Twelve Years a Slave

by Solomon Northup

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Haying been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State — and having at the end of that time been kid- napped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1S53, after a bondage of twelve years — it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.

I Since my return to liberty, I have not failed to per- ceive the increasing interest throughout the Northern States, in regard to the subject of Slavery. "Works of fiction, professing to portray its features in their more pleasing as well as more repugnant aspects, have been


circulated to an extent unprecedented, and, as I un- derstand, have created a fruitful topic of comment and

discussion. I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under

my own observation — only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts : to repeat the story of my life, without- exaggeration, leav- ing it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.

As far back as I have been able to ascertain, my ancestors on the paternal side were slaves in Ehode Island. They belonged to a family by the name of 2SI orthup, one of whom, removing to the State of New- York, settled at Hoosic, in Eensselaer county. He brought with him Mintus ISTorthup, my father. On the death of this gentleman, which must have occur- red some fifty years ago, my father became free, hav- ing been emancipated by a direction in his will.

Henry B. IsTorthup, Esq., of Sandy Hill, a distin- guished counselor at law, and the man to whom, un- der Providence, I am indebted for my present liberty, and my return to the society of my wife and children, is a relative of the family in which my forefathers were thus held to service, and from which they took the name I bear. To this fact may be attributed the persevering interest he has taken in my behalf.

Sometime after my father's liberation, he removed to the town of Minerva, Essex county, 1ST. Y., where I


was born, in the month of July, 1808. How long he remained in the latter place I have not the means of definitely ascertaining. From thence he removed to Granville, Washington county, near a place known as Slyborough, where, for some years, he labored on the farm of Clark 2>Torthup, also a relative of his old mas- ter ; from thence he removed to the Alden farm, at Moss Street, a short distance north of the village of Sandy Hill ; and from thence to the farm now owned by Kussel Pratt, situated on the road leading from Fort Edward to Argyle, where he continued to reside until his death, which took place on the 22d day of November, 1829. He left a widow and two children — myself, and Joseph, an elder brother. The latter is still living in the county of Oswego, near the city of that name ; my mother died during the period of my captivity.

Though born a slave, and laboring under the disad- vantages to which my unfortunate race is subjected, my father was a man respected for his industry and integrity, as many now living, who well remember him, are ready to testify. His whole life was passed in the peaceful pursuits of agriculture, never seeking em- ployment in those more menial positions, which seem to be especially allotted to the children of Africa. Be- sides giving us an education surpassing that ordinari- ly bestowed upon children in our condition, he ac- quired, ( by his diligence and economy, a sufficient property qualification to entitle him to the right of suffrage. He was accustomed to speak to us of his


early life ; and although at all times cherishing the warmest emotions of kindness, and even of affection towards the family, in whose house he had been a bondsman, he nevertheless comprehended the system of Slavery, and dwelt with sorrow on the degradation of his race. He endeavored to imbue our minds with sentiments of morality, and to teach us to place our trust and confidence in Him who regards the humblest as well as the highest of his creatures. How often since that time has the recollection of his paternal counsels occurred to me, while lying in a slave hut in the distant and sickly regions of Louisiana, smarting with the undeserved wounds wdiich an inhuman mas- ter had inflicted, and longing only for the grave which had covered him, to shield me also from the lash of the oppressor. In the church-yard at Sandy Hill, an humble stone marks the spot where he reposes, after having worthily performed the duties appertaining to the lowly sphere wherein God had appointed him to walk.

Up to this period I had been principally engaged with my father in the labors of the farm. The leis- ure hours allowed me were generally either employed over my books, or playing on the violin — an amuse- ment which was the ruling passion of my youth. It has also been the source of consolation since, affording pleasure to the simple beings with whom my lot was cast, and beguiling my own thoughts, for many hours, from the painful contemplation of my fate.

