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Historians know where Solomon Northup was born, where he lived and where he worked. They know who he married and how many children he had. They know he played the fiddle and spent 12 years enslaved in the American 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 question about 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 has been made into an Oscar-winning film of the same title.
“That’s sort of a big blank spot in the story,” said Rachel Seligman, co-author of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.
Early this month, 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Awards for best picture, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress.
The accolades have sparked fresh 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 on 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 neighbouring 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 Hampton 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, 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 secured 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 north-east and Canada. But in about 1863, at the height of the Civil War, he dropped out of sight and was not heard from again. Even the movie notes at the end that “the date, location and circumstances” of Northup’s death remain unknown.
Theories abound about what might 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 again. Another is that he could have died in a place where no one knew him or cared to bury properly an African-American in a time when a war over slavery was tearing the nation apart.
“He may have just wandered around from place to place and died where no one knew who he was, and he was buried in a potter’s field,” said David Fiske, co-author of the Northup book 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 had followed numerous threads in trying to track down where Northup might have been buried. He checked cemeteries in communities outside Saratoga and other upstate communities where Northup’s wife and children later lived, but came up empty-handed. No death records have been found for him. Fiske, a former state librarian, notes that death records weren’t kept systematically in New York until the 1880s.
For Seligman, a museum curator at Skidmore College, host of this July’s yearly Solomon Northup Day, the question of Northup’s demise and resting place is part of the allure of being a historian. “It’s what keeps historians going. It’s a puzzle to be solved.” – Sapa-AP