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'12 Years A Slave' author's death still a mystery

12 Years A Slave

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) - Historians know where Solomon Northup was born, where he lived and where he worked. They know whom he married and how many children he had. They know he played the fiddle and spent 12 years enslaved in the South before being freed.

What historians don't know about the author of "12 Years A Slave" is when and how he died and where he is buried. It's a lingering mystery in the final chapter of the life of the 19th-century free-born African-American whose compelling account of enforced slavery in pre-Civil War Louisiana was made into the Oscar-winning film of the same title.

"That's sort of a big blank spot in the story, for sure," said Rachel Seligman, co-author of "Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave," published last year.

This month, "12 Years A Slave" took home the Academy Awards for best picture, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress. The accolades have sparked new interest in Northup's story, which was little known until recent years even in the upstate New York communities where he spent most of his life.

Northup was born July 10, 1807, in what is now the Essex County town of Minerva, in the Adirondack Mountains. His father, a former slave, moved the family to neighboring Washington County, eventually settling in the village of Fort Edward, on the Hudson River 40 miles north of Albany. Northup married Anne Hampton in the late 1820s, and the couple lived in an 18th-century house in Fort Edward that is now a museum.

Northup worked on his father's farm and rafted timber on the Champlain Canal between Fort Edward and the southern end of Lake Champlain. The couple and their children moved to nearby Saratoga Springs when Anne got a job in one of the growing spa resort town's big hotels. Northup found work as a musician, and in 1841, two white men lured him to Washington, D.C., with the promise of more work. Instead, they kidnapped him and took him to New Orleans, where he was sold into slavery.

Northup endured the next 12 years enslaved on a Louisiana cotton plantation before friends in Saratoga finally won his freedom. In 1853, he published a memoir of his ordeal that led to a speaking tour supported by abolitionists. He got involved in the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves find freedom in the Northeast and Canada. But around 1863, the height of the Civil War, he dropped out of sight and was never heard from again. Even the movie notes at the end that "the date, location and circumstances" of Northrup's death remain unknown.

Theories abound about what may have happened to him. One scenario has him being captured and killed while serving as a spy for the Union Army. The man who helped rescue him said he believed Northup had taken to drink and was kidnapped yet again. Or Northup could have died in a place where no one knew him or cared to properly bury an African-American at a time when a war over slavery was tearing the nation apart.

"He may have just wandered around from place to place and died somewhere nobody knew who he was, and he was buried in a potter's field," said David Fiske, co-author the 2013 Northup book along with Union College professor Clifford Brown.

"There's no paper trail for him," Brown added.

Fiske said Northup's descendants also couldn't provide any documents or hard facts, so he has followed numerous threads while trying to track down where Northup may have been buried. He checked cemeteries in communities outside Saratoga and other upstate communities where Northup's wife and their children later lived, but came up empty. No death records have ever been found for him. Fiske, a former state librarian, points out that death records weren't kept in a systematic form in New York until the 1880s.

For Seligman, a museum curator at Skidmore College, host of this July's annual Solomon Northup Day, the mystery surrounding Northup's demise and resting place is part of the allure of being a historian.

"It's what keeps historians going," she said. "It's just a puzzle to be solved."

Join the discussion

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zannedon7 March 18 2014 at 12:32 AM

This man of "12 Years a Slave" is a real 'Hero'.

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zoominzee March 17 2014 at 2:39 AM

What a touching movie!. It tour at my heart. Still dificult to comprehend the cruelty, racist, beatings, brutality portrayed.

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1 reply
weeeally zoominzee March 17 2014 at 5:58 PM

Hey it was an "imitation of life".....a slave's life. I think he got off rather easy, compared to hundred of thousands of other slaves

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umanakka March 17 2014 at 1:53 AM


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Laird Wilcox March 17 2014 at 12:39 AM

If this book follows the pattern of slave novels like Roots, Armistad and others it could be that there was a huge amount of embellishment of a simple event by people -- in this case a dedicates civil rights advocate -- who find the narrative useful to promote their cause.