On Christmas dav, 1829, I was married to Anne


Hampton, a colored girl then living in the vicinity of onr residence. The ceremony was performed at Fort Edward, by Timothy Eddy, Esq., a magistrate of that town, and still a prominent citizen of the place. She had resided a long time at Sandy Hill, with Mr. Baird, proprietor of the Eagle Tavern, and also in the family of Rev. Alexander Proudfit, of Salem. This gentleman for many years had presided over the Pres- byterian society at the latter place, and was widely distinguished for his learning and piety. Anne still holds in grateful remembrance the exceeding kindness and the excellent counsels of that good man. She is not able to determine the exact line of her de- scent, but the blood of three races mingles in her veins. It is difficult to tell whether the red, white, or black predominates. The union of them all, however, in her origin, has given her a singular but pleasing expression, such as is rarely to be seen. Though somewhat resembling, yet she cannot properly be styled a quadroon, a class to which, I have omitted to mention, my mother belonged.

I had just now passed the period of my minority, having reached the age of twenty-one years in the month of July previous. Deprived of the advice and assistance of my father, with a wife dependent upon me for support, I resolved to enter upon a life of in- dustry ; and notwithstanding the obstacle of color, and the consciousness of my lowly state, indulged in pleasant dreams of a good time coming, when the pos- session of some humble habitation, with a few sur-


rounding acres, should reward my labors, and bring me the means of happiness and comfort.

From the time of my marriage to this day the love I have borne my wife has been sincere and unabated; and only those who have felt the glowing tenderness a father cherishes for his offspring, can appreciate my affection for the beloved children which have since been born to us. This much I deem appropriate and necessary to say, in order that those who read these pages, may comprehend the poignancy of those suf- ferings I have been doomed to bear.

Immediately upon our marriage we commenced house-keeping, in the old yellow building then stand- ing at the southern extremity of Fort Edward village, and which has since been transformed into a modern mansion, and lately occupied by Captain Lathrop. It is known as the Fort ■ House. In this building the courts were sometime held after the organization of the county. It was also occupied by Burgoyne in 1777, being situated near the old Fort on the left bank of the Hudson.

During the winter I was employed with others re- pairing the Champlain Canal, on that section over which "William Van Nortwick was superintendent. David McEachron had the immediate charge of the men in whose company I labored. By the time the canal opened in the spring, I was enabled, from the savings of ,my wages, to purchase a pair of horses, and other things necessarily required in the business of navigation.


Having hired several efficient hands to assist me, I entered into contracts for the transportation of large rafts of timber from Lake Champlain to Troy. Dyer Beckwith and a Mr. Bartemy, of Whitehall, accompa- nied me on several trips. During the season I be- came perfectly familiar with the art and mysteries of rafting — a knowledge which afterwards enabled me to render profitable service to a worthy master, and to astonish the simple-witted lumbermen on the banks of the Bayou Bceuf.

In one of my voyages down Lake Champlain, I was induced to make a visit to Canada. Repairing to Montreal, I visited the cathedral and other places of interest in that city, from whence I continued my ex- cursion to Kingston and other towns, obtaining a knowledge of localities, which was also of service to me afterwards, as will appear towards the close of this narrative.

Having completed my contracts on the canal satis- factorily to myself and to my employer, and not wish- ing to remain idle, now that the navigation of the ca- nal was again suspended, I entered into another con- tract with Medad Gunn, to cut a large quantity of wood. In this business I was engaged during the winter of 1831-32.

"With the return of spring, Anne and myself con- ceived the project of taking a farm in the neighbor- hood. I had been accustomed from earliest youth to agricultural labors, and it was an occupation conge- nial to my tastes. I accordingly entered into arrange-


ment's for a part of the old Alden farm, on which my father formerly resided. "With one cow, one swine, a yoke of fine oxen I had lately purchased of Lewis Brown, in Hartford, and other personal property and effects, we proceeded to our new home in Kingsbury. That year I planted twenty-five acres of corn, sowed large fields of oats, and commenced farming upon as large a scale as my utmost means would permit. Anne was diligent about the house affairs, while I toiled laboriously in the field.

