Closer Readings Commentary

Searching for Solomon Northup in "Chronicling America"

Helen Aguera is a Senior Program Officer in the Division of Preservation and Access at NEH

The highly praised new film version of Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, has brought renewed attention to his story and to the subject of slavery and slave narratives, especially among educators. In this blog post, we suggest how teachers can leverage student interest in Northup into a research assignment introducing the historic digitalized newspapers in Chronicling America. In the process, teachers can develop resources that meet the Common Core English Language Arts Anchor Standards involving “Research to Build and Present Knowledge.”

A free-born African American, Northup was lured away from his home and family in upstate New York in 1841 with an offer of a job as a musician. Drugged and kidnapped in Washington, D.C., he was shipped to New Orleans where he was sold into slavery.

Northup’s work was published in 1853 to great acclaim and reportedly its publisher sold more than 30,000 copies in three years. The vast collection of historical newspapers in the Chronicling America provides an array of first-hand evidence of the popular interest in, and influence of, Northup’s memoir. The publisher advertised it widely upon its debut and, decades later, book sellers continued to list this work with other important African American publications.

Newsprint articles and notices also shed light on the notoriety of the kidnapping, the legal case against Northup’s kidnappers, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, as well as on Northup’s anti-slavery lecturing activities.

With this in mind, here are some suggestions for introducing students to the Chronicling America database for research projects on Northup.

Name variations in Chronicling America

Tell students that different forms of the spelling of his last name were used by the press; therefore it is necessary to search using alternate spellings for best results (Northup, Northrup, and Northrop). For example, searching for the phrase “Solomon Northup” returns 23 pages.

Let students see that they can rearrange the page list by date. When they do so, they can see issues for the publication year of 1853 point to a variety of sources. For example, there are advertisements for Northup’s autobiography, such as the announcements from September 3–19 that appear on the front page of the Daily Evening Star, a Washington, D.C., newspaper. Students might want to compare these historic advertisements for the book with today’s adverts for the movie.

The September 3 issue of Ohio’s Anti-Slavery Bugle also has an advertisement with a lengthy description of Northup’s work and quotes from rave reviews, some of which compared Twelve Years a Slave to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Students may be surprised to see how highly Stowe’s novel was regarded by abolitionists.

The Anti-Slavery Bugle also offers an eye-opening article from William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, entitled “The Taney Hunt against African Americans.” In that article, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooks Taney’s infamous opinion in the Dred Scott case that “colored men have no rights that a white man are bound to respect” is excoriated as an example of what happens when natural rights of individuals are violated or denied. Indeed, Solomon Northrup’s case is mentioned as one example of the “outrages daily committed against freedom, including the indignities heaped on the unoffending colored men in the United States.”

An alternate search using another spelling of the name “Solomon Northrup” yields 12 pages of results. Two issues of the Daily Dispatch, published in Virginia, make reference to developments in Northup’s legal case in 1854. A July 12 notice mentions the capture of Joseph Russell, and there is a brief description of the proceedings against Northup’s kidnappers in the July 14 issue. A page of a Tennessee newspaper of September 10, 1857, the Fayetteville Observer, notes an incident in Canada where Solomon Northup was not allowed to lecture.

Another variant search for “Solomon Northrop” results in 28 pages. Among these pages is a detailed account of Northup’s case published by the Vermont Watchman and State Journal on February 10, 1853.

A later issue of this newspaper (January 26, 1855) reports that Northup’s lecture on slavery delivered at Montpelier offered “an honest tale, without exaggeration.” (One would love to read a transcript of that lecture!)

Other Vermont newspapers from the 1850s also carry brief notices of Northup’s legal case. But the most surprising result is an article that appeared in Illinois’ Ottawa Free Trader (July 11, 1857). It mentions that the district attorney was in possession of new evidence that would prevent the conviction of kidnappers Merrill and Russell. The article states that it appeared “Northup had been an accomplice in the sale, calculating to slip away and share the spoils, but the purchaser was too sharp for him …”

Decades later, the National Tribune (Washington, D.C.) issue of October 11, 1894, published a letter to the editor from A. A. Gardner, who claimed to have heard Alexander Merrill say that Northup was an accomplice, although Gardner could not confirm the veracity of Merrill’s version.

More ways to search and find

If the advanced search tool is used to search other keywords related to Northup’s work, such as the phrase “twelve years a slave,” more references are revealed. For instance, among the 45 page returns are advertisements published in 1854 and 1856 for the slave narrative in the New York Tribune.