Twelve Years a Slave

Last updated
Twelve Years a Slave
Solomon Northup 001.jpg
Illustration from Twelve Years a Slave (1855)
Author Solomon Northup
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
GenreAutobiography, slave narrative
Publisher Derby & Miller, Auburn, New York [1]
Publication date
1853 [2]
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-84391-471-6
301.45

Twelve Years a Slave is an 1853 memoir and slave narrative by American Solomon Northup as told to and edited by David Wilson. Northup, a black man who was born free in New York state, details his being tricked to go to Washington, D.C., where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. He was in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana before he was able to secretly get information to friends and family in New York, who in turn secured his release with the aid of the state. Northup's account provides extensive details on the slave markets in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, and describes at length cotton and sugar cultivation and slave treatment on major plantations in Louisiana.

Contents

The work was published eight years before the Civil War by Derby & Miller of Auburn, New York, [1] soon after Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling novel about slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), to which it lent factual support. Northup's book, dedicated to Stowe, sold 30,000 copies, making it a bestseller in its own right. [3]

After being published in several editions in the 19th century and later cited by specialist scholarly works on slavery in the United States, the memoir fell into public obscurity for nearly 100 years. It was re-discovered on separate occasions by two Louisiana historians, Sue Eakin (Louisiana State University at Alexandria) and Joseph Logsdon (University of New Orleans). [4] In the early 1960s, they researched and retraced Solomon Northup's journey [5] and co-edited a historically annotated version that was published by Louisiana State University Press (1968). [6]

The memoir has been adapted as two film versions, produced as the 1984 PBS television film Solomon Northup's Odyssey and the Oscar-winning 2013 film 12 Years a Slave . [7]

Synopsis

In his home town of Saratoga, New York, Solomon Northup, a free negro who was a skilled carpenter and violinist, was approached by two circus promoters. They offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without informing his wife, who was away at work in a nearby town, he traveled with the strangers to downstate New York and Washington, D.C. Soon after arriving in the capital, he awoke to find himself drugged, bound, and in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup asserted his rights as a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free life in New York.

Transported by ship to New Orleans, Northup and other enslaved blacks contracted smallpox and one died. In transit, Northup implored a sympathetic sailor to send a letter to his family. The letter arrived safely, but, lacking knowledge of his final destination, Northup's family was unable to effect his rescue.

Northup's first owner was William Prince Ford, who ran a lumber mill on a bayou of the Red River. [8] Northup subsequently had several other owners, less humane than Ford, during his twelve-year bondage. At times, his carpentry and other skills contributed to his being treated relatively well, but he also suffered extreme cruelty. On two occasions, he was attacked by John Tibeats, a white man he was leased to, and defended himself, for which he suffered severe reprisals. After about two years of enslavement, Northup was sold to Edwin Epps, a notoriously cruel cotton planter. Epps held Northup enslaved for 10 years, during which time he assigned the New Yorker to various roles from cotton picker, to hauler to driver, which required Northup to oversee the work of fellow slaves and punish them for undesirable behavior. While on Epps' plantation, Northup became friends with a slave girl named Patsey, whom he writes about briefly in the book.

After being beaten for claiming his free status in Washington, D.C., Northup in the ensuing 12 years did not reveal his true history again to a single person, slave or owner. Finally he confided his story to Samuel Bass, a white carpenter and abolitionist from Canada working at the Epps plantation. Bass, at great risk to himself, sent letters to Northup's wife and friends in Saratoga. Parker, a white shopkeeper, received one of the letters and sought assistance from Henry B. Northup, a white attorney and politician whose family had held and freed Solomon Northup's father and with whom Solomon had a longtime friendship. Henry contacted New York state officials. As the state had passed a law in 1840 to provide financial resources for the rescue of citizens kidnapped into slavery, the Governor appointed Henry Northup as an agent to travel to Louisiana and work with law enforcement to free Solomon. Once in Louisiana, Henry Northup hired local Avoyelles Parish attorney, John P. Waddill, to assist in securing Solomon Northup's freedom. [9] After a variety of bureaucratic measures and searches were undertaken, the attorney succeeded in locating Solomon and freeing him from the plantation. Northup later filed charges against the men who sold him into slavery but was unsuccessful in his suit. He returned to New York and reunited with his family there.

