Until slavery was abolished in 1865, millions of men, women, and children toiled under a system that stripped them of their freedom and their humanity. Much has been written about this shameful era of American history, but few books speak with as much power as the narratives written by those who experienced slavery firsthand.
The basis for the film of the same name, Twelve Years a Slave is Solomon Northup’s heartrending chronicle of injustice and brutality. Northup was born and raised a freeman in New York State—until he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. Before returning to his family and freedom, he suffered smallpox, the overseer’s lash, and an attempted lynching.
Perhaps the most famous of all slave chronicles, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass immediately struck a chord with readers when it was first released in 1855. After escaping to freedom, Douglass became a well-known orator and abolitionist, drawing on his own experiences to condemn the evils of slavery.
One of the few female slave narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was originally published under a pseudonym by Harriet Jacobs. After she escaped to freedom in North Carolina, where she became an abolitionist, Jacobs described the particular suffering of female slaves, including sexual harassment and abuse.
Published in 1850, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth is Truth’s landmark memoir of her life as a slave in upstate New York and her transformation into a pioneer for racial equality and women’s rights.
These narratives serve as a timeless testament to the strength and bravery, and as a voice to the millions of people enslaved in this dark period of American history.
This ebook has been professionally proofread to ensure accuracy and readability on all devices.
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About the Author
Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was an American orator, author, and leader of the abolitionist movement. Born a slave in Maryland, Douglass successfully escaped in 1838 by boarding a train headed north. As a free man, he published several autobiographical works detailing his experiences in slavery. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is widely considered to be the finest example of a slave narrative. Douglass became the first African American to hold a high government rank, serving as minister-resident and consul general to the Republic of Haiti.
Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) was an American author. Born into slavery in North Carolina, she escaped in 1835, and spent seven years hiding in her grandmother’s attic before fleeing to the North. In 1861, she published her memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, under the pseudonym Linda Brent. Jacobs spent the Civil War and Reconstruction periods traveling the country, advocating on behalf of the rights of freed slaves.
Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) was a civil and women’s rights activist. She was raised in Dutch-speaking Ulster County, New York, and was bought and sold into slavery four times. In 1827, Truth ran away with her child and found refuge with an abolitionist family. Once freed, Truth moved to New York City, where she became an itinerant preacher and worked with other abolitionists to spread the word on antislavery and women’s rights. In her later years, she became involved with the Freedmen’s Bureau in Washington, DC, lobbying against the Civil War and segregation.
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Introductory — Ancestry — The Northup Family — Birth and Parentage — Mintus Northup — Marriage with Anne Hampton — Good Resolutions — Champlain Canal — Rafting Excursion to Canada — Farming — The Violin — Cooking — Removal to Saratoga — Parker and Perry — Slaves and Slavery — The Children — The Beginning of Sorrow
Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State-and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years — it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.
Since my return to liberty, I have not failed to perceive the increasing interest throughout the Northern States, in regard to the subject of Slavery. Works of fiction, professing to portray its features in their more pleasing as well as more repugnant aspects, have been circulated to an extent unprecedented, and, as I understand, have created a fruitful topic of comment and discussion.
I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation — only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.
As far back as I have been able to ascertain, my ancestors on the paternal side were slaves in Rhode Island. They belonged to a family by the name of Northup, one of whom, removing to the State of New York, settled at Hoosic, in Rensselaer county. He brought with him Mintus Northup, my father. On the death of this gentleman, which must have occurred some fifty years ago, my father became free, having been emancipated by a direction in his will.
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.
Sometime after my father's liberation, he removed to the town of Minerva, Essex county, N. Y., where I was born, in the month of July, 1808. How long he remained in the latter place I have not the means of definitely ascertaining. From thence he removed to Granville, Washington county, near a place known as Slyborough, where, for some years, he labored on the farm of Clark Northup, also a relative of his old master; from thence he removed to the Alden farm, at Moss Street, a short distance north of the village of Sandy Hill; and from thence to the farm now owned by Russel Pratt, situated on the road leading from Fort Edward to Argyle, where he continued to reside until his death, which took place on the 22d day of November, 1829. He left a widow and two children — myself, and Joseph, an elder brother. The latter is still living in the county of Oswego, near the city of that name; my mother died during the period of my captivity.
Though born a slave, and laboring under the disadvantages to which my unfortunate race is subjected, my father was a man respected for his industry and integrity, as many now living, who well remember him, are ready to testify. His whole life was passed in the peaceful pursuits of agriculture, never seeking employment in those more menial positions, which seem to be especially allotted to the children of Africa. Besides giving us an education surpassing that ordinarily bestowed upon children in our condition, he acquired, by his diligence and economy, a sufficient property qualification to entitle him to the right of suffrage. He was accustomed to speak to us of his early life; and although at all times cherishing the warmest emotions of kindness, and even of affection towards the family, in whose house he had been a bondsman, he nevertheless comprehended the system of Slavery, and dwelt with sorrow on the degradation of his race. He endeavored to imbue our minds with sentiments of morality, and to teach us to place our trust and confidence in Him who regards the humblest as well as the highest of his creatures. How often since that time has the recollection of his paternal counsels occurred to me, while lying in a slave hut in the distant and sickly regions of Louisiana, smarting with the undeserved wounds which an inhuman master had inflicted, and longing only for the grave which had covered him, to shield me also from the lash of the oppressor. In the church yard at Sandy Hill, an humble stone marks the spot where he reposes, after having worthily performed the duties appertaining to the lowly sphere wherein God had appointed him to walk.
