Twelve Years a Slave

by Solomon Northup

Previous Chapter Next Chapter












As the sun approached the meridian that day it be- came insufferably warm. Its hot rays scorched the ground. The earth almost blistered the foot that stood upon it. I was without coat or hat, standing bare- headed, exposed to its burning blaze. Great drops of perspiration rolled down my face, drenching the scanty apparel wherewith I was clothed. Over the fence, a very little way off, the peach trees cast their cool, delicious shadows on the grass. I would gladly have given a long year of service to have been ena- bled to exchange the heated oven, as it were, where- in I stood, for a seat beneath their branches. But I was yet bound, the rope still dangling from my neck, and standing in the same tracks where Tibeats and his comrades left me. I could not move an inch, so firmly had I been bound. To have been enabled to


lean against the weaving house would have been a luxury indeed. But it was far beyond my reach, though distant less than twenty feet. I wanted to lie down, but knew I could not rise again. The ground was so parched and boiling hot I was aware it would but add to the discomfort of my situation. If I could have only moved my position, however slightly, it would have been relief unspeakable. But the hot rays of a southern sun, beating all the long summer day on my bare head, produced not half the suffer- ing I experienced from my aching limbs. My wrists and ankles, and the cords of my legs and arms began to swell, burying the rope that bound them into the swollen flesh.

All day Chapin walked back and forth upon the stoop, but not once approached me. He appeared to be in a state of great uneasiness, looking first towards me, and then up the road, as if expecting some arrival every moment. He did not go to the field, as was his custom. It was evident from his man- ner that he supposed Tib eats would return with more and better armed assistance, perhaps, to renew the quarrel, and it was equally evident he had prepared his mind to defend my life at whatever hazard. Why he did not relieve me — why he suffered me to remain in agony the whole weary day, I never knew. It was not for want of sympathy, I am certain. Per- haps he wished Ford to see the rope about my neck, and the brutal manner in which I had been bound ; perhaps his interference with another's property in


which, he had no legal interest might have been a trespass, which would have subjected him to the pen- alty of the law. "Why Tibeats was all day absent was another mystery I never could divine. He knew well enough that Chapin would not harm him unless he persisted in his design against me. Lawson told me afterwards, that, as he passed the plantation of John David Cheney, he saw the three, and that they turned and looked after him as he flew by. I think his sup- position was, that Lawson had been sent out by Over- seer Chapin to arouse the neighboring planters, and to call on them to come to his assistance. He, there- fore, undoubtedly, acted on the principle, that " dis cretion is the better part of valor," and kept away.

But whatever motive may have governed the cow- ardly and malignant tyrant, it is of no importance. There I still stood in the noon-tide sun, groaning with pain. From long before daylight I had not eaten a morsel. I was growing faint from pain, and thirst, and hunger. Once only, in the very hottest portion of the day, Rachel, half fearful she was acting con- trary to the overseer's wishes, ventured to me, and held a cup of water to my lips. The humble crea- ture never knew, nor could she comprehend if she had heard them, the blessings I invoked upon her, for that balmy draught. She could only say, " Oh, Piatt, how I do pity you," and then hastened back to her labors in the kitchen.

ISTever did the sun move so slowly through the heavens — never did it shower down such fervent and


fiery rays, as it did that day. At least, so it app ear- ed to me. What my meditations were — the innume- rable thoughts that thronged through my distracted brain — I will not attempt to give expression to, Suffice it to say, during the whole long day I came not to the conclusion, even once, that the southern slave, fed, clothed, whipped and protected by his master, is happier than the free colored citizen of the Korth. To that conclusion I have never since arri- ved. There are many, however, even in the Northern States, benevolent and well-disposed men, who will pronounce my opinion erroneous, and gravely proceed to substantiate the assertion with an argument. Alas ! they have never drank, as I have, from the bitter cup of slavery. Just at sunset my heart leaped with un- bounded joy, as Ford came riding into the yard, his horse covered with foam. Chapin met him at the door, and after conversing a short time, he walked directly to me.

" Poor Piatt, you are in a bad state," was the only expression that escaped his lips.

" Thank God !" said I, « thank God, Master Ford, that you have come at last."

Drawing a knife from his pocket, he indignantly cut the cord from my wrists, arms, and ankles, and slipped the noose from my neck. I attempted to walk, but staggered like a drunken man, and fell par- tially to the ground.

Ford returned immediately to the house, leaving me alone again. As he reached the piazza, Tibeats


and his two friends rode up. A long dialogue fol- lowed. I could hear the sound of their voices, the mild tones of Ford mingling with the angry accents of Tibeats, but was unable to distinguish what was said. Finally the three departed again, apparently not well pleased.