Northup concludes his narrative with the following statement:

My narrative is at an end. I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the "peculiar institution." What it may be in other States, I do not profess to know; what it is in the region of Red River, is truly and faithfully delineated in these pages. This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture. I doubt not hundreds have been as unfortunate as myself; that hundreds of free citizens have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and are at this moment wearing out their lives on plantations in Texas and Louisiana. But I forbear. Chastened and subdued in spirit by the sufferings I have borne, and thankful to that good Being through whose mercy I have been restored to happiness and liberty, I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps.

Solomon Northup [10]

Reception and historical value

Questions were often raised about accuracy or authenticity of books about slavery, including slave narratives. Similarities between Northup's book and Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin have been noted by critics. Stowe's book was published a year before Northup's memoir but by the time she published her rebuttal to critics about accuracy in her A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin , she referred to his story, which had been publicized in newspaper accounts. Stowe wrote,

It is a singular coincidence that this man was carried to a plantation in the Red River country, that same region where the scene of Tom's captivity was laid; and his account of this plantation, his mode of life there, and some incidents which he describes, form a striking parallel to that history. [11]

Northup's account confirms Stowe's fictional portrayal of conditions in Louisiana, as the area where Northup was enslaved was close to the fictional setting of Simon Legree's plantation on the Red River. Northup expresses other arguments against slavery. For instance, Uncle Tom's Cabin focuses on how the legal system prevents even kind owners from treating slaves well and how it releases cruel owners from liabilities for their treatment of slaves. [12]

Such themes appear in Northup's narrative, too. Writing about this work, Eric Herschtal noted that "Slave narratives were never intended to give an unbiased view. They were antislavery polemics meant to bring down the institution." [13] The fact that these works had a purpose was similar to other published works. [13]

Herschtal emphasizes that Northup expressed compassion in his account, quoting him: "It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel," Northup writes, "so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives." [13] Northup's first-person account of his twelve years of bondage captured attention in the national political debate over slavery that took place in the years leading up to the Civil War. It drew endorsements from major Northern newspapers, anti-slavery organizations, and evangelical groups. It "sold three times as many copies as Frederick Douglass's slave narrative in its first two years." [13]

Northup's account describes the daily life of slaves at Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana, their diet and living conditions, the relationship between master and slave, and the means that slave catchers used to recapture runaways. His account shares some details similar to those of authors who were escaped slaves, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Wells Brown. However, Northup was unique in documenting his being kidnapped as a free man from the North and sold into slavery. His perspective was always to compare what he saw to what he knew before while living as a free man in a free state. While there were hundreds of such kidnappings, he was among the few persons who gained freedom again. [3]

Early and mid-twentieth century historians of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, Stanley Elkins, and Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, endorsed the historical accuracy of the book. Eakin and Logsdon in 1968, wrote: "In the last analysis, [the] narrative deserves to be believed, not simply because [Northup] seems to be talking reasonably, not merely because he adorns his tale with compelling and persuasive details. At every point where materials exist for checking his account, it can be verified." These materials include trial records, correspondence, diary, and slave sale records. [14]

While Twelve Years a Slave is the best-known example of someone who was kidnapped and later freed – albeit through extraordinary efforts – historians have begun to research and present other cases. Most of the known court cases of freedom suits related to kidnapping victims were filed in New Orleans, although some were in border states such as Missouri. One such suit took place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where Cornelius Sinclair, a free black man from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had been sold after being kidnapped in August 1825 and transported South with some younger free blacks. [15] A total of about 20 young blacks disappeared from the Philadelphia area that summer, some survivors sold into slavery in Mississippi. [15] [16] Helped by the intervention of Philadelphia mayor Joseph Watson, most of those kidnapped were returned free to Philadelphia by June 1826, but Sinclair's odyssey was longer. He was freed in 1827 by a unanimous verdict of an all-white jury. [16]

Reissue

After additional printings in the 19th century, the book went out of print until 1968, [6] when historians Joseph Logsdon and Sue Eakin restored it to prominence. Eakin discovered the story as a child growing up in Louisiana plantation country—the owner of a first edition showed her the book, after finding it in a former plantation home.

