The Documents Behind Twelve Years a Slave

Today’s post comes from Kris McIntosh, volunteer at the National Archives at Fort Worth, and retired Fort Worth I.S.D. U.S. history teacher.

The new movie, Twelve Years a Slave, released nationwide last Friday, November 1st, is based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography. Northup, a free man of color, was kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Part of Northup’s amazing story can be authenticated by documents found in the National Archives.

First, have students check the 1840 federal census to find Northup living in upstate New York as a free person of color.

Census page from Saratoga Springs, including Solomon Northup, a free man of color, and his family

Census page from Saratoga Springs, including Solomon Northup, a free man of color, and his family (line 12). Click on the image to enlarge it. You can also find it on DocsTeach, our online tool for teaching with documents.

Next, have students analyze the most interesting and compelling document, the slave manifest for the Brig Orleans, which proves Northup was sold into slavery.  In 1787 the nation’s founding fathers had written into the U.S. Constitution that Congress would not be able to ban the importation of slaves before 1808. A March 2, 1807 Act of Congress—effective in 1808—outlawed foreign importation of slaves. Slave manifests that documented each slave’s name, sex, age, and color were then required.  The manifests were checked and signed by customs officials at the port of debarkation and again at the port of destination.  They were meant to ensure that slave traders transporting slaves by ship among U.S. ports were not in violation of the law.

Slave Manifest for the Brig Orleans, including Solomon Northup, listed as Plat Hamilton (#33).

Slave Manifest for the Brig Orleans, including Solomon Northup, listed as Plat Hamilton (#33). Click on the image to enlarge it. You can also find it on DocsTeach.

When slaves were forced into the hull of the Brig Orleans on April 27, 1841, the Port of Richmond collector Thomas Nelson approved the slave manifest. When the ship docked in New Orleans on May 24, 1841, the inspector matched Solomon Northup’s description to the name Plat Hamilton. Just like that, Solomon Northup the free man of color ceased to exist.

Northup was transported on the Brig Orleans with approximately forty other slaves to New Orleans where he was later sold to Edwin Epps, who owned a cotton plantation in the Louisiana Red River area.  Northup was enslaved for the next twelve years. All rights and privileges that come with freedom, beginning with his given name, were stripped away from him.

Finally, explore the 1850 federal census slave schedule for Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana.  Could Solomon possibly match the description of one of the slaves living on the Edwin Epps plantation?

Census page from the Parish of Avoyelles on October 2, 1850, including Edwin Epps and a list of his slaves.

Census page from the Parish of Avoyelles on October 2, 1850, including Edwin Epps and a list of his slaves. Click on the image to enlarge it. You can also find it on DocsTeach.

If you will be bringing students to see the film, study these documents beforehand to become familiar with the documented facts.  Afterward, discuss whether the documents mentioned support the movie, or if the movie script differs from the evidence provided in the documents.

For an opportunity to analyze the documents further and read excerpts from Northup’s autobiography, students can engage in the DocsTeach activity “Twelve Years a Slave.” (Teaching instructions are also available.)

By the time Solomon Northup was freed and returned to his family, the Fugitive Slave Law had gone into effect. What would prevent Solomon or other members of his family from being kidnapped and sold into slavery?

Using primary sources such as these in the classroom allows students to analyze, interpret, infer, compare, sequence and draw conclusions.  Primary sources—not just movies—create powerful images for students to remember and get hooked on history!

This entry was posted in Document Spotlights, Teaching Activities & Lesson Plans and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Documents Behind Twelve Years a Slave

  1. Mrs. Breed says:

    Looks like a great activity. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

  2. David A. Streat says:

    Very enlightening and informative. While, I have not seen the movie yet, I plan to take my 14 year-old daughter to see it later this month.

    Like

  3. Vera Williams says:

    Thank you for the information from the National Archives on my Great, Great, Great Grandfather Solomon Northup. A co-worker here at the Archives discovered and posted on the ICN the ship’s manifest where he was transported to Louisiana as Plat Hamilton, however I had not see the census documents!

    Make sure you see the movie! It is a story on slavery, a love story and provides an outstanding example of perservance!

    Vera Williams

    Like

  4. Pingback: Education Updates » Kidnapping of Free People of Color

  5. Stephanie says:

    You can learn more about National Archives employee Vera Williams’s family connection to Solomon Northup on our Pieces of History blog.

    Like

  6. Ashleigh Browne says:

    Note to David A. Streat,

    I have just watched the movie, it is not something you should be taking your 14 year old daughter to see. It is extremely graphic and violent.
    Please watch yourself and make your own judgement before showing it to children.

    Like

  7. Sam B says:

    I have just seen the movie ,and also agree that some scenes of violence are to graphic for young people, A brilliant, yet shocking portrayal of the slave trade, in all it’s inhumanity.
    A must see to all for the historic merits. But I would not watch the film as entertainment.

    Like

  8. All of you people shut up! It was a great movie! says:

    All of you people shut up! It was a great movie!

    Like

  9. Pingback: Book Box Daily » Blog Archive » The True Story Behind 12 YEARS A SLAVE

  10. “Using primary sources such as these in the classroom allows students to analyze, interpret, infer, compare, sequence and draw conclusions. Primary sources—not just movies—create powerful images for students to remember and get hooked on history!” Yes, indeed. Thanks for sharing. And about the movie, I have to agree that this a great movie for history enthusiasts. Thanks again.

    Like

  11. brian says:

    who did he live with

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    • Stephanie says:

      Thank you for your question, Brian! Based on the 1840 Census record it shows that Solomon Northup is the head of household. In 1840, the U.S. Federal census only listed the head of household by name and other individuals living in the household are only represented in the male/female columns under age ranges. Therefore, if you match the census record with Solomon’s account in his autobiography about his family, one could assume that it is his wife and three children living with him. The record shows one male under 10 years of age which should be Solomon’s son Alonzo, one male 24-under 36 years of age which is Solomon, one female under 10 years of age which should be Solomon’s daughter Margaret, one female 10-under 24 years of age which should be Solomon’s daughter Elizabeth, and one female 36-under 55 years of age which should be Solomon’s wife, Anne. This is the perfect example of how historians have to use multiple sources to gain an understanding of what took place in the past. The census records help corroborate Solomon’s autobiographical account.

      Like

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