Return to Freedom

You probably know the story of Solomon Northup, the freeborn African-American man who was sold into slavery, enduring 12 years of unimaginable horror.

But what do you know about his rescuer, a member of the Middlebury Class of 1829?

 

Near the end of the 2013 Academy Award-winning film Twelve Years a Slave, the movie’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, is rescued by a man named Cephus Parker, who was the owner of a dry-goods store in Saratoga Springs, New York, and who was well known to Northup and his family. In the film, Parker explains to Edwin Epps, Northup’s sadistic “slave master” and owner of the steamy, sweat-drenched plantation on Bayou Boeuf in central Louisiana, that his “slave,” whom Epps knows as Platt, is actually Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York. Incredulous, Epps curses and threatens Parker and Northup as the two men make their way to the carriage that drives them to safety. 

On the second page of his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853, Solomon gives thanks to his actual rescuer: “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.”   

Why did John Ridley, the screenwriter, and Steve McQueen, the director, choose to show Parker as Solomon’s rescuer rather than Henry Bliss Northup? Perhaps Ridley and McQueen feared audiences might assume mistakenly that Henry Northup had come to claim his chattel property. After all, Solomon admits that his “forefathers” were “held to service” by the white Northups. Yet, he also refers to Henry as a “relative.” This curious circumstance is the consequence of one of Henry Bliss’s great-uncles, Captain Henry Northup, owning Solomon’s father, Mintus, in Rhode Island during the last quarter of the 18th century. Historian William Piersen points out in Black Yankees that 18th-century white New Englanders typically viewed slaves as part of the family unit, as fictive kin. Additionally, although relations between whites and freed blacks in the North were generally strained in the decades following Northern emancipation at the end of the 18th century, some freedmen and freedwomen, as Joanne Melish notes in Disowning Slavery, expected the patronage of their former masters to continue. For years after gaining his freedom in 1798, Mintus and his family remained within the orbit of the white Northups. It is no wonder, then, that after 12 years of unlawful bondage, Solomon exclaimed upon seeing Henry Bliss standing before him on the Epps plantation on January 3, 1853, “Henry B. Northup! Thank God–Thank God!”

***

According to the authors of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, Henry Bliss Northup’s English ancestors settled in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1643, seven years after Roger Williams founded the colony. By the end of the American Revolution, most of the Northups, many of whom were Quaker farmers, had relocated to eastern New York state just across the Vermont border, some in Hoosick Falls near Glens Falls and others in Granville to the north. Captain Henry Northup, Henry Bliss’s great-uncle, brought with him Binar, his enslaved servant girl, and Mintus, his enslaved laborer, Solomon’s father. 

Cheap farmland, family, and a friendly environment for slavery may have drawn Captain Henry to New York. Rhode Island terminated slavery for those born after March 1, 1784. Mintus, born between 1776 and 1778 (d. 1829), was not entitled to freedom in either Rhode Island or in New York, which passed a gradual emancipation law in 1799. Nevertheless, in his will made out in March 1797, Captain Henry stipulated that Mintus should be freed on September 1, 1798, which indeed came to pass.

At some point, Mintus married Susanna, a free woman of color described by Solomon as a “quadroon.” By 1804, Mintus had taken up farming in the small Adirondack town of Minerva, where Solomon was born on July 10, 1807. Farmers from Granville settled this town in 1804, which lay about sixty miles northwest of Granville. Mintus may have been able to rely on the support of a patron there, as he had earlier relied on the white Northups. 

Between 1808 and 1810, Mintus moved back to Granville, where he perhaps managed Clarke Northup’s farm for several years while Clarke tended to his tanning business. In 1816, however, Mintus took his family to Kingsbury, a small community west of Granville, where he most likely farmed as a tenant. That year was the “year of no summer,” and thus a summer of few crops, thanks to the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The poor harvest may have compelled Mintus to move his family to a farm near Fort Edward to be near Nicholas Carr Northup, who lived in nearby Sandy Hill (renamed Hudson Falls). Here, Mintus acquired enough property—at least $100 worth in 1821—to vote, a requirement of all men wishing to exercise the franchise in New York. (After 1822, the state eliminated this property requirement for white males, but raised the ante for black male voters to $250.) Solomon most likely received a common-school education here and learned to play the violin.