Up to this period I had been principally engaged with my father in the labors of the farm. The leisure hours allowed me were generally either employed over my books, or playing on the violin — an amusement which was the ruling passion of my youth. It has also been the source of consolation since, affording, pleasure to the simple beings with whom my lot was cast, and beguiling my own thoughts, for many hours, from the painful contemplation of my fate.
On Christmas day, 1829, I was married to Anne Hampton, a colored girl then living in the vicinity of our residence. The ceremony was performed at Fort Edward, by Timothy Eddy, Esq., a magistrate of that town, and still a prominent citizen of the place. She had resided a long time at Sandy Hill, with Mr. Baird, proprietor of the Eagle Tavern, and also in the family of Rev. Alexander Proudfit, of Salem. This gentleman for many years had presided over the Presbyterian society at the latter place, and was widely distinguished for his learning and piety. Anne still holds in grateful remembrance the exceeding kindness and the excellent counsels of that good man. She is not able to determine the exact line of her descent, but the blood of three races mingles in her veins. It is difficult to tell whether the red, white, or black predominates. The union of them all, however, in her origin, has given her a singular but pleasing expression, such as is rarely to be seen. Though somewhat resembling, yet she cannot properly be styled a quadroon, a class to which, I have omitted to mention, my mother belonged.
I had just now passed the period of my minority, having reached the age of twenty-one years in the month of July previous. Deprived of the advice and assistance of my father, with a wife dependent upon me for support, I resolved to enter upon a life of industry; and notwithstanding the obstacle of color, and the consciousness of my lowly state, indulged in pleasant dreams of a good time coming, when the possession of some humble habitation, with a few surrounding acres, should reward my labors, and bring me the means of happiness and comfort.
From the time of my marriage to this day the love I have borne my wife has been sincere and unabated; and only those who have felt the glowing tenderness a father cherishes for his offspring, can appreciate my affection for the beloved children which have since been born to us. This much I deem appropriate and necessary to day, in order that those who read these pages, may comprehend the poignancy of those sufferings I have been doomed to bear.
Immediately upon our marriage we commenced housekeeping, in the old yellow building then standing at the southern extremity of Fort Edward village, and which has since been transformed into a modern mansion, and lately occupied by Captain Lathrop. It is known as the Fort House. In this building the courts were sometime held after the organization of the county. It was also occupied by Burgoyne in 1777, being situated near the old Fort on the left bank of the Hudson.
During the winter I was employed with others repairing the Champlain Canal, on that section over which William Van Nortwick was superintendent. David McEachron had the immediate charge of the men in whose company I labored. By the time the canal opened in the spring, I was enabled, from the savings of my wages, to purchase a pair of horses, and other things necessarily required in the business of navigation.
Having hired several efficient hands to assist me, I entered into contracts for the transportation of large rafts of timber from Lake Champlain to Troy. Dyer Beckwith and a Mr. Bartemy, of Whitehall, accompanied me on several trips. During the season I became perfectly familiar with the art and mysteries of rafting — a knowledge which afterwards enabled me to render profitable service to a worthy master, and to astonish the simple-witted lumbermen on the banks of the Bayou Boeuf.
In one of my voyages down Lake Champlain, I was induced to make a visit to Canada. Repairing to Montreal, I visited the cathedral and other places of interest in that city, from whence I continued my excursion to Kingston and other towns, obtaining a knowledge of localities, which was also of service to me afterwards, as will appear towards the close of this narrative.
Having completed my contracts on the canal satisfactorily to myself and to my employer, and not wishing to remain idle, now that the navigation of the canal was again suspended, I entered into another contract with Medad Gunn, to cut a large quantity of wood. In this business I was engaged during the winter of 1831-32.
With the return of spring, Anne and myself conceived the project of taking a farm in the neighborhood. I had been accustomed from earliest youth to agricultural labors, and it was an occupation congenial to my tastes. I accordingly entered into arrangements for a part of the old Alden farm, on which my father formerly resided. With one cow, one swine, a yoke of fine oxen I had lately purchased of Lewis Brown, in Hartford, and other personal property and effects, we proceeded to our new home in Kingsbury. That year I planted twenty-five acres of corn, sowed large fields of oats, and commenced farming upon as large a scale as my utmost means would permit. Anne was diligent about the house affairs, while I toiled laboriously in the field.
