In 1841, criminals seduced a free black New Yorker named Solomon Northup into slave territory by the promise of a job. There, they illegally sold him as a slave. When he protested to the slave dealer that he was free, the dealer beat him. He would learn not to assert his freedom, but over the next twelve
years he attempted to free himself on several occasions, all which failed until the last, successful effort. (1-40)
Solomon Northup first tries to escape while on board a ship that was sailing to a New Orleans slave market. Solomon and his two new acquaintances Arthur and Robert, plan to take over the ship and sail north. Solomon, Arthur, and Robert were to hide under another smaller boat that was on deck and to carry out their plan at night. Solomon and Arthur were going to sneak into the captain’s cabin and steal the pistols while Robert stood guard outside the door with a club. Unfortunately, they were unable to carry out their plans because Robert fell ill, and died of smallpox within a few days. (44-46)
Next, Solomon was helping to build a cotton press when John Tibeats, who did not like Solomon from past experiences, critiqued everything he did, even though it was right. John Tibeats grew very angry and approached Solomon with a hatchet swearing he will kill him with it. Solomon and John Tibeats struggled a while and eventually Solomon was able to take the hatchet away from him. Then John Tibeats again tried to attack him with a stick and again Solomon was able to take control of the situation. While he struggled with Tibeats, Solomon or “Platt” considered killing him but then decided that he would severely beaten or maybe even killed as well, because he would be found guilty in the courts. Platt decided to run away to his former master’s house, that of William Ford. While trying to escape, John Tibeats and a pack of dogs chased him all day through the woods and marshes as Solomon ran for his life. Northup finally lost his enemies when we crossed the swamp, because the dogs were no longer able to track his scent over the water. Slaves were not taught how to swim, but growing up a free man, Solomon Northup loved to swim, and that ability saved his life. After days of crossing the wilderness and the swamps, Solomon met a white man and a slave on the road, and received directions from them to William Ford’s plantation. Northup arrived to the Ford’s plantation and they took him in and protected him from John Tibeats, because Ford still owned part of Solomon. If Tibeats were to hurt or kill Northup, Ford would lose his property, Solomon, or his value could drop. A few days later Solomon was rented to Randal Eldret by William Ford to work for him. (98-113)
A few weeks later, Solomon Northup attempted to escape by persuading a ship captain to let him hide on board his ship that was headed north. Northup’s ability to play the violin gave him the opportunity to travel to other places and make more money then most other slaves. When Solomon went to Centreville, which is a port city on the Mississippi River, he asked the captain of a steamer to allow him to hide within his freight and sail north with him, and would pay him everything he had. The captain pitied Solomon and wanted to help him, but it was too risky for the captain because if he were caught he could have been killed or put in jail for helping runaway slaves because they are some else’s property, so he denied Northup’s offer. (149-150)
Finally, Solomon met his master’s, Edwin Epps, friend Samuel Bass and Solomon finally found someone he could trust and possibly help him escape. Samuel Bass opposed slavery and thought that no man should have the right to own another man because he thought it was morally wrong. Solomon eventually told Samuel Bass his true life story and Bass was appalled by it. He felt bad for Solomon because he disagreed with slavery, so he vowed to help him gain his freedom. Samuel Bass agreed to send letters to Saratoga, which is where Solomon’s family resided, but there was never a response to the letters. A few months later, Bass again was able to get into contact with Solomon and told him that he would be going to Saratoga on his way to Canada, his homeland. Solomon gave him the names of his family and friends and Bass told him he would again send letters for him. A few months after Samuel Bass sent out the letters, Solomon was working in the fields and was approached by two men in a carriage. Solomon realized who they were and knew they were there to grant him his freedom. After proving to the men, the sheriff and Henry Northup, that he was Solomon Northup and he was free, they granted him his freedom. (204-242)
Solomon Northup was a free man but was never allowed to admit to it and feared running away because of the consequences. The first time Solomon argued that he was kidnapped and was free, he was almost beaten to death and threatened that if he ever again admitted to that, he would be beaten worse or even killed. That fear that was inflicted into him was the reason Northup never told anyone his real life story. Another reason Solomon never tried to escape north was because every white man in the South had the right to stop and ask him where his freedom papers were, and if he did not have any, then the white man had the right to take him to jail. If a runaway slave was ever found or returned to their master’s, the punishment was almost too harsh to survive. In addition to the fear of being severely punished, most slaves did not know the exact route to the North and to freedom.
Solomon experienced both freedom and slavery, and two completely different worlds of them. Northup hated slavery and periodically expresses his negative attitude towards it. Northup describes his first ever beating to the burning pains and agonies of hell. (25) Solomon describes his master, Edwin Epps, coming home intoxicated and whipping slaves for fun and making them play instrument and dance after a hard days work. (136-138) Another incident occurred when Solomon was ordered to beat another slave, which he did at least forty times. Edwin Epps was still not satisfied, but Solomon disobeyed his master and threw down then whip. Edwin Epps picked up the whip and beat her until she no longer moved and was on the edge of dying. After Solomon witnessed the beating, he said “Thou devil, sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin!” (197) Not all white men felt the same way towards slavery as did most of Solomon Northup’s masters. Some white men, from the North and South, disagreed with slavery and thought that all slaves should be set free because no man should have the right to own another man and wanted to help free them, like Samuel Bass. Other white men helped free slaves because they felt it was their responsibility toward a son or family member of his family’s former slave, like Henry Northup.