Solomon Northup Biography

Journalist(1808–c. 1863)
Solomon Northup was an African-American farmer and musician who was taken hostage and sold into slavery in 1841; his story is told in the film 12 Years a Slave.

Synopsis

Born in July 1808 in Minerva, New York, Solomon Northup grew up a free man, working as a farmer and violinist while having a family. He was lured south and kidnapped in 1841 and enslaved for more than a decade, enduring horribly violent conditions. Northup was freed in 1853 with help from colleagues and friends. His experiences are the subject of the book and film 12 Years a Slave.

Background

Solomon Northup was born in July 1808 in Minerva, New York. His father Mintus had once been enslaved but was released upon his former master's death, and hence Solomon and his older brother Joseph grew up knowing freedom. Northup worked with his father on a farm growing up, and also took to books and playing the violin.

Establishes Family and Farm

On Christmas Day in 1829, Northup wed Anne Hampton, a woman of multi-racial descent. The couple went on to have three children—Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. Solomon and Anne established a farm in 1832 in Kingsbury, with Northup also having a reputation in the community as the most excellent of fiddlers. With his wife also able to earn income for her in-demand cooking skills, the couple did well and moved to Saratoga Springs in 1834, where Northup worked at the United States Hotel, among other jobs.

Taken Captive

While seeking employment in March of 1841, Northup met two men who said they were affiliated with a circus. Initially only intending to accompany the men to New York and provide violin accompaniment for their act, Northup was convinced to travel with them further south to Washington, D.C. There he was drugged by the men, held captive, severely beaten and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

Horrors of Slavery

Northup was forced to do a variety of tasks while in captivity and never revealed to his peers that he had once lived free for fear of him being sent farther away. He observed and later recounted the plight of others like Eliza, whose young son Randall was sold and taken away from her at an auction in New Orleans.

Northup was eventually sold in 1843 to Edwin Epps, residing in Bayou Beouf. The standards under which Northup survived there were barbaric, with those enslaved forced to endure vile, horribly violent conditions. Northup also came to know Patsey, who was targeted by the sexually abusive Epps while having to fear attacks from his hate-filled wife; her story represented the ordeals of many women subjugated in the slavery system.

Freed in 1853

Samuel Bass, an anti-slavery Canadian carpenter visiting the Beouf plantation, befriended Northup and reached out to friends of the musician back in Saratoga Springs, looking for verification that he had been a free member of the community. Lawyer Henry B. Northup, who was part of the family from which Mintus and his clan took their name, travelled south and facilitated Solomon's release in 1853.

The same year Northup published the slave narrative/memoir Twelve Years a Slave. The work, known for its meticulousness and thoughtful quality, became a top seller and aided the abolitionist cause, later becoming an important, public historical document.

Northup subsequently gave lectures on his experiences and worked with the Underground Railroad in helping those fleeing slavery to reach Canada. He later disappeared from public life and is thought to have died around 1863.

Legacy and Films Based on Life

Years later, filmmaker/photographer Gordon Parks released an American Playhouse film on Northup's life, Solomon Northup's Odyssey. And at the end of the millennium, Saratoga Springs resident Renee Moore established the event "Solomon Northup Day: A Celebration of Freedom," which was set up by the city as an annual occurrence in 2002.

Going forth a decade, 2013 saw the release of the film 12 Years a Slave, based on the book by Northup and directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen. Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor depicts Northup to great acclaim in what is said to be a harrowing, emotional work.

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