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Solomon Northup

Solomon Northup (1808-mid 1860s) shared his experiences as a kidnapped enslaved person in the non-fiction text Twelve Years a Slave (1853). The book was highly influential in recording how black enslaved people in America truly suffered. Northup became widely known for his outspokenness on the topic. Below is a biography of Northup and a breakdown of Twelve Years a Slave.

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Solomon Northup

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Solomon Northup (1808-mid 1860s) shared his experiences as a kidnapped enslaved person in the non-fiction text Twelve Years a Slave (1853). The book was highly influential in recording how black enslaved people in America truly suffered. Northup became widely known for his outspokenness on the topic. Below is a biography of Northup and a breakdown of Twelve Years a Slave.

Content warning: the below explanation contains discussions of racial discrimination and sexual assault.

Solomon Northup, content warning, StudySmarter

Solomon Northup: biography

Solomon Northup was born in July 1808 in Minerva, New York. His mother was a free mixed-race woman, and his father was a former enslaved person who had been freed by a directive in his enslaver's will. His enslaver had been a Northup, and this is where Solomon Northup's family got their surname. This was common practice with freed enslaved people. The family moved multiple times until Northup's father's death in 1829. Northup also had a brother, Joseph. The boys were afforded a relatively good education for black Americans at this time because their parents were free.

Also, in 1829, Northup married Anne Hampton, who he would remain with for the rest of his life. The couple had three children, two girls and one boy. Northup worked in various farming jobs to earn money for his family until 1834, when Northup and Anne moved to the town of Saratoga Springs. Northup did different carpentry jobs and Anne, a talented chef, took on culinary positions for important local homes and events.

One particular day, while walking in the town, Northup was approached by two well-dressed men he had never met before. They told Northup they had heard of his prowess as a violinist. Northup had played the instrument for many years and was very passionate about it. The men said they had a brief opportunity for him to earn money playing his violin in a circus. As he was currently out of work and the job would not last long, Northup agreed to go without informing his wife. The events that followed this fateful decision would go on to make up the central contents of Northup's famous non-fiction book Twelve Years a Slave (1853).

Northup was tricked and kidnapped by these two men, being illegally forced into the slave trade despite his status as a free man. He, along with other enslaved people, was transported to Louisiana. Here, Northup spent twelve years as an enslaved person, moving between three enslavers. His first was more benevolent, but his next two were cruel and harsh, often whipping their enslaved people. Northup felt hopeless about his future until a white Abolitionist he had met agreed to send letters to his family and friends in New York who could send proof that he was a free man. They were eventually successful in this aim and after twelve long years, Northup was freed. You can read about Twelve Years a Slave in more depth later on in this explanation.

In 1800s America, an Abolitionist was someone in favour of abolishing slavery.

A free man again, Northup and his legal representatives attempted to sue the men who had kidnapped him. The first court case took place in Washington, D.C. where Northup had originally been kidnapped. However, the case failed because this state had made it illegal for a black man to testify against a white man in court. Northup then took out a case in his home state of New York, where he was permitted to testify. This also fell through as the prosecutors could not prosecute someone for something that had occurred outside the state.

Despite these failures, Northup was also reunited with his family, discovering he was now a grandfather. He became an Abolitionist and began lecturing about what he had suffered as an enslaved person. The court cases had drawn attention to Northup, and Twelve Years a Slave became a bestseller. Little is known about Northup's life beyond this point. It is thought he may have helped fleeing enslaved people on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War (1861-1865).

The Underground Railroad was used by enslaved people to escape either to free American states, Canada, or Mexico before and during the Civil War. It consisted of hidden routes and safe houses to help the enslaved people make their way out of captivity. Abolitionists often aided enslaved people on their way.

Solomon Northup: death

Beyond the 1850s, there is little to no public record of Solomon Northup. There is no definitive evidence of how he died or where he was buried. Surprisingly, however, there are records of where both his father and son are buried. Historians' estimates put Solomon Northup's death sometime in the mid-1860s, likely from natural causes due to his age.

Solomon Northup: book

In 1853, Solomon Northup published his acclaimed book Twelve Years a Slave. It went on to be a bestseller, shedding light on the atrocities that black Americans faced due to slavery. This was over a decade before slavery would be abolished in America. Twelve Years a Slave is an autobiographical text that tells of Northup's real experiences. It is written in the first person, and Northup consistently offers his own opinions and views throughout.

