Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave

4.2 364
by Solomon Northup

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Kidnapped into slavery in 1841, Northup spent 12 years in captivity. This autobiographical memoir represents an exceptionally detailed and accurate description of slave life and plantation society. 7 illustrations. Index.  See more details below


Kidnapped into slavery in 1841, Northup spent 12 years in captivity. This autobiographical memoir represents an exceptionally detailed and accurate description of slave life and plantation society. 7 illustrations. Index.

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"A moving, vital testament." ---Saturday Review
Saturday Review
"A moving, vital testament."

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Twelve Years a Slave

By Solomon Northup

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1970 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-79184-5



Having 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 kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, 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.

Since my return to liberty, I have not failed to perceive 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 understand, 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, leaving 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 Rhode Island. They belonged to a family by the name of Northup, one of whom, removing to the State of New-York, settled at Hoosic, in Rensselaer county. He brought with him Mintus Northup, my father. On the death of this gentleman, which must have occurred some fifty years ago, my father became free, having been emancipated by a direction in his will.

Henry B. Northup, Esq., of Sandy Hill, a distinguished counselor at law, and the man to whom, under 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, N. Y., where I was born, in the month of July, 1808. How long lie 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 Northup, also a relative of his old master; 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 Russel 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 disadvantages 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 employment in those more menial positions, which seem to be especially allotted to the children of Africa. Besides giving us an education surpassing that ordinarily bestowed upon children in our condition, he acquired, 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 which an inhuman master 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 leisure hours allowed me were generally either employed over my books, or playing on the violin—an amusement 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 day, 1829, I was married to Anne Hampton, a colored girl then living in the vicinity of our 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 Presbyterian 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 descent, 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 industry; and notwithstanding the obstacle of color, and the consciousness of my lowly state, indulged in pleasant dreams of a good time coming, when the possession of some humble habitation, with a few surrounding 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 sufferings I have been doomed to bear.

Immediately upon our marriage we commenced house-keeping, in the old yellow building then standing 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 repairing 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 Late Champlain to Troy. Dyer Beckwith and a Mr. Bartemy, of "Whitehall, accompanied me on several trips. During the season I became 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 Bœuf.

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 excursion 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 satisfactorily to myself and to my employer, and not wishing to remain idle, now that the navigation of the canal was again suspended, I entered into another contract with Medad Gunn, to cut a large quantity of wood. Li this business I was engaged during the winter of 1831–32.

"With the return of spring, Anne and myself conceived the project of taking a farm in the neighborhood. I had been accustomed from earliest youth to agricultural labors, and it was an occupation congenial to my tastes. I accordingly entered into arrangements 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 com, 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 I 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 relied upon my violin, though during the construction of the Troy and Saratoga railroad, I performed many hard days' labor upon it.

I was in the habit, at Saratoga, of purchasing articles necessary for my family at the stores of Mr. Cephas Parker and Mr. William Perry, gentlemen towards whom, for many acts of kindness, I entertained feelings of strong regard. It was for this reason that, twelve years afterwards, I caused to be directed to them the letter, which is hereinafter inserted, and which was the means, in the hands of Mr. Northup, of my fortunate deliverance.

While living at the United States Hotel, I frequently met with slaves, who had accompanied their masters 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 experiment. 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 conceive how any one could be content to live in the abject condition of a slave. I could not comprehend the justice of that law, or that religion, which upholds or recognizes the principle of Slavery; land 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 farmhouse, 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 shiftlessness 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 our 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, making his humble progress in the world. But now I had reached a turning point in my existence—reached the threshold of unutterable wrong, and sorrow, and despair. How had I approached within the shadow 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.



One morning, towards the latter part of the month of March, 1841, having at that time no particular business to engage my attention, I was walking about the village of Saratoga Springs, thinking to myself where I might obtain some present employment, until the busy season should arrive. Anne, as was her usual custom, had gone over to Sandy Hill, a distance of some twenty miles, to take charge of the culinary department at Sherrill's Coffee House, during the session of the court. Elizabeth, I think, had accompanied her. Margaret and Alonzo were with their aunt at Saratoga.

On the corner of Congress street and Broadway, near the tavern, then, and for aught I know to the contrary, still kept by Mr. Moon, I was met by two gentlemen of respectable appearance, both of whom were entirely unknown to me. I have the impression that they were introduced to me by some one of my acquaintances, but who, I have in vain endeavored to recall, with the remark that I was an expert player on the violin.

