Solomon Northup, author of the autobiography Twelve Years a Slave, was a free, black citizen of New York when he was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery. For 12 years, Northup was enslaved in the South and then, finally rescued from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana in 1853. Upon returning to his family in New York in 1853, Northup published his narrative.
Unlike fictional accounts of slavery, Northup’s narrative describes the institution as he experienced it. “My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration,” Northup wrote. His story of enslavement has been authenticated by historian, Dr. Sue Eakin.
Northup was born in New York in 1808, and by 1841 he was an educated free man living in Saratoga Springs, New York. Married to Anne Hampton, a woman of mixed ancestry, Northup had three children and was a renowned fiddle-player.
In 1841, two men offered Northup generous wages to join a traveling music circus show. Agreeing, he traveled from Saratoga Springs to the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., to perform. While there, Northup was drugged and woke up in a slave pen “within the very shadows of the nation’s capital!”
Having been sold into slavery, Northup was shipped to New Orleans where he was given a new name and sold at auction. Northup served twelve years to several different masters – some brutally cruel and others more humane – in the Deep South. Northup eventually found a sympathizing Canadian abolitionist who sent a letter to Northup’s family, and an official state agent traveled to Louisiana to reclaim Northup.
Upon his return to his family twelve years later, Northup published his story and filed a lawsuit. Though the kidnapping suit went to trial, it was eventually dropped due to legal technicalities, and the men who defrauded Northup never received a criminal sentence. After the publication of his autobiography, little is known about Northup. Many suspect he passed away in 1863.
Northup’s story is being retold in the major motion picture Twelve Years a Slave – 160 years later. Released in theaters in October 2013, the film is based on Northup’s account and reflects the cruelty of slavery in 19th Century America.
Excerpt of Solomon Northup’s account in Twelve Years a Slave
Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State – and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years – it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.
Since my return to liberty, I have not failed to perceive the increasing interest throughout the Northern States, in regard to the subject of Slavery. Works of fiction, professing to portray its features in their more pleasing as well as more repugnant aspects, have been circulated to an extent unprecedented, and, as I understand, have created a fruitful topic of comment and discussion.
I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation – only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.
About the Film
Twelve Years a Slave is based on an incredible true story of one man's fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (portrayed by Brad Pitt) will forever alter his life.