Solomon Northup – whose resting place is “Known unto God”

At the end of the film 12 Years a Slave Solomon Northup vanishes from the historical record. Strangely, the place and date of his death are unknown.

solomon_northup_001Solomon Northup (1808-63?) wrote the memoir Twelve Years a Slave. The son of a freed slave, he owned land in Hebron, New York State, that he farmed. In 1841 he was kidnapped by slave traders, having been enticed to Washington, D.C., (where slavery was legal) to take a temporary job as a violinist with a circus company.

Shortly after arriving in Washington, his “employers” drugged him and sold him as a slave. Shipped to New Orleans, for 12 years he was held by several different owners in the Red River valley of Louisiana (an area of white vigilante and paramilitary violence after the Civil War, as insurgents tried to regain power after the South’s defeat). Apart from a brief communication when he was first taken, his family and friends had no knowledge of him.

After several years, Northup confided in a Canadian working on his plantation, a man who opposed slavery and was willing to risk contacting his family and friends. They enlisted the help of the Governor of New York, since State law provided aid to free New York citizens kidnapped into slavery. Northup regained his freedom on 3 January 1853 and returned to his family. That’s where the film ends.

The slave trader in Washington, D.C. (James H. Birch) was arrested and tried, but acquitted because District of Columbia law prohibited Northup as a black man from testifying against white people. Later, in New York State, Northup’s kidnappers were located and charged, but the case was tied up due to jurisdictional challenges and finally dropped when Washington D.C. was found to have jurisdiction. The case was not pursued and those who kidnapped and enslaved Northup received no punishment.

Northup published his memoir Twelve Years a Slave in 1853. He lectured on behalf of the abolitionist movement, giving many speeches throughout the northeast about his experiences in order to strengthen public opinion against slavery. The memoir is dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “whose name, throughout the world, is identified with the Great Reform.”

Solomon Northup rescued from hangingTwelve Years a Slave was dictated to New York lawyer and legislator David Wilson, who edited the text, noting Solomon’s distinction “that among slaveholders there are men of humanity as well as of cruelty. Some of them are spoken of with emotions of gratitude – others in a spirit of bitterness.”

The memoir was published during the ferment of public debate and increasingly subversive actions that led up to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. But where was Solomon Northup during that time? What was he doing? No contemporary evidence mentions him after 1857.

After the Civil War, Northup disappears from the public record. The New York state census of 1865 records his wife Anne as married, not widowed, living with their daughter and son-in-law, Margaret and Philip Stanton, in Saratoga County. But it does not mention Solomon. When Anne died in 1876, some newspaper notices of her death said that she was a widow. One obituary, while praising Anne, notes of Solomon Northup that “after exhibiting himself through the country [he] became a worthless vagabond.”

In Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave (2013), the authors claim that he most likely died of natural causes, although no one knows where he is buried. The book’s authors have tried to solve that mystery for almost two decades, visiting graveyards and combing through old death notices. “We know where his son is buried. We know where his father is buried. But we don’t know where he’s buried.”

At the end of Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup writes, “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 … Chastened and subdued in spirit by the sufferings I have borne … I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps.”

It was a wish that would remain hauntingly unfulfilled.


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