced abduction or deceit, and would often kidnap children and force them into slavery.
In 1841, Northup met two men who said they were entertainers and offered him a job as a fiddler for some of their performances in New York City. Believing the trip would be a short one, Northup didn’t tell his wife he was leaving. When they had reached New York City, the men convinced Northup to travel to Washington, DC to go to the circus, offering him a generous wage and the cost of his return trip home. Washington DC was a slave territory, so Northup had to get a copy of his free papers so he would be able to prove his status as a free man. Once the three had arrived to Washington DC, the two men, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, sold Northup into slavery to a man named James H. Birch who later sent him to New Orleans to sell there. In New Orleans, Northup was purchased by William Ford, a planter on Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana. Ford was also a Baptist preacher. In his memoir “Twelve Years a Slave”, Northup described Ford as a good man who was considerate of his slaves. At Ford’s place, Northup offered to create log rafts to move lumber down a narrow creek to transport the lumber in a less expensive way. After a while, Ford fell into financial difficulties and had to sell some of his slaves…Northup was one of those slaves. Northup’s new owner was John M. Tibaut. Tibaut was a carpenter who had been working for Ford at the mills as wells as other places on Ford’s plantation. Tibaut did not have the entire purchase price for Northup and so Ford held a chattel mortgage on Northup. In the memoir, Northup recounts the cruel treatment he received from Tibaut; the treatment was so harsh that Northup once defended himself with an axe. Northup was later hired out to others and worked for them, and was sold again shortly after that.
Northup had been sold to a man named Edwin Epps. While under the ownership of Epps, Northup befriended a carpenter who wrote to Northup’s family about his whereabouts in hopes of him being rescued. One letter found its way to Henry B. Northup, the son of Solomon’s original owners. Henry contacted the New York Governor Washington Hunt who took up the case and appointed Henry as his legal agent. Eventually, Henry located Solomon, who got his freedom on January 4, 1853.
Solomon went on to sue them men who were involved in selling him into slavery.
Northup rejoined his wife and children and became active in the abolitionist movement and traveled throughout the northeastern U.S. lecturing about slavery. In 1855, Northup was living with his daughter and he family in Queensbury, New York and worked as a carpenter. Northup was also a part of the Underground Railroad.
Unfortunately, the date, location, and circumstances of his death are unknown; historians believe that he died somewhere between 1863 and 1875, but there is no proof of when he died exactly. However, although he was kidnapped and forced into slavery, Solomon Northup lived an amazing life, a life which we can learn the harsh truths of slavery here in Upstate New York.