Years later, Logsdon had a student from an old Louisiana family who brought a copy of the original 1853 book to class; her family had owned it for more than a century. Together Logsdon and Eakin studied Northup's account, documenting it through the slave sales records of Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, by retracing his journey and bondage in Bayou Boeuf plantation country in central Louisiana and through its records, and documenting his New York State origins. They found his father's freeman's decree, and the case files for the legal work that restored Northup's freedom and prosecuted his abductors. In 1968, Eakin and Logsdon's thoroughly annotated edition of the original book was published by Louisiana State University Press, shedding new light on Northup's account and establishing its historic significance. That book has been widely used by scholars and in classrooms for more than 40 years, and is still in print.

In 1998, Logsdon was invited by scholars in upstate New York to participate in a search for Solomon's grave. However, bad weather prevented the search that year, and Logsdon died the following June 1999. In 2007, shortly before her death at age 90, Eakin completed an updated and expanded version of their book; it includes more than 150 pages of new background material, maps, and photographs. In 2013, e-book and audiobook versions of her final definitive edition were released in her honor. With permission, scholars may use Eakin's lifetime archives through The Sue Eakin Collection, Louisiana State University at Alexandria, Louisiana. The Joseph Logsdon Archives are available at the University of New Orleans.

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 in the capital. Holland has also researched the roles of African-American slaves who, as skilled laborers, helped build some of the important public buildings in Washington, including the Capitol and part of the original Executive Mansion. [17]

Editions and adaptations

Text

Film

Audiobook

Related Research Articles

The slave narrative is a type of literary genre involving the (written) autobiographical accounts of enslaved Africans in Great Britain and its colonies, including the later United States, Canada, and Caribbean nations. Some six thousand such narratives are estimated to exist; about 150 narratives were published as separate books or pamphlets. In the United States during the Great Depression (1930s), more than 2,300 additional oral histories on life during slavery were collected by writers sponsored and published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. Most of the 26 audio-recorded interviews are held by the Library of Congress.

Solomon Northup Free-born African American kidnapped by slave-traders

Solomon Northup was an American abolitionist and the primary author of the memoir Twelve Years a Slave. A free-born African American from New York, he was the son of a freed slave and a free woman of color. A farmer and a professional violinist, Northup had been a landowner in Hebron, New York. In 1841, he was offered a traveling musician's job and went to Washington, D.C. ; there he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold as a slave. He was shipped to New Orleans, purchased by a planter, and held as a slave for 12 years in the Red River region of Louisiana, mostly in Avoyelles Parish. He remained a slave until he met a Canadian working on his plantation who helped get word to New York, where state law provided aid to free New York citizens who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. His family and friends enlisted the aid of the Governor of New York, Washington Hunt, and Northup regained his freedom on January 3, 1853.

Underground Railroad Network of secret routes & safehouses in 19th-century U.S. used by slaves to find freedom

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century, and used by enslaved African-Americans to escape into free states and Canada. The scheme was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. Not literally a railroad, the workers who secretly aided the fugitives are also collectively referred to as the "Underground Railroad". Various other routes led to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished, or overseas. An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until Florida became a United States territory in 1821. One of the main reasons Florida was purchased by the United States was to end its function as a safe haven for escaped slaves. However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the late 1700s. It ran north and grew steadily until the Civil War began. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the "Railroad".

<i>Uncle Toms Cabin</i> 1852 anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, is an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1852, the novel had a profound effect on attitudes toward African Americans and slavery in the U.S. and is said to have "helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War".

Cheneyville, Louisiana Town in Louisiana, United States

Cheneyville is a town in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, United States. It is part of the Alexandria, Louisiana Metropolitan Statistical Area. The population was 625 at the 2010 census.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 Act of the United States Congress

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was an Act of the United States Congress to give effect to the Fugitive Slave Clause of the US Constitution, which was later superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment. The former guaranteed a right for a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave. The Act, "An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters," created the legal mechanism by which that could be accomplished.

