His death and burial date is unknown, but ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ author’s work remains valuable

Michael Eli Dokosi Feb 7, 2020 at 10:00am

February 07, 2020 at 10:00 am | History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

February 07, 2020 at 10:00 am | History

Solomon Northup via Wikipedia Commons

Solomon Northup found fame when he co-authored his book Twelve Years a Slave: 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 (1853) based on his life.

His story will receive new interest when director Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave (2013) was released. His life’s tale also served as basis for director Gordon Parks’ television docudrama Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984).

Why is Northup’s tale so important?

It remains a valuable source of information regarding the daily lives of slaves in central Louisiana, including the Christmas celebratory practices in slave culture as well as its matter-of-fact judgment of people described in the narrative have been hailed since the book’s publication.

An annual celebration known as Solomon Northup Day was established in Saratoga Springs in 1999. Meanwhile, Louisiana researchers Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon released in 1968, an annotated reprint that substantiated many of Northup’s claims after years of cross checking his life.

Born on July 10, 1807 in Minerva, New York, Northup was an American farmer, labourer and musician. Born a free person of colour, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery serving as basis for his book.

Mintus, his father was born into slavery but gained his freedom upon his master’s death. He would acquire a farm on which Solomon worked as a child while getting some education.

Northup married Anne Hampton in 1828 and moved the family in Saratoga Springs, New York In 1834, after selling their farm.

An illustration from Twelve Years A Slave, the memoir of Solomon Northrup, 1853: “Chapin Rescues Solomon from Hanging” via Wikipedia Commons

Being a talented fiddler who found success fixing or mending items, when two men emerged in March 1841 claiming to be circus men who wanted him on board as a fiddler, Northup didn’t give it a second thought.

However “upon their arrival in Washington, D.C., in early April, Northup was drugged, lost consciousness, and awoke to find himself in shackles in an underground cell. He was conveyed to Richmond, Virginia, and then delivered by ship to New Orleans, where in June he was sold at a slave market under the name Platt Hamilton. He spent the ensuing 12 years in slavery in the Bayou Boeuf plantation region of central Louisiana’s Red River valley.

“Northup was owned first by William Prince Ford, whom he praised for his kindness. Ford was, however, forced by financial exigency to sell him to the brutal John M. Tibaut (referred to as John M. Tibeats in 12 Years a Slave) in 1842. (Ford retained 40 percent ownership of him, as the sale was for the repayment of a debt not judged to be worth as much as Northup.) Northup was Tibaut’s only slave. When Tibaut attempted to whip him, Northup resisted and prevailed in the ensuing fight. Infuriated, Tibaut sought help from neighbouring overseers in attempting to lynch Northup, who was rescued by Ford’s overseer, “Anderson Chafin (referred to as Chapin in 12 Years a Slave). Northup also prevailed in a second fight and fled to the protection of Ford, who then demanded that Tibaut sell or lease him.”

In April 1843 Northup was sold by Ford and Tibaut to Edwin Epps, under whose ownership he remained for the next decade. Epps used Northup both as an artisan slave and as a field hand, occasionally leasing him out to sugar planters and processors.

When an abolitionist carpenter from Canada named Samuel Bass visited Epps’s farm in June 1852, Northup was able to arrange to have letters delivered to friends in New York to alert them of his situation and set in motion his rescue.

With the help of friends Northup was located in Louisiana and his freedom was legally obtained on January 4, 1853.

Northup was reunited with his family later that month. His rescue was widely publicized. That same year, together with local writer David Wilson, Northup penned his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave. The book sold some 30,000 copies in the ensuing three years, and Northup used the proceeds to purchase property in upstate New York, where he lived with his family.

Restored Epps plantation house. Now located on the Louisiana State University of Alexandria campus via Wikipedia Commons

From 1853 to 1857 Northup, a national celebrity, engaged in extensive speaking tours. As a result of the story’s widespread notoriety, the New York kidnappers were identified, arrested, and indicted in 1854. However, the case was ultimately dismissed in May 1857.

There is a period, in the late 1850s, when Northup’s activities and whereabouts are unknown, due to a lack of evidence. Around 1861, he was in Vermont, working on the Underground Railroad with an antislavery minister, and also with another former slave, named Tabbs Gross.

But, from 1863 on, Northup’s life is again a mystery. After 1855, various census data show that his wife, Anne, lived with one of her daughters and son-in-law–but Northup is not listed in these households. The New York State Census for 1865 identifies his wife as a married woman (and as having been married only once), and in 1875 lists her as a widow. So Northup may have died sometime between 1865 and 1875, though census data is not always correct.

The time and circumstances of Northup’s death as well as his place of burial are unknown. His last public appearance was in Streetsville, Ontario, Canada, in August 1857. He was not accounted for in the U.S. census of 1860 and almost certainly predeceased Anne, who died in 1876.

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