John Holmes Northup, brother to Clarke and Nicholas, farmed and blacksmithed in Hebron, a community five miles south of Granville. John and his wife, Anna Wells, raised nine children, the seventh of whom was Henry Bliss, born on April 4, 1805. Given their close ages, fictive kinship ties, and nearness of residences, Henry and Solomon surely spent time together, playing or working on a Northup farm, or perhaps even attending together North Granville Academy. Henry Bliss confirmed as much in his 1852 affidavit, testifying that he had known Solomon since childhood and had been well acquainted with his entire family. As they grew older, however, their lives diverged.

***

According to Edith Hay Wyckoff, author of The Biography of an American Family, a multigenerational history of the white Northup family, Henry Bliss Northup left home in 1821 at the age of 16 in search of adventure. To the displeasure of his family, he first journeyed to New York City, then to Rhode Island, where he hoped to board a whaler. Instead, an in-law got him assigned to a schooner sailing for the West Indies. After a few months at sea, Henry was ready for college. According to Middlebury College records, he studied at North Granville Academy in preparation for matriculating at Middlebury in 1825, where his older cousin, Carr, studied between 1813 and 1815.

 

Middlebury records indicate that Henry Bliss undertook a standard classical course of study throughout his four years: Latin and Greek, chemistry and natural history, mathematics and natural philosophy, trigonometry and geography, natural theology and astronomy, law and philosophy, and rhetoric and English literature. During those four years, he lived in the building known as the “West College,” later renamed Painter Hall. Each quarter, his family paid $5 for tuition, $1.50 for his room, and $1.50 for incidentals, for a grand total of $32 per year—an affordable price for a freehold farm family, considering that in 1825, the average farm laborer in New York earned about $120 a year while the average skilled mechanic earned over $350 per year. Henry was a diligent student, but not one above pulling pranks; during his sophomore year, the College informed Henry’s parents that the report of his involvement in a duel on campus was simply a rumor, nothing more than “a matter of sport.”

Henry and his 23 freshmen classmates constituted one-quarter of the total student body. However, four years later, only 18 of his classmates graduated, each of whom gave a speech at Commencement on August 19, 1829. During the afternoon portion of the program, Henry gave the second oration, in Latin: “Influence of Association on Love of Country.” No extant copy of his speech exists. However, one might infer from the title—and from his anti-Freemasonry political leanings—that Henry may have called for a renewed “republican virtue”; that is, for Americans to show love of country above party and fraternal organizations. One year after graduating from Middlebury, Henry, now president of an anti-Mason organization in Washington County, New York, penned a “Proceedings of a Convention of Young Men, of the County of Washington, Opposed to the Masonic Institution,” in which he calls for the eradication of Freemasonry. His essay, critical of the recent murder of Mason William Morgan for publishing the secret inner workings of the organization, demands that Americans rescue “freedom of conscience and liberty of thought and speech” from the Masonic “Party,” which he labels a “Regency.” He rails against local Freemason groups that claimed to be the inheritors of the moribund Republican Party, which Henry hails as the party “consecrated to purity of principle and incorruptible integrity . . . the party of the people; the party of honest men . . . [who] detest hypocrisy and delusion.” This essay represents the foundation of Henry Bliss’s political and moral beliefs: distaste for corruption and abuse and a love of individual freedom and personal liberty.

After graduating from Middlebury College, Henry B., as he began to call himself, moved to Kingsbury, New York, then to Sandy Hill, where he practiced law for over fifty years. He also developed a taste for politics. In 1837, he was elected clerk of the board of supervisors in Washington County, New York, a position he held for the next six years, and one that required great organizational skills. In 1838, Middlebury awarded him a Master of Arts degree. Between 1847 and 1850, Henry B. served as district attorney for Washington County. In 1852, he campaigned for the United States Senate. Henry B. also served one term as a member of the New York Assembly in the mid-1850s. His ambitions meshed well with his talents.

Along with valuing his political and legal careers, Henry B. prized family. On December 10, 1831, he married Electa Taylor of nearby Granville. The Taylors and the Northups created a tight-knit extended family: Electa’s older sister, Ruth Taylor, married Henry B.’s older brother, Nicholas Carr, of Sandy Hill.

Henry B. and Electa enjoyed a long and happy marriage of 46 years. Together, they raised seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood.

