Stolen into Slavery
Fort Edward's Solomon Northup paid the price of chains
by Amy Godine
I remember learning about the Civil War in grade school, a public school near Boston, where history was rendered with a defiant local slant. Geography implied morality. The South was pretty—columned mansions, buggies, moss—but it was wrong. Slaves everywhere. Auctions. Whips. A fifth-grade music teacher decoded our favorite spirituals: the Promised Land was North, our North, principled and safe; the Drinking Gourd was the constellation that showed the way. Borders meant something. This Boston girl believed all that.
And so, in 1841, did Solomon Northup.
In 1991, I get off lucky. I pay for my naïveté with shame and awe. Solomon Northup—also a Northerner, freeborn and black, “having for thirty years enjoyed the blessing of liberty in a free state,” married and with children, skilled, literate—believed in borders, too.
He paid for his good faith with twelve years of his life.
The two white men drinking at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs seemed affable enough. Itinerant performers who called themselves Brown and Hamilton, they seemed particularly pleased to hear that Northup played the fiddle. They needed a musician. Would Northup join their act? If he would go with them to New York City, they’d pay him handsomely, return fare, too.
To Northup, working odd jobs at the United States Hotel in Saratoga, this offer seemed a great stroke of luck. His beloved wife, Anne Hampton, had a job cooking in Sherrill’s Coffee House in what is now Hudson Falls, but that was twenty miles distant, forcing them to live apart for long spells. Not a happy situation. Life in fancy Saratoga was tough, and the stress tells on the page of Northup’s book Twelve Years A Slave (which was ghostwritten by a Whitehall lawyer named David Wilson). “Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered,” he wrote. Brown and Hamilton’s offer of easy money had to look very good.
So Northup joined the magic show. And in New York, he let his new friends convince him to go with them to Washington, lured by the promise of a circus job that would get him back to Saratoga in weeks, and touched that his chums went so far as to buy the documents that would ensure his safety when they left New York.
Documents weren’t all they bought. Never mind that the town of Washington was deep in mourning for the late president William Henry Harrison. Northup’s hosts were thirsty. Very thirsty. And when they drank, so did he. Medical historians suggest that the delirium and long unconsciousness that followed Northup’s hour in the taverns was almost surely caused by laudanum or belladonna. Whatever poison, it packed a wallop. Northup woke to find himself stripped clean of money, free papers, hat and coat, and in chains.
Williams’ Slave Pen was the name of the jail where Solomon Northup anguished for two weeks; James Birch, the slave trader who would send him south on the tobacco brig Orleans to Louisiana.
Northup learned a bitter lesson his first week in Williams’ Pen. Never again would he be so rash as to protest his freeborn status to unsympathetic whites: when he tried with Birch, he was flogged brutally and told if he spoke of being free again, he’d die. He did make his plight known in other ways. In Williams’ Pen he confided in another black prisoner named Clem Ray, and when Ray was unexpectedly released, he fled directly to Canada and spent a night with Northup’s in-laws in upstate New York.
This was the family’s first good clue as to Solomon Northup’s fate.
Then, en route to New Orleans, Northup smuggled home a letter with the assistance of a British sailor. What Northup couldn’t tell his wife was on which plantation, or for that matter in which state, he might wind up. Nor did he know to warn them he would be given a new name: Platt, just Platt, to be followed by his master’s name, whatever that might be. Someone looking for a Northup wouldn’t stand a chance.
In 1841, Solomon Northup was sold for nine hundred dollars to a Louisiana planter deemed “not fit to own nigger” by his neighbors because he as fool enough to let his slaves own Bibles. William Ford set Northup to many tasks, some light carpentry, loom and raft building, chopping wood. It was, for slave work, forgiving labor, and Ford’s fair-minded manner actually moved Northup to speak without irony of “the bright side of slavery.” Then Ford went bankrupt, and had to sell Northup to a planter, John Tibeats, out on Bayou Boeuf, “a sluggish winding stream alive with alligators, rendering it unsafe for swine, or unthinking slave children, to stroll along its banks.”
Tibeats was a hard man, prone to tantrums, handy with a whip. Under Tibeats, Northup won a reputation as “a devil of a nigger” when twice he fought off unprovoked attacks, once striking back so badly—”an act punishable in that state with Death”—the panicked slave lit out for the swamps. Full of alligators, wildcats and water moccasins, the Great Cocrodie Swamp was no place to linger long. That Northup eluded the dogs was feat enough. That in his weary, starved, bemucked condition he managed to find his way back to “that little paradise,” the plantation of William Ford, was miraculous. If Ford couldn’t rebuy him outright, the fact that he’d sold Northup on a mortgage at least gave him leverage to convince the brutal Tibeats to hire him out to other, less abusive masters, and in time to sell him altogether to a planter down the road.
The change hardly helped. His new owner, Edwin Epps, was a sadistic drunk; he ruled Northup’s life for ten years, in which time, says Northup, “there was not a day that I did not consult with myself upon the prospect of escape.”
It seemed hopeless. The terrain was cruel, hounds abounded, back roads swarmed with patrols. If a slave ever made a dash for a nearby canebrake, hunger always drove him back—if dogs or alligators didn’t get him first.