Pierre Soulé American politician

Pierre Soulé was a Franco-American attorney, politician, and diplomat during the mid-19th century. Serving as a United States Senator from Louisiana from 1849 to 1853, he was nominated that year as U.S. Minister to Spain, a post he held until 1855.

John Crenshaw American slave trader

John Hart Crenshaw was an American landowner, salt maker, and slave trader, based out of Gallatin County, Illinois.

Reverse Underground Railroad practice of putting people (back) into slavery in the United States

The Reverse Underground Railroad is the name given, sardonically, to the pre-American Civil War practice of kidnapping in free states not only fugitive slaves but free blacks as well, transporting them to slave states, and selling them as slaves, or occasionally getting a reward for return of a fugitive. Those who used the term were pro-slavery and angered at an "underground railroad" helping slaves escape. Also, the so-called "reverse underground railroad" had incidents but not a network, and its activities did not always take place in secret. Rescues of blacks being kidnapped existed but were unusual.

Joseph Barton Elam United States Representative from Louisiana

Joseph Barton Elam, Sr., was a two-term Democratic U.S. representative for Louisiana's 4th congressional district, whose service corresponded with the administration of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Solomon Bayley was an African American man who is best known for his 1825 autobiography entitled A Narrative of Some Remarkable Incidents in the Life of Solomon Bayley, Formerly a Slave in the State of Delaware, North America. Published in London, it is among the early slave narratives written by slaves who gained freedom before the American Civil War and emancipation. Bayley was born into slavery in Delaware. After escaping and being recaptured, he later bought his freedom, and that of his wife and children. He worked as a farmer and at a sawmill. In their later years, he and his wife emigrated in 1827 to the new colony of Liberia, where he worked as a missionary and farmer. His short book about the colony was published in Delaware in 1833.

<i>The Slave Community</i> book by John Wesley Blassingame

The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South is a book written by American historian John W. Blassingame. Published in 1972, it is one of the first historical studies of slavery in the United States to be presented from the perspective of the enslaved. The Slave Community contradicted those historians who had interpreted history to suggest that African American slaves were docile and submissive "Sambos" who enjoyed the benefits of a paternalistic master-slave relationship on southern plantations. Using psychology, Blassingame analyzes fugitive slave narratives published in the 19th century to conclude that an independent culture developed among the enslaved and that there were a variety of personality types exhibited by slaves.

<i>12 Years a Slave</i> (film) 2013 film directed by Steve McQueen

12 Years a Slave is a 2013 biographical period-drama film and an adaptation of the 1853 slave memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. by two conmen in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup was put to work on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before being released. The first scholarly edition of Northup's memoir, co-edited in 1968 by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, carefully retraced and validated the account and concluded it to be accurate. Other characters in the film were also real people, including Edwin and Mary Epps, and Patsey.

<i>Solomon Northups Odyssey</i> 1984 television film directed by Gordon Parks

Solomon Northup's Odyssey, reissued as Half Slave, Half Free, is a 1984 American television film based on the autobiography Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a free black man who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film, which aired on PBS, was directed by Gordon Parks with Avery Brooks starring as the titular character. It was the second film to be funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, following A House Divided: Denmark Vesey's Rebellion in 1982. Parks returned to direct the film after years of absence. He chose to work in the Deep South and to collaborate with a crew of mixed races. The film first aired on PBS on December 10, 1984 and as part of PBS's American Playhouse anthology television series in the following year. It was released on video under the title Half Slave, Half Free.

William Prince Ford was a Baptist minister, preacher and planter in pre-Civil War Louisiana. He was the slave owner who first bought Solomon Northup, a free African-American, after Northup had been kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold in New Orleans. Those events happened in 1841.

Patsey African American slave

Patsey was an African-American slave who lived in the mid 19th century. Another slave, Solomon Northup, wrote about her in his book Twelve Years a Slave. The book was later adapted into a film, in which she was portrayed by Lupita Nyong'o, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.

History of slavery in Louisiana

Following Robert Cavelier de La Salle establishing the French claim to the territory and the introduction of the name Louisiana, the first settlements in the southernmost portion of Louisiana were developed at present-day Biloxi (1699), Mobile (1702), Natchitoches (1714), and New Orleans (1718). Slavery was then established by European colonists.

