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Title & Writer

Twelve Years a Slave (1853; sub-title: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana) is the written work of Solomon Northup; a man who was born free, but was bound into slavery later in life.


The book, which was originally published in 1853, tells the story of how two men approached him under the guise of circus promoters who were interested in his violin skills. They offered him a generous but fair amount of money to work for their circus, and then offered to put him up in a hotel in Washington D.C. Upon arriving there he was drugged, bound, and moved to a slave pen in the city owned by a man named James Birch, which was located in the Yellow House, which was one of several sites where African Americans were sold on the National Mall in DC. Another was Robey’s Tavern; these slave markets were located between the Department of Education and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, within view of the Capitol, according to researcher Jesse Holland, and Solomon's own account. Birch would coerce Solomon into making up a new past for himself, one in which he had been born as a slave in Georgia. Birch told Solomon that if he were ever to reveal his true past to another person he would be killed. When Solomon continually asserts that he is a freeman of New York, Birch violently whips him until Northup has no choice but to comply.

Northup mentions different kind of owners that Solomon had throughout his twelve years as a slave in Louisiana, and how he suffered severly under them: being forced to eat the meager slave diet, live on the dirt floor of a slave cabin, endure numerous beatings, being attacked with an axe, whippings and unimaginable emotional pain from being in such a state. One temporary master he was leased to was named Tibbeats; he man tried to kill him with an axe, but Solomon ended up whipping him instead.

Finally the book discusses how Solomon eventually ended up winning back his freedom. A white carpenter from Canada named Samuel Bass arrived to do some work for Solomon’s current owner and after conversing with him, Solomon realized that Bass was quite different from the other white men he had met in the south; he said he stood out because he was openly laughed at for opposing the sub-human arguments slavery was based on. It was to Bass that Solomon finally confided his story, and ultimately Bass would deliver the letters back to Solomon’s wife that would start the legal process of earning him his freedom back. This was no small matter, for if they had been caught, it could easily have resulted in their death, as Solomon says.

Court Case

Northup decided to press charges against the slave traders that he could identify in Washington, though the men in the circus as they could not be found. Northup was not permitted not give evidence in the case as he was black. One of them then sued Solomon with dubious charges, and now Solomon had to defend himself in court; they dropped the charges and Solomon went free. The New York Times published an article on this trial on January 20, 1853.

Historical Value

Solomon's account describes the daily life of slaves in Bayou Beof, their diet, the relationship between the master and slave, the means that slave catchers used to recapture them and the ugly realities that slaves suffered. Northup's slave narrative is comparable to that of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Ann Jacobs or William Wells Brown, and there are many similarites. Scholars reference this work today; one example is Jesse Holland who referred to him in an interview given on January 20, 2009 on He did so because Solomon's extremely detailed description of Washington in 1841 helps the neuromancers understand the location of some slave markets, and is an important part of understanding that African slaves built many of the monuments in the Washington, including the Capitol & part of the original Executive Mansion.

Additional Material

1) New York Times January 20, 1853 The Kidnapping Case. Narrative of the Seizure and Recovery of Solomon Northrup. Interesting Disclosures. This is an account of Solomon's ordeal and court case in Washington.

2) The Louisiana historian Sue Eakin in 1968 published an edited version of Northup's diary.

3) Jesse Holland's interview January 20, 2009 Jesse Holland on How Slaves Built the White House and the US Capitol

4) Saratoga maintains a website & every year there is a conmemoration known as "Solomon Northup Day", about every July 15th

5) Library of Congress Web page on Solomon Northup and was added by John E. Sweeney, Representative, District 22

Online Versions

The copyright on 12 Years a Slave is expired, and is available from google books, Gettenberg and other sources.


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