12 Years a Slave: Primary Sources on the Kidnapping of Free African Americans

This post is by Rebecca Newland, the Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Currently 12 Years a Slave, the film version of the true story of Solomon Northup, is showing in theaters. His account is a powerful one: A free African American, Northup was kidnapped in 1841 and taken from New York to Washington, D.C., then to New Orleans, where he was sold into twelve years of slavery. A study of primary sources from the Library of Congress indicates that Northrup’s experience was far from unique.

Such kidnappings and attempted kidnappings happened more frequently than is usually known. Stories are reported in newspapers of the time. Personal liberty laws in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin gave free people legal recourse if kidnap attempts were made, or if they were able to make contact with friends or family after being kidnapped.

Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law

Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law

Fugitive slave laws allowed African Americans who could not prove their free status to be taken into slavery.  What does the political cartoon suggest about negative effects these laws had both on escaped slaves and African Americans like Solomon Northup who were born free?

Northup’s story brought the issue to a wider audience when it was released as a book in 1853. The Anti-Slavery Bugle quoted from an assortment of reviews  of the narrative published in various American newspapers. Many of these excerpts focus on the strong reaction reviewers had to the Northup’s traumatic experience as someone ripped away from his home and family and forced into slavery with all its horrors. More than one reviewer compares his true tale to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (However, for a happy ending to the story, you might visit this 1999 gathering of Solomon Northup’s descendants.)

Primary sources such as these can provide many additional accounts that add depth and context to stories such as Solomon Northup’s. What questions do they also raise about the individuals whose stories cannot be found in the historical record?


  1. Greg Noble
    November 19, 2013 at 11:27 am

    What an amazing story. I am an American Literature teacher at the high school level ( juniors), and we are currently doing readings in a unit I entitled “Freedom Is Never Free.” We are in the midst of reading slave narratives, and just today we are reading excepts from Solomon Northrup’s amazing autobiographical account.

    I also saw the movie last week. Tremendous.

  2. Fernando Centeno
    November 19, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Do you know of any documentation, books, or news articles featuring any regrets of slave ownership by plantation owners, or by traders in the slave trade?


  3. Greg Noble
    November 21, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Fernando…I don’t know if you were directing your question to me or not, but the best one I’ve found is the autobiography of John Newton (titled Out of the Depths).

    You can also find a lot of Newton’s story through online searches. I’m sure there are others, but this one is the best I have found, and I use excerpts of it with my classes.

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