The story of Solomon Northup, a free man lured from New York and sold into slavery in 1841, is now known by a worldwide audience thanks to the Oscar-nominated film 12 Years A Slave. The film, directed by Steve McQueen, shares the title of the narrative written by Northup after his rescue in 1853.
At the time of his capture, Solomon Northup and his family were living in Saratoga Springs. Northup, a free man, was born in Minerva, in Essex County around 1808. After spending his early years working various jobs and farming in Washington County, Northup relocated to the Spa City.
I met up with local historian David Fiske, who co-authored a biography of Northup, on the streets of Saratoga Springs. Fiske helped me retrace the steps of Solomon Northup in the modern day city of horses, springs, and high-end retail stores.
“What he says in his book, although it’s possible he’s mistaken – or a little bit off – is that when he first came to Saratoga he lived on the North side of Washington Street, which is where at this point – somewhere along here," said Fiske as we walked along a snowy sidewalk in February.
Fiske said Northup and his wife upon moving to Saratoga Springs initially lived in a house owned by Daniel O’Brien. Fiske said at the time, Northup most likely chose the location due to its close proximity to the railroad tracks that once ran through the area.
“He says he worked on the railroad that came into Saratoga from Troy when that was constructed, and he did very odd jobs,” said Fiske. “In the summer there was as lot of work because the resorts and the hotels were very busy, and there were a lot of visitors an plenty of work. But in the winter there wasn’t a lot of things to do in Saratoga to make a living so probably it was kind of a hard scrabble. “
Fiske and I walked along Washington Street until we reached Broadway. Passing a couple storefronts, we stood in front of what is now a Banana Republic. In 1841, this was the site of the Eagle Tavern, where Solomon Northup was approached by the two men who would deceive him, eventually kidnapping and selling him into slavery.
“They said that they had heard around town that he was a good fiddler, and they had a circus and were finding it very hard to find musicians to work in the circus, and if he was amenable, they would like him to go with them to New York City, and he could provide some music for their circus, and perform in some shows along the way," said Fiske.
At the end of a winter season in antebellum Saratoga Springs, Northup probably had expected to make a quick buck on the road and return home in a few weeks. However, from New York, he was led to Washington, where he accounts that he was drugged and sold into slavery, to work on a plantation in Louisiana.
Northup’s accounts were recorded and released in Twelve Years a Slave in 1853, a bestseller of its time. But Fiske said that as years went on, and Saratoga Springs transitioned from a resort town to a horse racing city, Northup’s story started to fade.
“Interest kind of declined in the some of the history of Saratoga and as time went on a lot of the old hotels that dated back to the resort time became diliapidated or caught fire, and in the meantime the race track really became the focus," said Fiske. "Some people don't have an interest of history to begin with, so that's true of any place, I guess. But without a lot of old hotels to remind you of the pre-Civil War history of Saratoga, there wasn't anything to really spark anybody's interest, particularly its earlier history."
In 1999, through the work of Saratoga Springs activist and educator Renee Moore and the City of Saratoga Springs, an historical marker was placed near the approximate location of Northup’s kidnapping. And since 1999, on the third Saturday in July, Saratogians celebrate Solomon Northup Day, which features events commemorating Northup’s story and serves as a venue for conversation about civil rights.
"I thought, this communty, why not provide a platform bridging the past and the future. The past - the Solomon Northup history, his representation on the presence of African Americans right here in Saratoga, and the present-day community, which they have a story as well," said Moore.
Over the years, Solomon Northup Day has been recognized by the Smithsonian and the U.S. Department of Interior. Most recently, in July 2013, an event at Skidmore College was attended by more than 50 descendants of Solomon Northup, who have also come together during the Hollywood awards season.
Moore hopes that the day will continue to remind Saratogians of an important part of American history.
"It's all a part of history. We need to relive it again so that we remember that African Americans built this county. We built it off the backs of slaves and free people. And African Americans need to remember that they're survivors of a great holocaust," said Moore.
David Fiske is co-author of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave
For more information visit: http://solomonnorthup.com
For more information on Solomon Northup Day visit: http://solomonnorthupday.com