I endeavored to raise the hammer, thinking to show Ford how willing I was to work, by proceeding with my labors on the weaving house, but it fell from my nerveless hand. At dark I crawled into the cabin, and laid down. I was in great misery — all sore and swollen — the slightest movement producing excruci- ating suffering. Soon the hands came in from the field. Rachel, when she went after Lawson, had told them what had happened. Eliza and Mary broiled I me a piece of bacon, but my appetite was gone. Then they scorched some corn meal and made coffee. It was all that I could take. Eliza consoled me and was very kind. It was not long before the cabin was full of-slaves. They gathered round me, asking many questions about the difficulty with Tibeats in the morning — and the particulars of all the occurrences of the day. Then Rachel came in, and in her simple language, repeated it over again — 'dwelling emphat- ically on the kick that sent Tibeats rolling over on the ground — ■ whereupon there was a general titter throughout the crowd. Then she described how Cha- pin walked out with his pistols and rescued me, and how Master Ford cut the ropes with his knife, just as if he was mad.

lawson's ride. 123

By this time Lawson had returned. He had to regale them with an account of his trip to the Pine "Woods — how the brown mule bore him faster than a " streak o' lightnin" — how he astonished everybody as he flew along — how Master Ford started right away — how he said Piatt was a good nigger, and they shouldn't kill him, concluding with pretty strong intimations that there was not another human being in the wide world, who could have created such a universal sensation on the road, or performed such a marvelous John Gilpin feat, as he had done that day on the brown mule.

The kind creatures loaded me with the expression of their sympathy — saying, Tibeats was a hard, cruel man, and hoping " Massa Ford" would get me back again. In this manner they passed the time, discus- sing, chatting, talking over and over again the exci- ting affair, until suddenly Chapin presented himself at the cabin door and called me.

" Piatt," said he, " you will sleep on the floor in the great house to-night ; bring your blanket with you."

I arose as quickly as I was able, took my blanket in my hand, and followed him. On the way he in- formed me that he should not wonder if Tibeats was back again before morning — that he intended to kill me — and that he did not mean he should do it with- out witnesses. Had he stabbed me to the heart in the presence of a hundred slaves, not one of them, by the laws of Louisiana, could have given evidence against him. I laid down on the floor in the " great


house" — the first and the last time such a sumptu- ous resting place was granted me during my twelve years of bondage — and tried to sleep. Near midnight the dog began to bark. Chapin arose, looked from the window, but could discover nothing. At length the dog was quiet. As he returned to his room, he said,

" I believe, Piatt, that scoundrel is skulking about the premises somewhere. If the dog barks again, and I am sleeping, wake me."

I promised to do so. After the lapse of an hour or more, the dog re-commenced his clamor, running towards the gate, then back again, all the while bark- ing furiously.

Chapin was out of bed without waiting to be called. On this occasion, he stepped forth upon the piazza, and remained standing there a considerable length of time. Nothing, however, was to be seen, and the dog returned to his kennel. We were not disturbed again during the night. The excessive pain that I suffered, and the dread of some impending danger, prevented any rest whatever. Whether or not Tibe- ats did actually return to the plantation that night, seeking an opportunity to wreak his vengeance upon me, is a secret known only to himself, perhaps. I thought then, however, and have the strong impres- sion still, that he was there. At all events, he had the disposition of an assassin — cowering before a brave man's words, but ready to strike his helpless or unsuspecting victim in the back, as I had reason af- terwards to know.

chapin's appearance. 125

At daylight in the morning, I arose, sore and wea- ry, having rested little. Nevertheless, after partaking breakfast, which Mary and Eliza had prepared for me in the cabin, I proceeded to the weaving and commenced the labors of another day. It was Cha- pin's practice, as it is the practice of overseers gen- erally, immediately on arising, to bestride his horse, always saddled and bridled and ready for him — ■ the particular business of some slave — and ride into the field. This morning, on the contrary, he came to the weaving house, asking if I had seen anything of Tibeats yet. Replying in the negative, he remarked there was something not right about the fellow — there was bad blood in him' — that I must keep a sharp watch of him, or he would do me wrong some day when I least expected it.

"While he was yet speaking, Tibeats rode in, hitched his horse, and entered the house. I had little fear of him while Ford and Chapin were at hand, but they could not be near me always.

Oh ! how heavily the weight of slavery pressed upon me then. I must toil day after day, endure abuse and taunts and scoffs, sleep on the hard ground, live on the coarsest fare, and not only this, but live the slave of a blood-seeking wretch, of whom I must stand henceforth in continued fear and dread. "Why had I not died in my young years — before God had given me children to love and live for ? What un- happiness and suffering and sorrow it would have prevented. I sighed for liberty ; but the bondman's


clmin was round me, and could not be shaken off. I could only gaze wistfully towards the North, and think of the thousands of miles that stretched between me and the soil of freedom, over which a black free- man may not pass.

Tibeats, in the course of half an hour, walked over to the weaving-house, looked at me sharply, then re- turned without saying anything. Most of the fore- noon he sat on the piazza, reading a newspaper and conversing with Ford. After dinner, the latter left for the Pine Woods, and it was indeed with regret that I beheld him depart from the plantation.

Once more during the day Tibeats came to me, gave me some order, and returned.

During the week the weaving-house was completed — Tibeats in the meantime making no allusion what- ever to the difficulty — when I was informed he had hired me to Peter Tanner, to work under another car- penter by the name of Myers. This announcement was received with gratification, as any place was de- sirable that would relieve me of his hateful presence.