***

In June 1841, Henry B. received a curious letter informing him that his fictive kin, Solomon Northup, had been kidnapped, was held in bondage, and was on a boat headed toward he knew not where. Henry B. could do little with such vague information. In fact, New York Governor William Seward refused to deputize Henry as a rescue agent for the state of New York, even though the state’s legislature had granted governors of the state this new power. The 1840 “act more effectively to protect the free citizens of this State from being kidnapped, or reduced to Slavery” grew out of a dispute with Virginia over returning fugitive slaves. Seward insisted that fugitive slaves were entitled to a trial instead of summary return South. The governor of Virginia demanded that Seward uphold Article IV,  Section 2, of the Constitution: “No person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping [to] another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

Seward refused to recognize this argument, and furthermore insisted on New York’s right to return to the state “any free citizen . . . of this State . . . kidnapped or transported away, into any other State or Territory . . . for the purpose of being there held in slavery.” The kidnapping and selling of free blacks into slavery, which historians today call the “reverse underground railroad,” was a fairly widespread practice in the 1830s and 1840s, especially in Northern states that bordered slaveholding states, in Northern cities, and even in the nation’s capital, where the lack of freedom papers led regularly to the enslavement of free blacks. (On his journey south in 1841, Solomon met two such men—Robert from Cincinnati and Arthur from Norfolk—who became victims of the reverse underground railroad.)

Eleven years later, in early September 1852, during the height of his campaign for the United States Senate, Henry B. received another letter, this one addressed to Cephus Parker, the dry-goods store owner depicted in the film Twelve Years a Slave. Parker and William Perry, another store owner in Saratoga Springs, quickly passed the letter to Solomon’s wife, Anne, who in turn journeyed to the neighboring village of Sandy Hill to place the correspondence in Henry B.’s hands. This letter, written by Samuel Bass, the Canadian-born antislavery itinerant carpenter who had befriended Solomon on the Epps plantation, explained exactly where Solomon could be found in Louisiana. But Henry B. was too busy campaigning for the Senate to act on this information. Solomon would have to wait until after the election. 

***

In Fort Edward, New York, on Christmas Day 1828, 21-year-old Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton, a biracial woman from Sandy Hill. They raised three children, and throughout their marriage Anne worked as a domestic in private homes and as a cook in hotels and taverns. Solomon labored at several trades, including repairing the newly opened Champlain Canal; rafting lumber from Lake Champlain to Troy, New York; farming; and playing the fiddle.

In 1834, Solomon and Anne moved to the summer resort village of Saratoga Springs, where Anne’s reputation as an outstanding cook grew. In addition to playing his violin, Solomon worked as a hack driver and perhaps as a waiter. Some evidence suggests that Solomon, described by one acquaintance as a “wandering fellow,” may have traveled far and wide—perhaps as far south as the slave states—in search of work.

In March 1841, two white men, who gave their names as Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton—but whose actual names were Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell—introduced themselves to Solomon as performers in a circus in Washington, D.C. They invited Solomon to accompany them to New York City, promising him $1 a day for driving their team and easy money for playing his fiddle before audiences at night. Against the advice of several skeptical friends, Solomon accepted their offer. Once in New York, Solomon’s escorts secured “freedom papers” for him and convinced him to continue with them to the nation’s capital.

Arriving in Washington, D.C., rather than going directly to the alleged circus, the three men explored the city. They witnessed the funeral procession of the late President William Henry Harrison, viewed the Capitol and the White House, and during one afternoon and evening, engaged in one of Solomon’s reported pastimes: drinking. They hopped from tavern to tavern until Solomon passed out. When he awoke, Solomon found himself without money and without his freedom papers, fettered in a slave pen, awaiting transport to Louisiana.

By far, Solomon’s cruelest “master” throughout his 12-year ordeal was Edwin Epps, well known in the region as a brutal breaker of slaves. Solomon could not let on to Epps that he was literate, nor reveal that he was freeborn. When he told his prisoners in D.C. that he was a freeman, they beat him severely and cautioned him to never utter that claim again. To declare his free status to Epps would have surely meant Solomon’s quick death, which would have eliminated conveniently any evidence that Epps had engaged in illegal human trafficking. Instead, Solomon witnessed and endured unimaginable brutality for more than a decade.

In November 1852, Henry B., campaigning as a conservative Whig, lost a close election for the Senate to a former Free-Soiler opponent, who ran as a Democrat. One might speculate on why Henry B. delayed rescuing Solomon: fear that making public his connections to Solomon would cost him the election; or perhaps calculating that if he won, he could exercise greater authority in rescuing his childhood friend. Regardless, within a few days of losing the election, Henry B. collected affidavits from members of Solomon’s family and friends, to which he added his own letter of surety. This time, with sufficient, convincing evidence documenting Solomon’s whereabouts, New York Governor Washington Hunt deputized Henry B. with the necessary authority to bring Solomon home.

Understanding that liberating Solomon would not be easy, Henry B. armed himself with as much authoritative weight as possible. First, he paid a visit to Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Nelson in Washington, D.C. The two men had much in common: both men had roots in Hebron, New York; attended North Granville Academy and Middlebury College (Justice Nelson graduated in 1813); and both practiced law. However, the two men disagreed politically: Justice Nelson, a Democrat, supported the legality of slavery; Henry B., a Whig, probably detested the immorality of slavery. Nevertheless, Justice Nelson gave Henry B. a letter of introduction.

Before reaching the Epps plantation on January 3, 1853, Henry B. stopped in Marksville, Louisiana, where Bass had posted his letters, to hire a lawyer, to interview Bass, and to have legal papers drawn up that would authorize Henry B. and the local sheriff to remove Solomon from the Epps farm.

At the plantation, they presented Epps with the irrefutable evidence that the man whom Epps believed was Platt was in fact Solomon Northup. According to Solomon, Epps spewed that if he had known of their coming, he would have run him “into the swamps . . . where all the sheriffs on earth” would not have found him.

***

On their return trip to New York, Henry B. and Solomon stopped in Washington, D.C., to try to bring Solomon’s slave trader, James H. Birch, to justice. Because Solomon could not testify against a white man in that city, Judge Morsell found in Birch’s favor. An article in the January 20, 1853, issue of the New York Times noted this injustice: “The evidence of this colored man was absolutely necessary to prove some facts on the part of the prosecution, as he alone was cognizant of them.” Birch then filed a countersuit against Solomon, alleging that he had colluded with Merrill and Russell to defraud him. When Henry B. offered to speak for Solomon, Birch dropped his suit.

Back in Saratoga Springs, Henry B., Solomon, and David Wilson, a local lawyer, collaborated in writing his memoir, a task they completed in three months. Their goals were several: to publicize Solomon’s tragic story; to help Solomon back on his feet so that he could pay off a number of debts (he sold the copyright to his memoir for $3,000); and to get the word out about his local kidnappers. Meanwhile, Solomon found himself busy as a speaker on the abolitionist circuit. In addition, he performed in two stage plays based on his memoir in New York and Massachusetts, to little acclaim. All the while, local newspapers ran stories continually about Solomon’s ordeal.

By the time the memoir was published in July 1853, Henry B. had spent a considerable amount of time and money to apprehend Solomon’s kidnappers. Virtually upon publication, the authorities apprehended Alexander Merrill in Wood Hollow near Gloversville, New York. Merrill, described as a “desperate fellow” who slept with a Bowie knife and a pair of pistols on the floor, was a known kidnapper. They also apprehended Joseph Russell, his accomplice, on a canal boat. The case against these two men went to trial at the county court in August 1854. However, due to some clever maneuvering by the two men’s defense attorneys to get the charges of kidnapping in New York dismissed, and through a series of appeals to the State Supreme Court and to the Court of Appeals, which necessarily created delays and ultimately threw the case back to the county court, the case grew stale and cold. The charges against the two kidnappers were dismissed in May 1857. 

After 1857, Solomon disappears from the historical record, save for a few tantalizing bits of evidence suggesting that he lived for a time in Vermont and Canada. Some of his friends speculated that Solomon had been kidnapped again, or even murdered. No grave of Solomon Northup has ever been found.

Although Henry Bliss Northup could not achieve complete justice for Solomon, the effort he gave in pursuing legal redress demonstrates his moral commitment to liberty, justice, and virtue. Henry B. and his wife, Electa, lived out the rest of their lives quietly in Sandy Hill, raising their orphaned granddaughter, Edith. Henry B. died there in 1877, Electa in 1882. Throughout his life, a strong moral compass guided Henry B.’s thoughts and actions, perhaps expressed best in a passage in his 1830 anti-Masonic essay: “The judgement of one honest man is the judgement of another; and nothing is required to ensure our triumph, but free discussion and the diffusion of information. In the diligent use of these honorable means, we shall assuredly prevail.”

In 2014, descendants of the Northups donated portraits of Henry Bliss Northup and his wife, Electa, to Middlebury’s Museum of Art. The paintings have been painstakingly restored and are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

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  1. Northup ran for the House of Representatives in 1852, not the Senate.

  2. Henry’s classmates at Middlebury included David Tenney Kimball, one of the original members of the National Anti-Slavery Society. and William B. Haynes, son of the black preacher Lemuel Haynes (though Haynes did not graduate). They are mentioned in The Life of Thomas J. Sawyer…, by Richard Eddy.

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