Solomon Northrup, the author of a slave narrative, was born free on a farm in Minerva, New York. His father was a former Rhode Island slave who had been freed in his owner's will. Northrup spent the first half of his life on the family farm, farming and working as a violinist and laborer in the Minerva area. At the age of thirty-three or so, a series of bizarre events pulled him into slavery.
In 1841 Northrup was approached by two strangers, who asked him to play in the band with their traveling circus. After catching up with the circus, Northrup was drugged, beaten, and sold to slave traders. He was then shipped to New Orleans, where he was purchased by a planter in the Red River region of Louisiana. He spent the next twelve years as a slave under several owners in the region.
In 1852 Northrup met Samuel Bass, an itinerant Canadian carpenter, and the two plotted to arrange North-rup's freedom. Bass sent a letter to two white businessmen in Saratoga who had been acquaintances of Northrup. The letter eventually reached Henry Northrup, the former owner of Northrup's father, who traveled to Louisiana and made legal arrangements to free Northrup. Northrup finally returned to his family in Glens Falls, New York, in January 1853.
Spurred on by the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Northrup immediately set out to write the narrative of his enslavement. He enlisted the help of David Wilson, a local writer, and the two finished the book within three months. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northrup was published in the summer of 1853 and became an immediate success. It sold more than thirty thousand copies over the next ten years and was reprinted several times in the nineteenth century after Northrup's death.
Since its publication Northrup's narrative has served as an important resource for scholars of slavery. Like many other slave narratives, Twelve Years a Slave discusses in detail the ways in which slaves presented a servile facade to their owners while practicing subtle acts of subversion and resistance. In recent years Northrup's recollections have been cited as refutation of the slave's image as a passive, ingratiating figure.
The publication of Twelve Years a Slave resulted in yet another set of bizarre circumstances that led to the capture of Northrup's kidnappers. In 1854 the book caused one of its readers to recall meeting the two men and Northrup shortly after the abduction. Northrup met with the reader and confirmed the recollection, and shortly thereafter the two suspected kidnappers were arrested and charged by New York authorities. Although they were widely assumed to be guilty, the two suspects were released on legal technicalities.
Northrup was paid $3,000 by the original publisher of his narrative. He used that money to purchase a house in Glens Falls, where he lived in relative obscurity and practiced carpentry for the last ten years of his life. The circumstances of his death are uncertain, but the name on the deed to his house was changed to his wife's name in 1863.
See also Slave Narratives
Blassingame, John. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Northrup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northrup (1853). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
Osofsky, Gilbert, ed. Puttin' on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northrup. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.
thaddeus russell (1996)