Peter Tanner, as the reader has already been in- formed, lived on the opposite shore, and was the broth- er of Mistress Ford. He is one of the most- extensive planters on Bayou Bceuf, and owns a large number of slaves.

Over I went to Tanner's, joyfully enough. He had heard of my late difficulties — in fact, I ascertained the flogging of Tibeats was soon blazoned far and wide. This affair, together with my rafting experiment, had


rendered me somewhat notorious. More than once I heard it said that Piatt Ford, now Piatt Tibeats — a slave's name changes with his change of master — was " a devil of a nigger." But I was destined to make a still further noise, as will presently be seen, through- out the little world of Bayou Bceuf.

Peter Tanner endeavored to impress upon me the idea that he was quite severe, though I could per- ceive there was a vein of good humor in the old fel- low, after all.

" You're the nigger," he said to me on my arrival • — " You're the nigger that flogged your master, eh? You're the nigger that kicks, and holds carpenter Tibeats by the leg, and wallops him, are ye 2 I'd like to see you hold me by the leg — I should. You're a 'portant character — you're a great nigger — very re- markable nigger, ain't ye ? Pd lash you — Pd take the tantrums out of ye. Jest take hold of my leg, if you please. None of your pranks here, my boy, re- member that. Now go to work, you hichi/n? rascal," concluded Peter Tanner, unable to suppress a half- comical grin at his own wit and sarcasm.

After listening to this salutation, I was taken charge of by Myers, and labored under his direction for a, to his and my own satisfaction. / Like William Pord, his brother-in-law, Tanner was j irithe habit of reading the Bible to his slaves on the Sabbath, but in a somewhat different spirit. He was an impressive commentator on the New Testament. The first Sunday after my coming to the plantation,


he called them together, and began to read the twelfth chapter of Luke. When he came to the 47th verse, he looked deliberately around him, and continued — " And that servant which knew his lord's will" — 'here he paused, looking around more deliberately than be- fore, and again proceeded — " which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself" — here was another pause — "prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.''' 1

" D'ye hear that ? " demanded Peter, emphatically. " Stripes" he repeated, slowly and distinctly, taking off his spectacles, preparatory to making a few re- marks.

" That nigger that don't take care — that don't obey his lord — that's his master — d'ye see ? — that 'ere nigger shall be beaten with many stripes. Now, 'many' signifies a great many — forty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty lashes. That's Scripter ! " and so Peter continued to elucidate the subject for a great length of time, much to the edification of his sable audience.

At the conclusion of the exercises, calling up three of his slaves, Warner, Will and Major, he cried out to me —

" Here, Piatt, you held Tibeats by the legs ; now I'll see if you can hold these rascals in the same way, till I get back from meetm'."

Thereupon he ordered them to the stocks — a com- mon thing on plantations in the Red River country. The stocks are formed of two planks, the lower one


made fast at the ends to two short posts, driven firmly into the ground. At regular distances half circles are cut in the upper edge. The other plank is fas- tened to one of the posts by a hinge, so that it can be opened or shut down, in the same manner as the blade of a pocket-knife is shut or opened. In the lower edge of the upper plank corresponding half circles are also cut. so that When they close, a row of holes is formed large enough to admit a negro's leg above the ankle, but not large enough to enable him to draw out his foot. The other end of the upper plank, opposite the hinge, is fastened to its post by lock and key. The slave is made to sit upon the ground, when the upper- most plank is elevated, his legs, just above the ankles, placed in the sub-half circles, and shutting it down again, and locking it, he is held secure and fast. Yery often the neck instead of the ankle is enclosed. In this manner they are held during the operation of whipping.

Warner, "Will and Major, according to Tanner's ac- count of them, were melon-stealing, Sabbath-break- ing niggers, and not approving of such wickedness, he felt it his duty to put them in the stocks. Handing me the key, himself, Myers, Mistress Tanner and the children entered the carriage and drove away to church at Cheney ville. When they were gone, the boys begged me to let them out. I felt sorry to see them sitting on the hot ground, and remembered my own sufferings in the sun. Upon their promise to re- turn to the stocks at any moment they were required F* 9


to do so, I consented to release them. Grateful for the lenity shown them, and in order in some meas- ure to repay it, they could do no less, of course, than pilot me to the melon-patch. Shortly before Tanner's return, they were in the stocks again. Finally he drove up, and looking at the boys, said, with a chuckle, —

" Aha ! ye havn't been strolling about much to-day, any way. I'll teach you what's what, fll tire ye of eating water-melons on the Lord's day, ye Sabbath- breaking niggers."

Ppitfir Tarmp.r prided himself upon his strict r eligious obse rvances: he was a dp.;ip.rm in fhp rhm-ph

"But I have now reached a point in the progress of my narrative, when it becomes necessary to turn away from these light descriptions, to the more grave and weighty matter of the second battle with Master Tib- eats, and the flight through the great Pacoudrie Swamp.

Return to the Twelve Years a Slave Summary Return to the Solomon Northup Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson