12 YEARS A SLAVE
Additional Historical Background
by historian David Fiske
David Fiske's interest in Solomon Northup began in the 1990s, when he visited the Old Fort House
Museum in Fort Edward, New York. This house is possibly the only structure still standing in which
Northup resided. An exhibit at the museum mentioned Northup's book, Twelve Years a Slave, and Fiske
became curious and slowly began researching Northup's life after his rescue. He recently worked with
several other researchers, Professor Clifford Brown and Rachel Seligman to write a full biography of
Northup: Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.
Q: Solomon Northup was not the only free black person who was kidnapped and sold as a slave
-- can you talk about how much of a problem kidnapping was before the Civil War and if black
people in the North were aware of the threat of being kidnapped?
Blacks (both free persons and slaves) were kidnapped and sold as slaves even in colonial times. The
despicable practice was carried on with greater frequency after 1808, the year that the federal
government banned the importation of slaves. Slaves could no longer be brought into the U.S. from
other countries -- a very good thing -- but there was an unfortunate side-effect. The supply of additional
slave labor (much desired by plantation owners in the South) was reduced, causing the value of slaves
to rise -- which made it very profitable for criminals to kidnap black people and transport them to a slave
market where they could be sold. Slave traders, anxious to acquire slaves to send to the South,
probably did not ask questions about where these black people had come from.
In New York State, the law recognized that kidnapping could be accomplished by trickery, because the
statute against kidnapping included an old word "inveigling," which meant the same thing. The law
further provided that those accused of kidnapping could not argue as a defense that their victims had
left with them willingly.
Citizens in the northern states, including blacks, had some idea of the possibility of black people being
lured away and sold as slaves. An acquaintance of Solomon Northup, Norman Prindle, claimed, after
Northup's return to the North, that back in 1841 he had warned Northup that the men he met in
Saratoga might have other plans for him once they got him south. However, Northup either trusted the
men or was so much in need of money that he decided to take the risk.
Q: What did Solomon Northup do after he was rescued from slavery?
Northup was reunited with his family (who had relocated from Saratoga to Glens Falls) a few weeks
after being freed. Remarkably, in the first few days of February 1853, he appeared at anti-slavery
meetings with several famous abolitionists (including Frederick Douglass). Just one month earlier, he
had still been a slave!
The general public was very interested in his story of kidnapping, slavery, and rescue, and he worked
with David Wilson, an attorney and author, to compose a book, Twelve Years a Slave. The book was
quite popular, and Northup traveled around giving lectures and selling copies of his book. He was also
involved with some theatrical productions based on his narrative.
One newspaper noted that, during Northup's travels, he was generous toward fugitive slaves he
encountered. Given his personal experience as a slave, it is understandable (predictable, even) that he
would want to help others who had escaped from a life of servitude. There is evidence that he
participated in the Underground Railroad, working with a Vermont minister to help escaped slaves
reach freedom in Canada.
The last reference to Northup's presence was a recollection by the minister's son, who said that
Northup had visited his father once after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. After that, no
newspaper articles or personal papers have been found that mention contact with Northup. Neither the
circumstances of his death, nor his burial site, are known.
Q: What did Northup's family do while he was a slave in Louisiana?
As Northup mentioned in Twelve Years a Slave, his wife Anne had a successful career as a cook at
various dining establishments in the Saratoga/Glens Falls area of New York. After the disappearance of
her husband -- along with his earnings -- she probably needed additional income. In the fall of 1841 she
moved to New York City with her family. She worked there for the wealthy woman, Madame Eliza
Jumel (who was once the wife of Vice President Aaron Burr). Anne was Madame Jumel's cook and
resided at her mansion in Washington Heights (which is today open to the public as the Morris-Jumel
Mansion). Her children filled other roles: Elizabeth assisted at the mansion, Margaret served as a
playmate for a young girl who was related to Jumel, and Alonzo was a footman and did minor chores.