Mary Mildred Williams, was an American mixed-race child born into slavery who became a symbol used by abolitionists before the Civil War to advance the cause of ending slavery in the U.S.

Peter Still was a former slave who achieved some renown by securing his own freedom in 1850 and subsequently collecting enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife and three children in 1854. His efforts were documented in the book: The kidnapped and the ransomed; being the personal recollections of Peter Still and his wife "Vina," after forty years of slavery, which his biographer Kate E. R. Pickard published in 1856.

References

  1. 1 2 J.C. Derby (1884), "William H. Seward", Fifty Years Among Authors, Books and Publishers, New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., pp. 62–63
  2. The Picayune , 6 February 1853, Page 6
  3. 1 2 Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Summary, online text at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 19 July 2012
  4. "'12 Years a Slave' prompts effort to recognize work of UNO historian in reviving tale". Nola.com. Retrieved 2013-09-27.
  5. "An Escape From Slavery, Now a Movie, Has Long Intrigued Historians". The New York Times . Retrieved 2013-09-26.
  6. 1 2 "Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup". Lsupress.org. Retrieved 2013-09-26.
  7. Cieply, Michael; Barnesmarch, Brooks (March 2, 2014). "'12 Years a Slave' Claims Best Picture Oscar". The New York Times .
  8. Ford became a leader of the Restoration Movement in Louisiana as he and his Baptist congregation were influenced by the writings of Alexander Campbell.
  9. Melancon, Meredith. "Avoyelles Parish Courthouse, Marksville". Acadiana Historical. Robert Carriker. Archived from the original on 28 February 2014. Retrieved February 28, 2014.
  10. Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave (First ed.). p. 321.
  11. Stowe, H. B. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Inkling Books, 2005 (reprint), p.245
  12. Alfred L. Brophy (1995–1996). "Over and above ... There Broods a Portentous Shadow,—The Shadow of Law: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Critique of Slave Law in Uncle Tom's Cabin" (PDF). Journal of Law and Religion. 12 (2): 457–506. doi:10.2307/1051590. JSTOR   1051590.
  13. 1 2 3 4 Eric Herschtal, "The Passion of Solomon Northup" The New York Times
  14. Northup, Solomon; edited by, Sue Eakin & Joseph Logsdon (1968). Twelve Years a Slave. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. pp. x and xvi. ISBN   0807101508.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  15. 1 2 Judson E. Crump and Alfred L. Brophy, "Cornelius Sinclair's Odyssey: Freedom, Slavery, and Freedom Again in the Old South", Social Science Research Network, July 2014, UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2469529, accessed 16 April 2015.
  16. 1 2 John Henderson, Joseph Watson, Job Brown, Thomas Bradford Junr., R. L. Kennon, Joshua Boucher, H. V. Somerville and Eric Ledell Smith, Notes and Documents: "Rescuing African American Kidnapping Victims in Philadelphia as Documented in the Joseph Watson Papers", Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 129 (2008), pp. 317, 330-332
  17. "Jesse Holland on How Slaves Built the White House and the US Capitol". Democracynow.org. Retrieved 2012-04-09.
  18. Sharkey, Richard P. "Noted Louisiana historian Sue Eakin of Bunkie dead at 90". Alexandria Daily Town Talk . Retrieved September 21, 2009.[ dead link ]
  19. Ebiri, Bilge (November 11, 2013). "A Tale Twice Told: Comparing 12 Years a Slave to 1984's TV Movie Solomon Northup's Odyssey". Vulture.com . Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  20. Maltin, Martin (October 17, 2013). "12 Years A Slave—The Second Time Around". Indie Wire . Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  21. Hannaford, Alex (June 4, 2016). "12 Years A Slave: the true story of Solomon Northup". The Daily Telegraph . Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  22. Sergio (January 13, 2013). "What About That OTHER '12 Years A Slave' Movie?". Indie Wire . Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  23. Morgan, Jennifer Wilde (February 23, 2016). Come to the Garden: A Novel. Simon and Schuster. p. 200. ISBN   9781501131332.
Online text
Other