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Twelve Years a Slave

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Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave
Illustration from Twelve Years a Slave (1855)
Author Solomon Northup
Country United States
Language English
Genre Autobiography
Publisher Derby & Miller, Auburn, New York[1]
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover)

Twelve Years a Slave (1853) is a memoir and slave narrative by Solomon Northup as told to and edited by David Wilson. Northup, a black man who was born free in New York, details his kidnapping in Washington, D.C., and subsequent sale into slavery. After having been kept in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana by various masters, Northup was able to write to friends and family in New York, who were in turn able to secure his release. Northup's account provides extensive details on the slave markets in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans and describes at length cotton and sugar cultivation on major plantations in Louisiana.

The work was published by Derby & Miller of Auburn, New York,[1] soon after Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling novel about slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), to which it lent factual support. Northup's book, dedicated to Stowe, sold 30,000 copies, making it a bestseller in its own right.[3]

After being published in several editions in the 19th century and later cited by specialist scholarly works on slavery in the United States, the memoir itself fell into public obscurity for nearly 100 years, until it was re-discovered on separate occasions by two Louisiana historians, Sue Eakin (Louisiana State University at Alexandria) and Joseph Logsdon (University of New Orleans).[4] In the early 1960s, they researched and retraced Solomon Northup’s journey[5] and co-edited a historically annotated version that was published by Louisiana State University Press (1968).[6]

The memoir has been adapted and produced as the PBS television movie Solomon Northup's Odyssey (1984) and the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave (2013).[7]


In his home town of Saratoga, New York, Solomon Northup, a free negro who was a skilled carpenter and violinist, was approached by two circus promoters. They offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without informing his wife, who was away at work in a nearby town, he traveled with the strangers to downstate New York and Washington, D.C. Soon after arriving in the capital, he awoke to find himself drugged, bound, and in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup asserted his rights as a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free life in New York.

Transported by ship to New Orleans, Northup and other enslaved blacks contracted smallpox and one died. In transit, Northup implored a sympathetic sailor to send a letter to his family. The letter arrived safely, but, lacking knowledge of his final destination, Northup's family was unable to effect his rescue.

Northup's first owner was William Prince Ford, who ran a lumber mill on a bayou of the Red River. [8] Northup subsequently had several other owners, less humane than Ford, during his twelve-year bondage. At times, his carpentry and other skills contributed to his being treated relatively well; but he also suffered extreme cruelty. On two occasions, he was attacked by a white man he was leased to, John Tibeats, and defended himself, for which he suffered severe reprisals. After about two years of enslavement, he was sold to Edwin Epps, a notoriously cruel cotton planter. Epps held Northup enslaved for 10 years, during which time he assigned the New Yorker to various roles from cotton picker, to hauler to driver, which required Northup to oversee the work of fellow slaves and punish them for undesirable behavior. While on Epps' plantation, Northup became friends with a slave girl named Patsey, who Northup writes about briefly in the book.

After being beaten for claiming his free status in the slave pen in Washington, D.C., Northup in the ensuing 12 years did not reveal his true history again to a single person, slave or owner. Finally he confided his story to Samuel Bass, a white carpenter and abolitionist from Canada. Bass, at great risk to himself, sent letters to Northup’s wife and friends in Saratoga. A white shopkeeper, Parker, sought the assistance of Henry B. Northup, a white attorney and politician whose family had held and freed Solomon Northup's father and with whom Solomon had a longtime friendship. Henry contacted New York state officials. As the state had passed a law in 1840 to provide financial resources for the rescue of citizens kidnapped into slavery, the Governor appointed Henry Northup as an agent to travel to Louisiana and work with law enforcement to free Solomon. Once in Louisiana, Henry Northup hired local Avoyelles Parish attorney, John P. Waddill, to assist in securing Solomon Northup's freedom.[9] After a variety of bureaucratic measures and searches were undertaken, the attorney succeeded in locating Solomon and freeing him from the plantation. Northup’s later filed charges against the men who sold him into slavery but was unsuccessful. He returned to New York and reunited with his family there.

Northup concludes his narrative with the following statement:

My narrative is at an end. I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the "peculiar institution." What it may be in other States, I do not profess to know; what it is in the region of Red River, is truly and faithfully delineated in these pages. This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture. I doubt not hundreds have been as unfortunate as myself; that hundreds of free citizens have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and are at this moment wearing out their lives on plantations in Texas and Louisiana. But I forbear. 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.
—Solomon Northup[10]

Reception and historical value

Similarities between Northup's book and Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin have been noted by critics.[11] Stowe's book was published a year before Northup's memoir. Northup's facts supported Stowe's fictional narrative in detail, as the area where Northup was enslaved was close to the fictional setting of Simon Legree's plantation on the Red River, where much of Stowe's narrative takes place. Stowe herself wrote,

Northup's book is also similar in the structure of the arguments against slavery. For instance, Uncle Tom's Cabin focuses on how the legal system prevents even kind owners from treating slaves well and how it releases cruel owners from liabilities for their treatment of slaves.[13]

Such themes appear in Northup's narrative, too. The similarities raise important questions of just how much the narrative was shaped by Uncle Tom's Cabin and other antislavery literature.[14] Stowe later used newspaper reports of Northup's story as part of her non-fiction A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin.[11] Northup's first-person account of his twelve years of bondage proved a dramatic story in the national political debate over slavery that took place in the years leading up to the Civil War. It drew endorsements from major Northern newspapers, anti-slavery organizations, and evangelical groups.

Northup's account describes the daily life of slaves at Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana, their diet and living conditions, the relationship between master and slave, and the means that slave catchers used to recapture runaways. Northup's slave narrative has details similar to those of some other authors, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Ann Jacobs, and William Wells Brown. However, he was unique in documenting being kidnapped as a free man and sold into slavery. His perspective was always to compare what he saw to what he knew before as a free man. While there were hundreds of such kidnappings, he was among the few who were freed from such slavery.[3]

Early and mid-twentieth century historians of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, Stanley Elkins, and Ulrich B Phllips, praised the historical accuracy of the book. Eakin and Logsdon in 1968, wrote: "In the last analysis, [the] narrative deserves to be believed, not simply because [Northup] seems to be talking reasonably, not merely because he adorns his tale with compelling and persuasive details. At every point where materials exist for checking his account, it can be verified." These materials include trial records, correspondence, diary, and slave sale records.[15]

While Twelve Years a Slave is the best-known example of someone who was kidnapped and later freed – albeit through extraordinary efforts – historians have begun to research and present other cases. Most of the known court cases with respect to the freeing of kidnapping victims were filed in New Orleans, although some were in border states such as Missouri, and at least one was known to have been in Alabama. [16]


After additional printings in the 19th century, the book went out of print until 1968,[6] when historians Joseph Logsdon and Sue Eakin restored it to prominence. Eakin discovered the story as a child growing up in Louisiana plantation country—the owner of a first edition showed her the book, after finding it in a former plantation home.

Years later, Logsdon had a student from an old Louisiana family who brought a copy of the original 1853 book to class; her family had owned it for more than a century. Together Logsdon and Eakin studied Northup’s account, documenting it through the slave sales records of Washington, D.C. and New Orleans by retracing his journey and bondage in Bayou Boeuf plantation country in central Louisiana and through its records, and documenting his New York State origins. They found his father’s freeman’s decree, and the case files for the legal work that restored Northup’s freedom and prosecuted his abductors. In 1968, Eakin and Logsdon’s thoroughly annotated edition of the original book was published by Louisiana State University Press, shedding new light on Northup’s story and establishing its historic significance. That book has been widely used by scholars and in classrooms for more than 40 years, and is still in print.

In 1998, Logsdon was invited by scholars in upstate New York to participate in a search for Solomon's grave. However, bad weather prevented the search that year, and Logsdon died the following June 1999. In 2007, shortly before her death at age 90, Eakin completed an updated and expanded version of their book; it includes more than 150 pages of new background material, maps, and photographs. In 2013, e-book and audiobook versions of her final definitive edition were released in her honor. With permission, scholars may use Eakin’s lifetime archives through The Sue Eakin Collection, Louisiana State University at Alexandria, Louisiana. The Joseph Logsdon Archives are available at the University of New Orleans.