The family's stay with Jumel lasted from one to two years, after which mother and children returned
to Saratoga. After a few years, the family moved to Glens Falls, a bit north of Saratoga, where Anne
ran the kitchen at the Glens Falls Hotel. The family (which now included Margaret's husband Philip
Stanton and their children) was living in Glens Falls in 1853 when Northup was rescued and rejoined
In the 1860s, the family (though apparently not Northup himself) moved to nearby Moreau (to a
neighborhood known as Reynolds Corners). Anne probably still worked as a cook locally, and during
the summers she would work at a hotel at Bolton Landing on Lake George. Anne died in 1876 at
Q: Why was the book Twelve Years a Slave so popular before the Civil War?
Northup's book was not the only one that gave a first-hand account of slavery, but his had a unique
perspective because he was a free man who had become a slave, whereas other writers had grown up
as slaves. Northup was able to make comparisons between his life as a free person and his life as a
slave. In addition, Northup's book was surprisingly even-handed. He did not condemn all Southerners --
he mentions how several of them, such as Master Ford and overseer Chapin (whose name in real life
was Chafin), had treated him kindly. As one review of the book in a northern newspaper said at the
time: "Masters and Overseers who treated slaves humanely are commended; for there, as here, were
good and bad men."
Authors of slave narratives who had escaped slavery by running away had an extra motivation to
portray slavery in a very bad light -- they had to justify why they had become fugitives. Northup,
however, should never have been a slave in the first place ("if justice had been done," he told Samuel
Bass, "I never would have been here"). Northup therefore had little motivation to exaggerate the evils
32of slavery. He surely describes the many sufferings endured by slaves, but he also tells about their
everyday life, the ways they supported one another, and the few occasional sources of pleasure they
had. By telling the good as well as the bad, Northup's account came across as authentic and
Q: Did Solomon Northup help with the Underground Railroad once he was free again and how
did he get involved?
In the early 1860s (and possibly earlier) he worked on the Underground Railroad in Vermont. The
Underground Railroad was a system run by anti-slavery advocates which helped slaves who had run
away from the South. Northup, Tabbs Gross (another black man) and Rev. John L. Smith energetically
helped fugitives make their way north, to Canada and freedom.
The details of how Northup became involved are not known, but it seems likely that, during his lecture
tours, he at some point met Gross, a former slave who traveled around New York and New England at
the same time as Northup, and who also gave lectures. At any rate, the minister's son recalled later on
that Northup and Gross were constantly at work aiding fugitives. Northup no doubt tackled this
mission with his customary initiative and competence, and ended up keeping many fugitives from
being returned to servility.
Q: What became of Northup's slave masters -- William Prince Ford, Edwin Epps and Mistress
William Prince Ford was forced to sell Northup after he experienced financial difficulties The man he
sold him to, John M. Tibaut (called Tibeats in Northup's book and in the film) could not afford to pay
Northup's full value, so Ford was in a way still a part-owner. This is why Ford was able to prevent
Tibaut from murdering Northup. Ford was a prominent Baptist minister, serving several congregations.
One of them, the Springhill Baptist Church, expelled him for heresy, partly because he had allowed a
Methodist to take communion at the church (an example of his generous spirit). Ford wore several
other hats: in addition to operating the lumber mill where Northup worked, Ford manufactured bricks
The woman Ford was married to while Northup was his slave, Martha (Tanner) Ford passed away in
1849, and he got married a second time, to Mary Dawson. Rev. Ford passed away on August 23, 1866
and was buried in a cemetery known as the Old Cheney Cemetery in Cheneyville, Louisiana.
Edwin Epps had wanted to contest Northup's removal from his possession, but his legal counsel
advised him that the case was so clear-cut (due to documents presented in court in Marksville,
Louisiana, which proved Northup had been born free), that he should simply give up Northup rather
than incur pointless legal expenses, and he did so.
Epps gave up drink while Northup was still his slave, since Northup mentions that in his book. Epps
continued working his plantation after Northup's departure. The 1860 Federal Census shows that he
had assets amounting to over $20,000.
During the Civil War some northern soldiers sought out the Epps plantation as the army worked its
way through Louisiana. They found many people, both black and white, who remembered Northup
and his fiddle-playing, and they even located Epps. What Northup wrote in his book, Epps told the
33soldiers, was mostly true, and in a back-handed compliment to Northup he told them that he was an
"unusually smart nigger." Epps died on March 3, 1867. His place of burial is uncertain.
