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The entire text of "Twelve Years a Slave" by Solomon Northup



Snatched Up and Sold Into Slavery:
The Story of Solomon Northup

Nick at Capitol Hill

Wouldn't it be nice to be famous? To play an instrument so well that people flock from miles around to come hear you play? Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York thought so. So when two friendly white men offered him a shot at stardom, to make a good living playing his fiddle in the circus, Solomon jumped at the chance. These men lavished Solomon with praise, and offered to pay his train fare from New York to Washington D.C., where they promised he would become a famous fiddler. The opportunity to provide for his family by playing music seemed amazing to Solomon, and he boarded the train with them that very day. It simply seemed too good to be true.

And in the most horrifying way imaginable, it was.


These two "friendly" white men had no intention of making Solomon and his music famous, but instead took him to D.C. to play out a far more treacherous scheme. The night they arrived in our nation's capitol, they took Solomon out drinking at a local bar. There, they slipped a drug into his drink that left Solomon horribly sick and barely conscious. When he awoke he felt like he had been sleeping for weeks and weeks. As he looked around, Solomon realized that he was in a dark, cold, wet pen of some sort. It was like a jail, but even worse. It had a horrid smell that wouldn't go away and the floor was made of wooden planks. Slumped upon them, Solomon felt dazed and confused about how he got there and what was going to happen to him. He could see a little light shining through the bars of the pen. Beyond the bars, he could see the White House and the Capital building of the United States, symbols of the "land of the free," where Solomon himself had been born free. In this tiny holding cell, a strike of fear came over Solomon as he recalled stories of the vicious slave trade that went on in D.C. where thousands of black men and women, boys and girls had been sold into slavery. He lay there naked on the wooden floor, without any papers to declare himself a free man, scared and wondering what would happen next.

The door swung open with force behind Solomon. Two very huge men entered and proceeded to severely beat Solomon, telling him to never speak of his freedom again. They took Solomon in front of a crowd of people and auctioned him off as callously as if he were a cow, a pig or some other farm animal that was less than human. As Solomon stumbled down the stairs into the hands of a man who now owned him, he was completely stripped of his humanity. Solomon was eventually loaded onto a boat packed with slaves on the Mississippi, and sold "down the river" to southern Louisiana, the most dreaded destination a slave could encounter. There, Solomon's fate was sealed, and twelve years of terror began.

Although Solomon was first sold to a very kind owner named Mr. Ford, that tolerable situation did not last long. Ford fell into debt, and sold Solomon to settle his financial problems. Luckily, the price that was put on Solomon was worth more than the debt, so Ford retained "credit" on Solomon even after the deal was made.

From one tiny slave cabin to another

John M. Tibaut was a malicious owner, who was quick to become enraged and violent. One day, Solomon picked the wrong nail to use for a project, and Tibaut ordered him to strip for his whipping punishment. Solomon refused, and when Tibaut came after him, Solomon "grabbed him, flipped him on his back and pinned him by the neck with his foot." With the man who had antagonized him daily now at his mercy, Solomon "beat Tibaut until his screams were heard in the field," and the overseer rode in to intervene.

To strike a white master was a crime punishable by death. Tibaut wasted no time binding Solomon by hand and foot and dragging him to a tree to be hung. This would have been Solomon's fate had Mr. Ford not still owned $400 worth of Solomon's life. When the overseer reminded Tibaut of this financial fact, Tibaut agreed to let Solomon live rather than owe Ford money. He rented Solomon out to another plantation for a month so that the two men would have time to cool down from their anger. Eventually, however, Solomon was returned to Tibaut, and things got messy on his third day back. Enraged by another mistake in his work, Tibaut tried to attack Solomon with a hatchet. Again, Solomon fought back and this time, strangled Tibaut, stopping just before killing him.

Solomon disappeared into the swamp to survive

At this point, Solomon knew he had to escape. Pursued by his masters' vicious dogs, Solomon fled off the plantation and into the surrounding swamp. "For thirty or forty miles," he writes, the swamp was "without inhabitants, save wild beasts - the bear, the wild-cat, the tiger, and great slimy reptiles that are crawling through it everywhere." Alternately swimming, crawling, walking and running, Solomon traveled through the jet-black night. Every moment, he was afraid that he would "feel the dreadful sting of the [poisonous water] moccasin, or be crushed within the jaws of some disturbed alligator."

What frightful things exist in the fearsome swamp?

Finally, Solomon made it out of the swamp and to the house of his first master, the kind Mr. Ford. There, Solomon slept, ate, and washed the swamp slime, muck and mud from his aching body. After four days of rest, however, Ford led Solomon back to Tibaut. To Solomon's joy, Ford convinced Tibaut to sell Solomon so that the two men would not continue to clash violently with each other.

Unfortunately, this wasn't quite the stroke of luck Solomon had hoped for. His new master was the very picture of a terrible demon, for "Edwin Epps was known in the racist terms of the time as a 'nigger breaker' and he was proud of it." The ten years that followed for Solomon were filled with hard work, meager food rations, and constant fear..

Fear of oversleeping each morning and not being in the fields by daybreak.
Fear of being caught lagging during the workday.
Fear of not collecting enough cotton to be turned in each evening.
Fear of collecting too much cotton and being expected to work to that extreme each day.
tools slaves used to labor on a plantation

Hardly a day passed when Solomon was not subjected to a beating, but one of the most terrible accounts of human cruelty unfolded when Solomon was forced to whip a fellow slave himself. Epps had been using a slave named Patsey for sex as well as fieldwork. One day when she was at a neighboring plantation getting some soap, Epps assumed she was sleeping with his neighbor and became enraged with jealousy. He ordered Patsey to be stripped naked and stretched onto her stomach with her hands and feet tied to four stakes hammered in the ground. Solomon was then ordered to whip his friend, and did so - 45 times. The crazed Epps picked up the whip himself when Solomon refused to continue and beat Patsey more viciously than Solomon had ever seen before.


Teddy and I stayed up really late watching the election on Television

Solomon's nightmarish experiences with Epps continued long after the workday ended. Often he was subjected to Epps' favorite form of nighttime entertainment: commanding his slaves to "dance" to the crack of his whip. This embarrassing show "might go on until dawn, when the master passed out, and the slaves were forced into the fields." The utter humiliation and degradation these men and women faced daily was an intentional attempt to keep them in "their place." Since they were outnumbered drastically, white masters constantly belittled and tortured their black slaves so that the slaves might lose sight of their own humanity, and the master would not have to live in constant fear of an uprising.

After surviving twelve years of this insanity (twelve years!) Solomon's luck finally changed. Epps made the mistake of hiring a white Canadian carpenter to help build him a new plantation house. Working alongside the northerner, Solomon realized that this man might be sympathetic to his plight. Samuel Bass was the one white man he had met in his entire time in the south that was actually against slavery. Solomon was able to convince Bass that he had been to Canada in his life as a free man, and Bass was horrified by Solomon's tragic tale. The two arranged to meet in secret that night to discuss what could be done to release Solomon from this awful bondage. Solomon composed a letter to Henry Northup, the nephew of the white master who had freed Solomon's grandfather in his will.

 a slave cabin has only the barest necessities

Bass sent the letter to New York, and six months later, Henry miraculously arrived at Epps' plantation with the proper documentation of Solomon's free status.

The freedom that Solomon Northup had been born with was finally given back to him. His story was so incredible, that ironically, the fame he once sought as a fiddler now came to him as a survivor. Abolitionists in D.C. and the rest of the North used Northup's kidnapping as an argument against slavery in the years before the Civil War. Although his story received a lot of press in the North, it would most certainly have been lost to us today if he had not written his experiences into a book entitled "Twelve Years A Slave." Solomon's gift to us is an invaluable understanding of slavery.

Slavery at its "best" was a disgusting way of life, but Solomon was confronted with plantation life at its worst, and the pages of his book are filled with reliable examples of the horrors of America's darkest era.


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


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