Solomon Northup

Famous Freeman Sold in to Slavery

Solomon Northup: A Brief Synopsis

Solomon Northup is famed for being illegally sold in to slavery for twelve years until he was located and liberated by a relative of his father's former master. His memoirs were published on his escape, detailing the shocking conditions that he and his fellow slaves endured and drawing attention to the plight of African Americans; enslaved and free alike.

Solomon Northup: The Northup Family

As with many slaves, Solomon Northup's ancestors adopted the surname of their owners; the Northup Family of Rhode Island. Born in July 1808, Solomon Northup was the second son of Mintus Northup, a former slave turned farmer. According to Solomon Northup's memoirs, 12 Years a Slave, Mintus spoke of his former owner's kindness, who had arranged for him to be emancipated following his death.

Kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup, sold illegally in to slavery
Solomon Northup, the famous freeman illegally sold in to slavery (public domain)

Solomon Northup: Upbringing and Marriage

Raised to be both God-fearing and good, Solomon Northup was given an education better than most in his position and would spend his time reading and playing the violin. He married on Christmas Day 1829 to Anne Hampton; a free woman of mixed heritage.

Solomon Northup: Kidnap

In March 1834 the family moved to Saratoga Springs; it was here, in March 1841, that Solomon Northup met two well-dressed strangers by the names of Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. Alleging that they were re-joining the circus, they advised they were in need of a musician and would pay Solomon Northup well if he would accompany them to New York. Deciding against writing to Anne to explain his whereabouts as she was working twenty miles away as a cook, he agreed to travel with the men. On reaching New York, Solomon Northup was invited to travel further with his new companions to Washington and he readily accepted. As they were entering a slave state, it was suggested that he obtain his free papers from the Custom House, which according to Solomon's memoirs, memorandum was made in the book at the Custom House at the end of March or first of April in 1841.

The trio arrived in Washington the day before General Harrison's funeral, whereupon it was decided that the circus would depart the day after the funeral procession had taken place. On feeling incredibly unwell after a drink at the local saloon, Solomon Northup retired to his room with an unquenchable thirst and persistent headache.  Later that night he heard people come in to his room but in his delirium was unable to determine who they were or how many people there may have been. Advised he needed to see a doctor, Solomon Northup was helped outside before he became unconscious.


Name: Solomon Northup
 July 1808
Parents: Mintus Northup
Spouse: Anne Hampton
Elizabeth B1831, Margaret B1833, Alonzo B1836
Famed for: Solomon Northup was kidnapped and illegally sold as a slave and rescued after twelve years
Slave status: Kidnapped
Masters: William Ford, John Tibeats, Edwin Epps
Driver, carpenter, violinist, farmer

Solomon Northup: Sold in to Slavery and Plan to Escape

In the morning, a slaver by the name of Burch announced that he had been bought and was to be shipped to New Orleans. Despite Solomon Northup's insistance that he was free, he was continuously accused of being a runaway slave from Georgia. He was stripped, bent over a bench and flogged until he was too weak to argue the truth. Solomon was then shackled alongside the other slaves in the pen and transported to the freight vessel Orleans; where he and two other illegally kidnapped freemen concocted a plan to take over the brig and sail to New York. Unfortunately this was never realised as one of the kidnapped freemen contracted smallpox died before they reached New Orleans. Taking confidence in a kindly sailor, Solomon Northup wrote a letter to Henry Northup advising of the situation and asking for rescue, which the sailor promised to send on docking. Frustratingly, whilst this was later received, Governor Steward advised Henry Northup to wait until they received further communication from Solomon Northup with an exact location; a decision that would delay Solomon's rescue for 12 years.

Solomon Northup: First Master

Shortly afterward Solomon Northup was sold to a kindly man by the name of William Ford. Considered an expensive chattel, Solomon feared that should his master realise that he had purchased a free man, it was likely that he would be sold on somewhere remote; he therefore made the decision not to ask for assistance.

Solomon Northup: Second Master and Near-Lynching

Unfortunately Solomon Northup was then sold to carpenter John Tibeats, in the winter of 1842 as repayment for the works on Ford's mills and plantations. As the debt was less than Solomon Northup's worth, Ford retained a mortgage on his former slave, which effectively saved his life. Still working on Ford's plantation as a contractor, on one occasion Tibeats flew in to an unreasonable rage and proceeded to attempt to flog Solomon Northup, however, Solomon instead whipped his master until the threats turned to pleas for mercy. The overseer intervened and sent Tibeats on his way, scolding him for his poor treatment of Solomon. Though Tibeats came back to hang his wayward slave, he was reminded by the overseer that Ford still held a financial interest in Solomon and that to kill him would be murder.

Solomon Northup: Final Master and Rescue Attempt

After Tibeats' second attempt to kill Solomon, Tibeats was forced by Ford to sell Solomon on. Unfortunately, Edwin Epps, a frequently inebriated man known for whipping his slaves in the face, was little better. Eventually in June 1852, a carpenter came to the plantation to build a house; one of the hands by the name of Bass, had frequent conversations with Epps in respect of the injustice of slavery and was a known slave sympathiser. Solomon Northup took Bass in to his confidence, and on 15 August 1852, the kind man tried his utmost to assist by sending out numerous letters to Solomon's old friends. As it transpired, one letter reached its intended destination; a store that Solomon Northup used to frequent. It was immediately forwarded to Anne, who had sincec moved to Glen Falls; Anne in turn took the letter to Henry Northup. He found an act passed in 1840 for recovering free citizens from slavery allowing the governor to appoint someone to collect appropriate evidence required for legal proceedings.

Solomon Northup: Rescue

On 23 November 1852, the governor appointed Henry Northup as agent with full power to bring Solomon Northup home. Due to working obligations, Henry Northup could not travel to Louisiana until 14 December, whereupon he sailed to Marksville; the place postmarked on the letter received from Bass, and tracked him down with Judge Waddill from Louisiana. The slaves were working in the field at an early hour when the Sheriff and Henry Northup rode up to them, asking for Platt; the slave name Solomon Northup had been assigned by Burch and Freeman. Solomon Northup recognised Henry Northup and answered the Sheriff's questions before they addressed Epps and took Solomon Northup home. On January 04, Epps signed paperwork to acknowledge Solomon Northup had right to freedom.

Solomon Northup: The Trial

A police report was made on 17 January 1853 in Washington for James Burch's involvement in the kidnap and trade of a free man. At the trial, Solomon Northup was not allowed to give evidence against Burch; as an African American, he was not considered a citizen of America and could not accuse a white person. Burch and his associates had fabricated a story stating they had been the victim of a crime; that the two men claiming to have a slave for a sale defrauded him out of $650, and that Solomon Northup was involved with the fraud. A newspaper article was published to this effect, and Burch was acquitted. It is not known what happened to Solomon Northup after his book was published, but he did advise in his memoirs that he reunited with his wife and children.


1. Solomon Northup - 12 Years a Slave
2. Encyclopaedia Britannica


The Biography of Solomon Northup, the Freeman Illegally Sold in to Slavery

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