At any rate, they immediately entered into conversation on that subject, making numerous inquiries touching my proficiency in that respect. My responses being to all appearances satisfactory, they proposed to engage my services for a short period, stating, at the same time, I was just such a person as their business required. Their names, as they afterwards gave them to me, were Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, though whether these were their true appellations, I have strong reasons to doubt. The former was a man apparently forty years of age, somewhat short and thick-set, with a countenance indicating shrewdness and intelligence. He wore a black frock coat and black hat, and said he resided either at Rochester or at Syracuse. The latter was a young man of fair complexion and light eyes, and, I should judge, had not passed the age of twenty-five. He was tall and slender, dressed in a snuff-colored coat, with glossy hat, and vest of elegant pattern. His whole apparel was in the extreme of fashion. His appearance was somewhat effeminate, but prepossessing, and there was about him an easy air, that showed he had mingled with the world. They were connected, as they informed me, with a circus company, then in the city of "Washington; that they were on their way thither to rejoin it, having left it for a short time to make an excursion northward, for the purpose of seeing the country, and were paying their expenses by an occasional exhibition. They also remarked that they had found much difficulty in procuring music for their entertainments, and that if I would accompany them as far as New-York, they would give me one dollar for each day's services, and three dollars in addition for every night I played at their performances, besides sufficient to pay the expenses of my return from New-York to Saratoga.


Excerpted from Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. Copyright © 1970 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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"A moving, vital testament." —-Saturday Review

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Twelve Years a Slave 4.2 out of 5 based on 3 ratings. 364 reviews.
Max23 More than 1 year ago
This book was about the life and Journey of Solomon Northup, who unfortunately was stolen from freedom and made a slave. Born in New York State in 1808 as a free man, he was well educated, learned how to swim (which is very rare to find in an African American at the time) and an exceptional worker. But in 1841 he was kidnapped in Washington D.C. where he was forced to work as a slave for the next twelve years on a Louisiana cotton plantation. This book is definitely going on my list of favorite books. It has such a detailed and vivid description of his experience that I almost felt like I was there with him. He incorporates sadness, depression,and death with happiness, excitement, and love. This is sometimes very hard to achieve when writing about slavery but somehow he brought it all together in the best of ways. One of my major "likes" about this book was that he showed a side of slavery that doesn't get recognized all too often; compassion. Solomon made friends with other slaves that stood by him and showed him sympathy whenever he needed it. But the major shocker is that one of his many masters, a man named Ford, treated Solomon with respect and even said that he was better than a white man (Tibeat), right to his face. Thats when I started to adore this book and wanted to keep on reading. My only real "dislike" was that after a while, not much was happening besides him being a slave and going through what they normal experienced, but that did not stop the fact that is was a great book. This book gives detailed descriptions of the fear, brutality, and hardships that slaves went through which makes it a must read book because people should know the history of our country and recognize the ones who were there.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book simply tells the story from the perspective of Solomon Northup. He successfully left out any preconceptions, assumptions and told the story from what he actually witnessed, heard, felt and thought. I could not put the book down reading about his feelings and thoughts on this horrific time in his life. A compelling story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I grew up in the 60's and 70's near the area in which Northup was enslaved. I am amazed that such brutality once was accepted, even condoned, so near the peaceful places where I experienced childhood and young adulthood. We have much to learn from his story. I wish that this book had been required reading in our mandatory Junior High Lousiana History class, which typically presented only superficial discussions of slavery in our state.
Puli More than 1 year ago
I really knew nothing about live as a slave, or even life during that time period. I found the book fascinating and informative. The author is very detailed in his descriptions, so you can easily picture what he is describing. He was a great observer, and even adds some wry humor here and there. Hearing his thoughts as he goes through the different situations really helps you understand what it must have been like. Knowing that it is a true story makes it all the more compelling. It gave insight into lots of questions I had about life as a slave- how aware of their situation were they, why didn't they just escape, what kinds of freedoms did they really have, were all owners cruel, how could otherwise good people own slaves, what happened when slaves were smarter than their masters, how did they cope with families being separated? I really enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it. One thing I would like to know - did any of the author's former owners eve read the book, and what did they think?
Lolo10 More than 1 year ago
I've known of this story for many years. Not only bc it's depicting our history, but it's depicting my family's history. I'm Solomon Northup's 4x's great granddaughter, and I can't tell how completely proud and honored I am that my grandfather's story is getting so much recognition. The movie brought light to the book, which I'm so thrilled to see. The book is now being distributed to many schools. My family's history is making history. And I am so absolutely honored to be of the blood of this strong and intelligent man. The book is well written and the story is well detailed. If you've seen the movie, please read the book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story was presented in a moving way. I had no idea that free men were kidnapped and taken as slaves Everyone should read this book
Guest More than 1 year ago
The story of Solomon Northup's life, as a free man, a slave and then his struggle for justice against his kidnapper's, is a horrifying and detailed narrative. Unfortunately, his story is similar to other African Americans during this period of history. His strong will to fight, literally against a particular master, at any cost demonstrates his desire to take a stand against wrong doers. An attempt to make more money for his family cost him twelve years of freedom, pain and enslavement. I could not stop reading this book after I started. His words are realistically descriptive and brings the reader into the pages of the book.
nite-owlCP More than 1 year ago
This is an amaedzing true story of Solomon Northup who was born in the free state of New York. People befriended him and he is taken to Washington, DC under false prentences. He is kidnapped and sent to Louisiana to the cotton plantations. How Solomon kept the faith and endured one can only believe he was made up of a fabric of his fore fathers. He knew how to make the most of interacting with the other slaves and the plantation owners. Solomon Northup wasn't freed until after 12 years. This book should be manaditory reading for every school.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm not much of a reader. I haven't read a book since elementary school; I'm 25 now. Believe me when I tell you I couldn't put this book down. I created a Barnes and Noble account solely to post this review. I highly recommend this book!!! It is a must read!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read about 6 books dealing with slavery such as Booker T. Washington, H. Tubman, and F. Douglas,and I must say that I have enjoyed this title the best. Solomen gives an inside experience of slavery that I never knew existed.
LasVegasMia More than 1 year ago
This book is an amazing account of Solomon Northup’s 12 years as a slave. Solomon was born a free man but was kidnapped and tricked into slavery and spent the next 12 years as a slave on a Louisiana plantation. Solomon was well educated and it shows in his writing. I give this book my highest praise.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This artfully written masterpiece is raw in its honesty and disturbingly revealing about America's tragic history.
lvsbwy More than 1 year ago
Powerful auto-biography! Was very well-written.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the story of Solomon Northup, in his own words, a citizen of New York kidnapped in 1841 and taken to Louisiana as a slave, where he was found twelve years later on a cotton plantation near the Red River. It is a story that will break your heart as Solomon was torn away from his family for over a decade. According to a quote from 1853, when Solomon first published his memoirs, 'Think of it: For thirty years a man, with all a man's hopes, fears and aspirations--with a wife and children to call him by the endearing names of husband and father--with a home, humble it may be, but still a home...then for twelve years a thing, a chattel personal, classed with mules and horses. ...Oh! it is horrible. It chills the blood to think that such are.' And indeed, this story will both chill--and boil--your blood.
Ibelis More than 1 year ago
Its a phenomenal book. Its a profound visual of what life was as a slave and his endurance through it all. Excellent! Please read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought the story was compelling and it was not hard for me to believe considering my parents are both from Louisanna. Have heard so many of these stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Have not seen the movie. But reading this book is a must for white, blacks, and any other nationailty. Raceisum should not ever be in a person's mind or vocabulary The saying goes, walk in my shoes for a day. Or no shoes. God made us to be what He wants us to be. Follow His leading and be blessed you live in freedom. Be sorrowful for those that don't have and be there to help if you are able.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was assigned to read a memoir for my AP Language & Composition class, so I decided that, due to the movie version’s critical success, it would be the perfect opportunity to read 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup. Because the memoir was written in the 1800s, I was apprehensive at first that the language would be difficult to follow. However, I was pleased to see that Northrup used words that are still commonly used today. In addition to having accessible diction, the book was easy to read because it was very fast-paced; Northrup wasted few pages before he describes being kidnapped by the men who would sell him into slavery. He was brutally honest about the realities of slavery and confirmed many of the details that basic history classes only brush upon. His honesty made 12 Years a Slave a truly emotional memoir and had me engrossed in the story from cover to cover. While those who enjoy history should undoubtedly add this book to their shelves, I think it would appeal any other teen or adult as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First off were you there to see or go through it.? You have no idea of how these people were treated but i do believe it to be true after what happened to my ansestors the cherokee indians taken from their land during the civil war days and were made to walk what was later called the trail of tears i have a picture of myself standing in front of the bronze plack telling the story when i was back in Mo, going thru the ozarks, no i do not believe for a minute this book is lies but i think in the minds of some this could bring the thought of racisim into thought only because they look back on how their own people were treated and in some instances still feel treated look up your own history and you might have a different thought hopefully gain the knowledge it takes to be humble and realize civil war era was quite different than now
JEGB More than 1 year ago
A first hand account during our darkest time in america history. Its shows the good and bad in people. Read it!
Anon-M More than 1 year ago
I saw the movie, then read the book. The book gave some insight that was not in the movie (even the flashback scenes). There were so many different copies online that I was uncertain which I should choose to read. It was quite interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Should I read his book? Please type a reveiw saying yes or no. I think it looks like a good book because of the cover. But you never know! As people akways say, you should never judge a book by it's cover! Anyway please post a reasponse saying hes or no to if I should read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Slavery was a horrible thing. Read the book but will not watch the movie
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It covers the subject very well. There is a lot of evil people out there. No one should have been treated like this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Be very careful if you buy this as a Nook e book. . My e book came as very, very small print. The B&N store could not change it either. B&N work do NOTHING to reimburse my money. To bad, so sad was their  response. I was able to read it with my iPad somewhat. Still small print but readable. Very good book however.