Solomon Northup – Kidnapped from NY and 12 Years A Slave

Solomon Northup was a free-born African American from Essex County, New York, born 1807 or 1808. He was a farmer and landowner in Washington County, NY, but also a violinist. He was married to Anne Hampton and had three children (Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo). 1834, they sold their farm and moved to Saratoga Springs, NY, where he worked several jobs and played violin at Saratoga Springs hotels.

In 1841 two men, pretending to be entertainers, offered him a lucrative gig as fiddler in Washington, D.C. with their circus. Slavery was still legal in Washington, D.C., and had a large slave market. They drugged Solomon and sold him to slave trader named James Birch, claiming he was a fugitive slave. It was not uncommon for slave catchers to kidnap free blacks between the 1830s and Civil War.

Birch gave Solomon a new name (Platt), misrepresented him as slave from Georgia, and shipped him to New Orleans, where his partner sold him to William Ford, a planter and Baptist minister, whom Solomon later described as a “kind” man. But 1842, Ford had to sell several slaves due to financial issues. Solomon ended up with a cruel slaveholder and cotton plantation owner, who held him for almost a decade.

In 1852, Epps hired Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter to build a cottage. Bass happened to be an abolitionist after he had expressed his opposition to slavery, Northup told him his story and asked for his help. They sent letters to three men in Saratoga Springs who could confirm Northup’s true identity and status as free man. Two of the addresses in NY received the message and notified Northup’s wife.

After Anne had learned what happened to Solomon, she asked Henry B. Northup, a lawyer and friend, for help. Henry Northup was the son of Solomon’s father’s former master, from whom Solomon’s family took their name. He obtained affidavits confirming Solomon’s identity and a letter from New York’s Governor, Washington Hunt declaring that Solomon Northup was a free man. 1840, New York State had passed an “anti-kidnapping” law committing the Governor to rescue free New York citizens kept as slaves in other states, at the expense of New York State.

Henry, appointed as legal agent by Governor Hunt, traveled to Louisiana and started legal proceedings. On January 3, 1853, with a signature of a local judge, Henry went to Epps’ plantation with the sheriff, who “sequestered” Solomon. Court date would have been in April. But next day, upon review of all documents, Epps’ attorney told his client to drop the case and avoid unnecessary expenses. Thus, Solomon Northup was legally freed on January 4, 1853 and returned home to his family on January 21, 1853.

Northup wrote his memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave” in the same year he regained his freedom. Birch, the slave trader in Washington, D.C., was arrested, but because according to local law Northup as black man cold not testify against a white person, he was acquitted. His kidnappers were identified as Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell and charged in NY, but because Washington D.C. had jurisdiction, the case was transferred and also dropped by D.C. government.

He bought a house for his family in Glens Falls, NY and started to travel throughout the Northeast giving speeches and lecturing to support the abolitionist movement. After 1857, he was not with his family and there’s little documentation on him. There’s been assumptions that he might have been kidnapped again, but because of his advanced age at that time this is rather unlikely. In a letter from 1863, he was working for the Underground Railroad in New York. The date and circumstances of his death remain unknown.

Solomon Northup: Twelve Years A Slave (Memoir, 1853) on Amazon.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup: LibriVox Audiobook

Twelve Years a Slave 2013 film (Director Steve Rodney McQueen, with Chiwetel Ejiofor)


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