After being tricked and kidnapped, Northup is transported from Washington, D.C., to Louisiana. He and other enslaved people catch smallpox during the trip, with many becoming fatally ill. Northup is then sold to the enslaver William Ford. Ford treats Northup relatively well, and Northup concludes that Ford is not a bad person but simply does not know any life other than being an enslaver. His problem is ignorance and not cruelty.

However, because of financial issues, Ford must sell Northup to the cruel and bitter Tibeats. Tibeats treats his enslaved people terribly and uses a whip on them frequently. Tibeats once tries to beat Northup, and Northup becomes infuriated. Being a strong man, he takes the whip from Tibeats and beats him instead. As a result, Tibeats tries to hang Northup but is thwarted. Tibeats then sells Northup to Edwin Epps, an infamously abusive enslaver. Epps lives up to his reputation, getting extremely drunk and beating his enslaved people for any reason he sees fit. He even rapes his enslaved women.

Northup spends ten years on Epps's plantation and believes he will never be free. This is until he meets a white Abolitionist who agrees to send letters back to Northup's family and friends in Saratoga Springs. This way, his status as a free man can be proven. After some complications, Henry Northup, a relation of the man who freed Northup's father, arrives in Louisiana. He gives Epps evidence that Northup is a free man and forces Epps to let him go. Northup finally returns home to New York twelve years later. In the lines quoted below, Northup concludes Twelve Years a Slave by saying that, after his deeply traumatising experiences, he wishes to live a simple and peaceful life.

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. (Chp. 22)

Twelve Years a Slave became a hugely important text after publication. It shed light on the true inhumanities of slavery from one who had experienced it first-hand. Northup's work forced many white Americans to face what their country was doing to black people. The book's detailed descriptions ensured both accuracy and accountability.

Solomon Northup: facts

Below are some facts about Northup.

  • Northup did not physically write Twelve Years a Slave. He dictated it to his editor David Wilson. Wilson was a white lawyer, which gave the text credibility in a very racist society. However, the words all remain Northup's own.
  • Northup's mother tragically passed away while he was enslaved.
  • In his time on Epps's plantation, Northup was put in charge of the other enslaved people. This meant he was sometimes forced to inflict punishments on his fellow enslaved people.
  • However, in Twelve Years a Slave, Northup details that he had perfected how to make it seem like he was whipping other enslaved people without actually touching their skin.
  • When he was first sold into slavery, Northup was renamed to 'Platt'. This change dehumanised him and also made it much harder for his family to find him.

Solomon Northup: timeline

Read on for a timeline recap of Solomon Northup's life.

1808-1841

This time covers the beginning of Solomon Northup's life up to his mid-thirties. Solomon was the son of two free black Americans, which meant he led a relatively peaceful life. 1800s America was still overwhelmingly racist, but Northup and his brother received a good education and were able to pursue their own work. They were beholden to no one. Northup was also able to marry and have a family. In Twelve Years a Slave, he details just how much he treasured his family.

1841-1853

These twelve years are the ones in which Northup was enslaved. Northup's experiences are what inspired the writing of Twelve Years a Slave. He believed the American public may benefit from an honest account of what it was like to be an enslaved person from someone with real experience. Twelve Years a Slave details Northup's life as he was passed between three separate enslavers, and his status as a free man was ignored. Unsurprisingly, Northup's time as an enslaved person was traumatising and harrowing. He was eventually freed in 1853 after it was proven that he was a free man.

1853-mid 1860s

In 1853, Northup was reunited with his family, now a grandfather. He wrote and released Twelve Years a Slave in the same year. It sold many copies, and Northup's name gained significant recognition. On the basis of this, Northup began lecturing. There is where the public record of Northup ends. All that is known of his later life is that he likely died sometime in the mid-1860s from natural causes.

Solomon Northup - Key takeaways

  • Solomon Northup is the author of the 1853 non-fiction book Twelve Years a Slave.
  • The text details Northup's real experiences as he was kidnapped and forced into slavery.
  • In reality, Northup had been born a free man.
  • Northup spent twelve years as an enslaved person before being freed and reuniting with his family.
  • Twelve Years a Slave became a bestseller that exposed the realities of slavery.

Solomon Northup, content warning, StudySmarter

Frequently Asked Questions about Solomon Northup

Northup was kidnapped and forced into slavery for twelve years.

Northup got free after his family sent proof that he was a free man.

Yes, descendents of Northup are still living today.

The men who kidnapped Northup called themselves Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton but it is likely these were fake names.

It is unknown how Northup died but historians believe it may have been of natural causes due to his old age.

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