Northup dealt with the futility of flight by sinking deeper into work. For all his rage at his enslavement, he still took pride in jobs that called on skill and craft, from inventing a fish trap to carving a new ax handle to fashioning a raft. Northup commanded respect among whites and blacks alike. Yet even his good black friends lever knew of his freeborn status.
The danger was too great.
If he wrote home only once, it was because only once in nine years at Epps’s could he lay his hands on paper. Ink he made from boiled maple ark, a pen from duck feathers. The letter never found its mark. The stranger Northup asked to mail it betrayed him, leaking word to Epps, so Northup had to burn the docu-nent before it cost him his life.
Samuel Bass, an itinerant, white, Canadian-born carpenter, had lived in Louisiana several years before he took ajob with Epps in 1853. A man of decidedly unorthodox beliefs, he hated slavery, and loved to lecture his slave-owning bosses on its horrors. Epps didn’t mind these chats. He thought Bass was hilarious. But Northup, overhearing, took Bass’s tirades to heart.
One August day when Northup and Bass were laboring on some project in an outbuilding and Epps was in the field, the black man let fall he knew parts of Canada where Bass himself had been. Say more, said Bass, intrigued. His frank, unjudging curiosity prompted Northup to confess. Bass was riveted. Twice more they met in secret, always late at night, and soon Bass was armed with a half dozen names of Northup’s friends, white men of influence Northup felt sure he could count on to mail the freeman papers he needed to get out.
In all, the good carpenter wrote four letters on Northup’s behalf.
Two weeks passed, then six, then ten. No answer.
Bass, by now almost as frustrated as the slave, swore that in early spring he’d go up to Saratoga himself. “If I can succeed in getting you away from here, it will be a good act that I shall like to think of all my life. And I shall succeed, Platt. I’m bound to do it.”
What Northup couldn’t know was that one of his letters had hit the mark. The Saratogians who received it forwarded it directly to his wife, who in turn took it to the prominent Fort Edward lawyer Henry Northup, a longtime friend of the black Northup clan. (Henry Northup’s slave-owning Rhode Island ancestors had given Solomon Northup’s forebears their name.)
Anne Hampton backed a bulldog in Henry Northup. Another man might have tossed a packet of freeman papers in the mail, casting Solomon Northup’s fate to the caprice of the post office and certain sabotage from Epps. Henry Northup drummed up an arsenal of affidavits, got the New York governor’s go-ahead under a law providing for the recovery of illegally enslaved free blacks, and headed south himself, stopping briefly in Washington to beef up his case further with letters from a Supreme Court judge, a Louisiana senator and the secretary of war. From the mouth of the Red River, a steamer chugged him on to Marksville, at whose courthouse the “Northern gemmun” prepared to make his case.
Trouble was, nobody knew Solomon Northup. If they knew anybody, it was Platt. And Henry Northup didn’t know to ask for Platt. Bass had failed to mention Solomon Northup’s slave name in his letters. Just as bad, Bayou Boeuf, the most precise address Bass gave, was a neighborhood extending for nearly a hundred miles, with a slave population in the thousands. It was at this point Henry Northup proved his mettle.
He got wind of the name of a carpenter with queerly liberal ideas, and tracked him to a river landing. Bass, just leaving on a two-week trip, revealed Solomon Northup’s slave name and whereabouts with some reluctance. (Understandable: it was one thing to offer to go up to Saratoga, and quite another to risk his neck down here.)
Solomon Northup was picking cotton when a carriage discharged two white men near the field. He heard the sheriff call out for a man named Platt.
“Throw down that sack,” his old friend Henry Northup said. “Your cotton-picking days are over.”
Solomon Northup went free, but the men who stole twelve years of his life were never brought to justice. His kidnappers were discovered, but the case dragged on and lost its force, and eventually they were let off.
Northup’s story endures as one of the most realistic and compelling slave narratives of the age. His book sold some thirty thousand copies, drawing strong reviews from papers as diverse and wide-ranging as the New York Times and the Sandy Hill Herald. Harriet Beecher Stowe acknowledged Northup’s contribution in The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. During the Civil War, a Union officer mentioned Northup’s story in his diary: around Red River the freeman’s deliverance was still the talk of the remaining slaves. Scholars of the antebellum South draw deeply on Northup’s account of life on the plantation. Down South, sales of the book are still strong.
As for the North . . . Northup’s gifted ghostwriter David Wilson was from Whitehall, but don’t look for a file card on him in the town archives. Glens Falls honored Northup with a plaque, but don’t look for a sign where his last home stood. The Fort Edward Historical Society presents a slide show on Northup for schoolkids, but don’t look for an explicatory exhibit in the Old Fort House Museum even though a house history named Northup as “the house’s only occupant of truly national significance.”
“To rest at last in that churchyard where my father sleeps.” This was Northup’s final recorded wish. Because there’s no good reason to believe it wasn’t granted, I went looking for that churchyard one chill October day.
Near the back of an untended cemetery in Hudson Falls, inaccessible except through someone’s drive, I found the smashed headstone of Solomon Northup’s father, Mintus. The break between the halves looked fresh. The small unmarked graves oneither side of it were deep in dry leaves and weeds.
Amy Godine is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who lives in Saratoga Springs.