Historian Jesse Holland noted in a 2009 interview that he had relied on Northup's memoir and detailed description of Washington in 1841 to identify the location of some slave markets in the city. Holland has also researched the roles of ethnic African slaves who, as skilled laborers, helped build some of the important public buildings in Washington, including the Capitol and part of the original Executive Mansion.[17]

Editions and adaptations

Scene at the New Orleans slave pen.
Excerpt from Ch. 6, via LibriVox
00:6:36 (text)

Problems playing this file? See .
  • Twelve Years a Slave is in the public domain; e-book versions can be downloaded from several sites and many reprints are still in print by multiple publishers.
  • In 1968, historians Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, both based in Louisiana, published an edited and annotated version of Northup's narrative.[18] Updated and illustrated editions of this work have since been published, including an adaptation for younger readers.
  • In 2012, David Fiske self-published the biography Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery. The book's Appendix C provides the publishing history for Twelve Years a Slave during the 19th century. The book was expanded and re-issued by Praeger in August 2013 as Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, ISBN 978-1440829741, with co-authors Clifford W. Brown, and Rachel Seligman.
  • Twelve Years a Slave, narrated by Rob Board (LibriVox, 2013), available online for free
  • Twelve Years a Slave, narrated by Louis Gossett, Jr. (Eakin Films & Publishing, 2013)
  • Twelve Years a Slave, narrated by Richard Allen (Dreamscape Media, 2013)
  • Twelve Years a Slave, narrated by Hugh Quarshie (AudioGO, 2013)
  • Twelve Years a Slave, narrated by Sean Crisden (Tantor Audio, 2012)


  1. ^ a b  
  2. ^ The Times-Picayune, 6 February 1853, Page 6
  3. ^ a b Northup, Solomon. : SummaryTwelve Years a Slave, online text at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 19 July 2012
  4. ^ 12 Years a Slave' prompts effort to recognize work of UNO historian in reviving tale"'". Retrieved 2013-09-27. 
  5. ^ "An Escape From Slavery, Now a Movie, Has Long Intrigued Historians".  
  6. ^ a b "Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup". Retrieved 2013-09-26. 
  7. ^ Cieply, Michael; Barnesmarch, Brooks (March 2, 2014). "‘12 Years a Slave’ Claims Best Picture Oscar".  
  8. ^ Ford subsequently became a leader of the Restoration Movement in Louisiana as he and his Baptist congregation were influenced by the writings of Alexander Campbell.
  9. ^ Meredith Melancon, “Avoyelles Parish Courthouse, Marksville,” Acadiana Historical, accessed February 28, 2014,
  10. ^ Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave (First ed.). p. 321. 
  11. ^ a b 12 Years a Slave as a Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
  12. ^ Stowe, H. B. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Inkling Books, 2005 (reprint), p.245.
  13. ^ "Over and above ... There Broods a Portentous Shadow,—The Shadow of Law: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Critique of Slave Law in Uncle Tom's Cabin". Journal of Law and Religion 12 (2): 457–506. 1995–1996.  
  14. ^ Eric Herschtal, The Passion of Solomon Northup The New York Times
  15. ^ Northup, Solomon; edited by, Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon (1968). Twelve Years a Slave. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. pp. x and xvi.  
  16. ^ Cornelius Sinclair's Odyssey: Freedom, Slavery, and Freedom Again in the Old South.
  17. ^ "Jesse Holland on How Slaves Built the White House and the US Capitol". Retrieved 2012-04-09. 
  18. ^ Sharkey, Richard P. "Noted Louisiana historian Sue Eakin of Bunkie dead at 90".  

External links

Online text
  • Twelve Years a Slave, Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg and Google Books (scanned original editions with some color illustrated)
  • Twelve Years a SlaveSolomon Northup, , online text at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina
  • Twelve Years a SlaveAudio recording of ,
  • Letters by John R. Smith, "Wilbur H. Siebert Collection", Houghton Library, Harvard University. Available as online images, detailing Northup's involvement in the Underground Railroad after January 1863.
  • Twelve Years a Slave, electronic version formatted for desktop, mobile, and tablet reading
  • websiteTwelve Years a Slave, with audio excerpts by Lou Gossett, Jr.; history, art and images
  • Kneller, Michael. "Solomon Northup: From Freedom to Slavery to Freedom Again", Slavery in America
  • "Snatched Up and Sold Into Slavery: The Story of Solomon Northup", US Trek, Odyssey (complements history curriculum for junior high and high school students)
  • "New York: Solomon Northup Day – A Celebration of Freedom (Local Legacies: Celebrating Community Roots)". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2012-04-09. 
  • "Solomon Northup", eBlack Studies
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