Twelve Years a Slave
Twelve Years a Slave (1853; sub-title: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana), by Solomon Northup as told to David Wilson, is a memoir of a black man who was born free in New York state but kidnapped, sold into slavery and kept in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana before the American Civil War. He provided details of slave markets in Washington, DC, as well as describing at length cotton cultivation on major plantations in Louisiana.
Published soon after Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Northup's book sold 30,000 copies and was considered a bestseller. It went through several editions in the nineteenth century. Supporting Stowe's fictional narrative in detail, Northup’s first-hand account of his twelve years of bondage proved another bombshell in the national political debate over slavery leading up to the Civil War, drawing endorsements from major Northern newspapers, anti-slavery organizations, and evangelical groups. After several editions in the 19th Century, the book fell into obscurity for nearly 100 years, until it was re-published in 1968 by historian Dr. Sue Eakin. A 2013 film based on the story is set to be released.
In Upstate New York, black freeman Solomon Northup, a skilled carpenter and fiddler, is approached by two circus promoters who offer him a brief, high paying job with their traveling circus. Without informing his wife, who is away at work in the next town, he travels with the strangers towards Washington DC in good spirits. One morning he wakes to find himself drugged, bound, and in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup asserts his rights as a freeman, he is beaten and warned never again to mention his free life in New York.
Transported by ship to New Orleans, Northup and other enslaved blacks contract smallpox and some die. In transit, Northup emplores a sympathetic sailor to send a letter to his family. The letter arrives safely, but, lacking knowledge of his final destination, Northop's family is unable to effect his rescue.
Northup's first owner is William Ford, a cotton planter on a bayou of the Red River, and he subsequently has several other owners during his twelve year bondage. At times, his carpentry and other skills mean he is treated relatively well, but he also suffers extreme cruelty. On two occasions he is attacked by a man who is to become his owner, John Tibeats, and finds himself unable to resist retaliating, for which he suffers great reprisals. Later he is sold to Edwin Epps, a notoriously cruel planter, who gives Northup the role of driver, requiring him to oversee the work of fellow slaves and punish them for undesirable behavior.
Never, in almost 12 years, does he reveal his true history to a single slave or owner. Finally he confides his story in Samuel Bass, a white carpenter from Canada. Bass sends a letter to Northup’s wife, who calls on Henry Northup, a white attorney whose family once held and then freed Solomon Northup's father. Henry Northup contacts New York state officials and the governor appoints him as an agent to travel to Louisiana and free Solomon Northup. He succeeds, and Solomon Northup leaves the plantation. After instigating a court case against the men who sold him into slavery, Northup is reunited with his family in New York.
Northup decided to press charges against the slave traders in Washington whom he could identify; however, the circus men were not found at first. The case was tried in Washington, DC, since Northup was sold there, but, though a free black, Northup was not allowed to testify against the white men under the District's law. One of these men sued Northup, and the latter had to defend himself in court. The white man later dropped the charges, and Northup went free. The case had won national attention, and The New York Times covered the trial on January 20, 1853.
Reception and historical value
Northup's account describes the daily life of slaves at Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana, their diet and living conditions, the relationship between the master and slave, and the means that slave catchers had used to recapture runaways. Northup's slave narrative has details similar to those of some other authors, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Ann Jacobs, or William Wells Brown, but he was unique in being kidnapped as a free man and sold into slavery. His book was a bestseller, rapidly selling 30,000 copies in the years before the American Civil War.
After additional printings in the 19th century, the book went out-of-print until 1968, when writer-historian Dr. Sue Eakin restored it to prominence. Dr. Eakin spent six decades validating Solomon Northup’s tale by retracing his journey through her native Bayou Boeuf plantation country in central Louisiana, where his bondage took place, through the slave sales records of New Orleans and Washington, DC, and further documenting his New York State origins, his father’s freeman’s decree and the legal work which restored Northup’s freedom and prosecuted his abductors. In 1968, Eakin’s heavily footnoted edition of the original book was published by Louisiana State University Press, shedding new light on Northup’s story and establishing its historic significance. In 2007, Dr. Eakin completed development of an updated and expanded version that includes over 150 pages of new background material, maps and photographs, shortly before her death at age 90. In 2013, e-book and audiobook versions of her final definitive edition were released in her honor. With permission, scholars may use her lifetime archives through The Sue Eakin Collection, LSU at Alexandria, La.
Historian Jesse Holland noted in a 2009 interview that he had relied on Northup's memoir and detailed description of Washington in 1841 to identify the location of some slave markets. Holland has also researched the roles of ethnic African slaves as skilled laborers who helped build some of the important public buildings in Washington, including the Capitol and part of the original Executive Mansion.
Legacy and honors
- Saratoga Springs celebrates an annual Solomon Northup Day and has added material on him to a historic exhibit.
- In 1968, Louisiana historian Sue Eakin, with Professor Joseph Logsdon, published an edited and annotated version of Northup's narrative.
- In 2012, David Fiske published a biography, entitled Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery. The book's Appendix C provides the publishing history for Twelve Years a Slave during the 19th century.
- In 2013, marking the 160th anniversary of Northup regaining his freedom, several publications and recordings were timed to coincide with that event and the release of the Steve McQueen film. Dr. Sue Eakin's original publication was expanded with all subsequent research and new image discoveries; a corresponding audiobook was recorded by actor Lou Gossett, Jr., dedicated to Northup and Eakin. In July, a biography of Northup by David Fiske, Clifford W. Brown, and Rachel Seligman will be published by Praeger. Another special edition of Twelve Years a Slave was to be published at Marksville, to contain never before published photos of buildings and scenes described by Northup, taken from the archives of Avoyelles Parish.
Twelve Years a Slave is in the public domain and e-book versions can be downloaded from several sites. Free and commercial audiobook versions are also available.
- Solomon Northup's Odyssey (1984), a PBS television film directed by Gordon Parks and starring Avery Brooks
- 12 Years a Slave (2013), an upcoming feature film directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brad Pitt.
- Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Summary, online text at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 19 July 2012
- "THE KIDNAPPING CASE. Narrative of the Seizure and Recovery of Solomon Northrup. INTERESTING DISCLOSURES.". New York Times. Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina. 20 January 1853. Retrieved 2012-04-09.
- "Jesse Holland on How Slaves Built the White House and the US Capitol". Democracynow.org. Retrieved 2012-04-09.
- "Richard P. Sharkey, "Noted Louisiana historian Sue Eakin of Bunkie dead at 90"". Alexandria Daily Town Talk. Retrieved September 21, 2009.[dead link]
- Twelve Years a Slave website with audio, history, art and images.
- Audio recording of Twelve Years a Slave at Librivox.org
- Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, online text at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina
- Twelve Years a Slave, Internet Archive (scanned version with book's original editions color illustrated)
- Letters by John R. Smith, "Wilbur H. Siebert Collection", Houghton Library, Harvard University. Available as online images, detailing Northup's involvement in the Underground Railroad after January 1863.
- Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery, Book: Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery
- Michael Kneller, "Solomon Northup: From Freedom to Slavery to Freedom Again", Slavery in America website
- "Snatched Up and Sold Into Slavery: The Story of Solomon Northup", US Trek, Odyssey (complements history curriculum for junior high and high school students)
- "New York: Solomon Northup Day - A Celebration of Freedom (Local Legacies: Celebrating Community Roots)". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2012-04-09.
- News coverage of the 160th anniversary: (Avoyellestoday on Solomon Northup anniversary)
- "Solomon Northup", eBlack Studies