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.
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.
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?
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!