A detailed forensic examination of Alex Haley's book, Roots, revealed that the account was largely fictitious and the book is now sold in the fiction section of bookstores. If you read some of the critical and detailed reviews of Roots it shows that much of the story was pure invention and had no basis in recorded or provable fact. Nevertheless, it was a runaway bestseller and widely used to promote Black political causes.

Armistad, a movie that almost everybody has seen, fails to mention that the main character, a slave who engineered the takeover of a ship, subsequently became a slave dealer himself. He was hardly the sympathetic character portrayed in the movie. A search of critical reviews of the book raise this and other questions about the movie.

It's understandable that there is a huge market for Black heroes but no one does any good when the accounts they publish are full of holes. Movies often take huge liberties with established facts even whey they're known. Let's hope this is not the case with 12 Years a Slave. The movement for civil rights does not need literary hoaxes to support it.

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2 replies
sondravvag Laird Wilcox March 17 2014 at 12:50 AM

I agree. Important to think of the facts, not the emotions connected to these stories.

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keithcolquitt1 Laird Wilcox March 17 2014 at 2:28 AM

I can understand Alex Haley's shortcomings; he plagiarized sections of his book. Parts were lifted from a novel called "Jubilee." Haley's book wasn't great literature; he vacillated between writing a novel and a dry historical record. He said that he nearly killed himself and worried that he might never be able to complete the book. I wish he'd taken the time to reconstruct the book before he died.

If your only criticism of Amistad is concerned with incidents that happened after the narrative ended, you have no point. The movie was concerned with the Africans' journey to America, their brave takeover of the slave ship, and their successful court battle to be repatriated to Africa. Maybe you should make Amistad II and show what happened to each of the characters after the Africans were returned home.

12 Years a Slave is an authentic story; it's based solely upon the memoir of Solomon Northup and much of the dialogue is in his own words. There's a huge market for heroes of any stripe. I resent the implication that there's a need to create black heroes. There are no shortages of authentic stories of black and other people who have lived exemplary and heroic lives.

If you are seriously interested in true stories of the slave experience (which I seriously doubt), you should take the time to read "The Classic Slave Narratives", a collection of several first-hand accounts of people who lived as slaves in the USA and the Caribbean. It was compiled by Henry Louis Gates. It has stories of famous (Frederick Douglass) and obscure people who began their lives as slaves but through various means obtained their freedom. You're probably just content to carp about what you perceive as the unreality of the portrayal of slavery by the Hollywood studios.

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Mad Dog DUGIN March 16 2014 at 11:54 PM

mom mom Something doesn't mathematically work out. If you were 13 in 1969 you can't be 66 now. Another thing the civil rights act of the mid 60's would have prevented segregation of that type.

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3 replies
David March 16 2014 at 10:34 PM

1808 (the sign), or 1807 (the text)?

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Hello Kweme March 16 2014 at 8:15 PM

May his soul rest in perfect peace.

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Tina March 16 2014 at 8:13 PM

I got tired of reading this comments, it seems that the majorty of them never went to school

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1 reply
bg101962 Tina March 16 2014 at 8:45 PM

Tina... You've got sentence boundary issues. Just a friendly teacher, and no charge!

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lvdkeyes March 16 2014 at 8:08 PM

Does AOL not have proofreaders or are they just inept in regards to English grammar?

"They know whom he married...." The correct word is "who"; whom is used when it is the object.

It seems some people just think "whom" makes them sound educated when, in fact, when used incorrectly, as in this case, does just the opposite.

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5 replies
velasura March 16 2014 at 7:45 PM

It is not suprising that nothing is known about his whereabouts when he died. There were not a lot of records kept concerning black people. Some things will take time to be uncovered.

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1 reply
Houndie velasura March 16 2014 at 10:01 PM

I do a lot of family history research. No, there aren't a lot of records for African Americans but honestly depending on where your ancestors lived, there often aren't that many records of the white people either unless they were pretty well off. I can trace most of my ancestry back to Europe but I have one branch of the family that was very poor and the records are few and far between. I have no idea when/where/how one of my great grandmothers died. It's not just black people whose deaths and burials weren't well-documented (although I will admit that overall you are more likely to find records for white people).

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