On this place we continued to reside until 1834. In the winter season I had numerous calls to play on the violin. Wherever the young people assembled to dance, I was almost invariably there. Throughout the surrounding villages my fiddle was notorious. Anne, also, during her long residence at the Eagle Tavern, had become somewhat famous as a cook. During court weeks, and on public occasions, she was employed at high wages in the kitchen at Sherrill's Coffee House.

"We always returned home from the performance of these services with money in our pockets ; so that, with fiddling, cooking, and farming, we soon found ourselves in the possession of abundance, and, in fact, leading a happy and prosperous life. "Well, indeed, would it have been for us had we remained on the farm at Kingsbury ; but the time came when the next step was to be taken towards the cruel destiny that awaited me.

In March, 1834, we removed to Saratoga Springs.


We occupied a house belonging to Daniel O'Brien, on the north side of Washington street. At that time Isaac Taylor kept a large boarding house, known as Washington Hall, at the north end of Broadway. He employed me to drive a hack, in which capacity 1 worked for him two years. After this time I was generally employed through the visiting season, as also was Anne, in the United States Hotel, and other public houses of the place. In winter seasons I re- lied upon my violin, though during the construction of the Troy and Saratoga railroad, I performed many hard days 1 labor upon it.

I was in the habit, at Saratoga, of purchasing arti cles necessary for my family at the stores of Mr. Ce phas Parker and Mr. William Perry, gentlemen towards whom, for many acts of kindness, I enter- tained feelings of strong regard. It was for this rea- son that, twelve years afterwards, I caused to be di- rected to them the letter, which is hereinafter insert- ed, and which was the means, in the hands of Mr. Northup, of my fortunate deliverance.

While living at the United States Hotel, I frequent- ly met with slaves, who had accompanied their mas- ters from the South. They were always well dressed and well provided for, leading apparently an easy life, with but few of its ordinary troubles to perplex them. Many times they entered into conversation with me on the subject of Slavery. Almost uniformly I found they cherished a secret desire for liberty. Some of them expressed the most ardent anxiety to escape, and


consulted me on the best method of effecting it. The fear of punishment, however, which they knew was certain to attend their re-capture and return, in all cases proved sufficient to deter them from the exper- iment. Having all my life breathed the free air of the North, and conscious that I possessed the same feelings and affections that find a place in the white man's breast ; conscious, moreover, of an intelligence equal to that of some men, at least, with a fairer skin, I was too ignorant, perhaps too independent, to con- ceive how any one could be content to live in the ab- ject condition of a slave. I could not comprehend the justice of that law, or that religion, which upholds or recognizes the principle of Slavery ; and never once, I am proud to say, did I fail to counsel any one who came to me, to watch his opportunity, and strike for freedom.

I continued to reside at Saratoga until the spring of 1841. The flattering anticipations which, seven years before, had seduced us from the quiet farm-house, on the east side of the Hudson, had not been realized. Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered. The society and associations at that world-renowned watering place, were not calculated to preserve the simple habits of industry and economy to which I had been accustomed, but, on the contrary, to substitute others in their stead, tending to shift- lessness and extravagance.

At this time we were the parents of three children — Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. Elizabeth, the


eldest, was in her tenth, year; Margaret was two years younger, and little Alonzo had just passed his fifth birth-day. They filled onr house with gladness. Their young voices were music in our ears. Many an airy castle did their mother and myself build for the little innocents. When not at labor I was always walking with them, clad in their best attire, through the streets and groves of Saratoga. Their presence was my delight ; and I clasped them to my bosom with as warm and tender love as if their clouded skins had been as white as snow.

Thus far the history of my life presents nothing whatever unusual — nothing but the common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure colored man, ma- king his humble progress in the world. But now I had reached a turning point in my existence — reach- ed the threshold of unutterable wrong, and sorrow, and despair. Kow had I approached within the shad- ow of the cloud, into the thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear, thenceforward to be hidden from the eyes of all my kindred, and shut out from the sweet light of liberty, for many a weary year. s

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