The house that Northup and carpenter Samuel Bass worked on for Epps still exists. It has avoided
destruction several times, and has also been moved several times. It is now located on the campus of
the Louisiana State University at Alexandria, and it has been declared a historic structure.
Mistress Epps, whose maiden name was Mary Robert, became the "Natural Tutrix" (or guardian) of
her and her husband's minor children following Epps' death. However she died soon afterward. Many,
if not all, of the children left Louisiana and relocated to various places in Texas.
Q: Were the men involved in Solomon Northup's kidnapping ever brought to justice?
The slave trader in Washington, D.C. who purchased Northup from the men who lured him away from
Saratoga was identified as James H. Birch, and was brought up on charges in that city when Northup
was on his way home from Louisiana. In Washington, the law at that time did not permit black people
to testify in court, and without Northup's testimony, there was little evidence of the crime, so Birch
was not convicted. It surely helped that Birch had some influential friends in the city.
In 1854, over a year after Northup was freed, a man who had read Twelve Years a Slave helped to
identify the two men who had taken Northup to Washington. (Their real names were Alexander Merrill
and Joseph Russell -- they had given Northup aliases. They were arrested, jailed, indicted, and put on
trial. After various delays and appeals, the case against them was dropped without explanation in 1857.
Their only punishment was the seven months they spent in jail while awaiting trial before they were
released on bail.
Q: Solomon Northup was able to read and write -- how did he get his education?
In New York State, blacks had never been formally excluded from the schools. In the city of Albany,
slave children in colonial times attended school alongside white children. Even when slavery was still
allowed in New York, a state law specified that slave owners had to teach their slaves to read, so that
they could read the Bible.
As time went on, some large cities had separate schools for black students (which was permitted under
state law). During his childhood, Northup lived in small towns in Washington County, which would
not have had enough money to establish separate schools for blacks, so he probably attended school
with white pupils from his neighborhood. Acquaintances of Northup and his father (who was illiterate
but whom Northup wrote made sure his sons received an education) were Quakers, to whom education
was very important, so that may have offered extra encouragement for him to learn. Northup tells of
his love of reading as a boy, so he probably built on what basic, formal schooling he received due to
his curiosity and intelligence.
Q: Is it true that 12 Years a Slave was actually written by a ghost writer named David Wilson,
who was an abolitionist?
David Wilson certainly assisted Northup with his book, but he was not a ghost writer. Ghost writers
typically write behind the scenes on behalf of someone else, implying that a book was actually
authored by that person. When the book was first published in 1853, Wilson was clearly identified as
34its editor--he even wrote an Editor's Preface. There was nothing furtive about Wilson having been
helped with the writing of the book.
The precise method of Wilson's and Northup's collaboration is not known, but based on Wilson's
preface, newspaper reports at the time, and a letter written later on by a relative of one of the principals
in Northup's story, Wilson extensively interviewed Northup, undoubtedly taking copious notes.
Northup, who during his years of slavery had no way to record information, must have constantly
reviewed in his head the events he had experienced, committing to memory the details of people he
had met and places he had been. Wilson wrote that he was entirely convinced of the authenticity of
Northup's recounting, because Northup had "invariably repeated the same story without deviating in
the slightest particular."
Even Edwin Epps, located by Union soldiers when they reached Louisiana during the Civil War,
admitted that Northup had pretty much told the truth in his book.
After Wilson had put the words onto paper, Northup reviewed them closely. He "carefully perused the
manuscript, dictating an alteration wherever the most trivial inaccuracy has appeared," Wilson says. It
is likely that the writing style--with its literary flourishes and turns of phrase--can be attributed to
Wilson, but Northup was clearly satisfied that Wilson got all the facts right and he was also
comfortable with the final wording.
Though Wilson has sometimes been described as an abolitionist, there is no evidence of that. One
newspaper at the time said of Wilson: "I believe he never was suspected of being an Abolitionist -- he
may be anti-slavery -- somewhat conservative." A few years after Twelve Years a Slave was published,
Wilson was identified as a member of the American Party (called the "Know-Nothings"), which had
no strong stance concerning slavery. In Wilson's own words, in his preface to the book, he writes
"Unbiased, as he conceives, by any prepossessions or prejudices, the only object of the editor has been
to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup's life, as he received it from his lips."
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