On this place we continued to reside until 1834. In the winter season I had numerous calls to play on the violin. Wherever the young people assembled to dance, I was almost invariably there. Throughout the surrounding villages my fiddle was notorious. Anne, also, during her long residence at the Eagle Tavern, had become somewhat famous as a cook. During court weeks, and on public occasions, she was employed at high wages in the kitchen at Sherrill's Coffee House.
We always returned home from the performance of these services with money in our pockets; so that, with fiddling, cooking, and farming, we soon found ourselves in the possession of abundance, and, in fact, leading a happy and prosperous life. Well, indeed, would it have been for us had we remained on the farm at Kingsbury; but the time came when the next step was to be taken towards the cruel destiny that awaited me.
In March, 1834, we removed to Saratoga Springs. We occupied a house belonging to Daniel O'Brien, on the north side of Washington street. At that time Isaac Taylor kept a large boarding house, known as Washington Hall, at the north end of Broadway. He employed me to drive a hack, in which capacity I worked for him two years. After this time I was generally employed through the visiting season, as also was Anne, in the United States Hotel, and other public houses of the place. In winter seasons I relied upon my violin, though during the construction of the Troy and Saratoga railroad, I performed many hard days' labor upon it.
I was in the habit, at Saratoga, of purchasing articles necessary for my family at the stores of Mr. Cephas Parker and Mr. William Perry, gentlemen towards whom, for many acts of kindness, I entertained feelings of strong regard. It was for this reason that twelve years afterwards, I caused to be directed to them the letter, which is hereinafter inserted, and which was the means, in the hands of Mr. Northup, of my fortunate deliverance.
While living at the United States Hotel, I frequently met with slaves, who had accompanied their masters from the South. They were always well dressed and well provided for, leading apparently an easy life, with but few of its ordinary troubles to perplex them. Many times they entered into conversation with me on the subject of Slavery. Almost uniformly I found they cherished a secret desire for liberty. Some of them expressed the most ardent anxiety to escape, and consulted me on the best method of effecting it. The fear of punishment, however, which they knew was certain to attend their re-capture and return, in all cases proved sufficient to deter them from the experiment. Having all my life breathed the free air of the North, and conscious that I possessed the same feelings and affections that find a place in the white man's breast; conscious, moreover, of an intelligence equal to that of some men, at least, with a fairer skin. I was too ignorant, perhaps too independent, to conceive how any one could be content to live in the abject condition of a slave. I could not comprehend the justice of that law, or that religion, which upholds or recognizes the principle of Slavery; and never once, I am proud to say, did I fail to counsel any one who came to me, to watch his opportunity, and strike for freedom.
I continued to reside at Saratoga until the spring of 1841. The flattering anticipations which, seven years before, had seduced us from the quiet farm house, on the east side of the Hudson, had not been realized. Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered. The society and associations at that world-renowned watering place, were not calculated to preserve the simple habits of industry and economy to which I had been accustomed, but, on the contrary, to substitute others in their stead, tending to shiftlessness and extravagance.
At this time we were the parents of three children — Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. Elizabeth, the eldest, was in her tenth year; Margaret was two years younger, and little Alonzo had just passed his fifth birthday. They filled our house with gladness. Their young voices were music in our ears. Many an airy castle did their mother and myself build for the little innocents. When not at labor I was always walking with them, clad in their best attire, through the streets and groves of Saratoga. Their presence was my delight; and I clasped them to my bosom with as warm and tender love as if their clouded skins had been as white as snow.
Thus far the history of my life presents nothing whatever unusual — nothing but the common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure colored man, making his humble progress in the world. But now I had reached a turning point in my existence — reached the threshold of unutterable wrong, and sorrow, and despair. Now had I approached within the shadow of the cloud, into the thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear, thenceforward to be hidden from the eyes of all my kindred, and shut out from the sweet light of liberty, for many a weary year.
The Two Strangers — The Circus Company — Departure from Saratoga — Ventriloquism and Legerdemain — Journey to New York — Free Papers — Brown and Hamilton — The Haste to Reach The Circus — Arrival in Washington — Funeral of Harrison — The Sudden Sickness — The Torment of Thirst — The Receding Light — Insensibility — Chains and Darkness.
One morning, towards the latter part of the month of March, 1841, having at that time no particular business to engage my attention, I was walking about the village of Saratoga Springs, thinking to myself where I might obtain some present employment, until the busy season should arrive. Anne, as was her usual custom, had gone over to Sandy Hill, a distance of some twenty miles, to take charge of the Culinary department at Sherrill's Coffee House, during the session of the court. Elizabeth, I think, had accompanied her. Margaret and Alonzo were with their aunt at Saratoga.
On the corner of Congress street and Broadway near the tavern, then, and for aught I know to the contrary, still kept by Mr. Moon, I was met by two gentlemen of respectable appearance, both of whom were entirely unknown to me. I have the impression that they were introduced to me by some one of my acquaintances, but who, I have in vain endeavored to recall, with the remark that I was an expert player on the violin.
Excerpted from "Voices of Freedom"
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- Twelve Years a Slave
- Title Page
- EDITOR’S PREFACE
- CHAPTER I
- CHAPTER II
- CHAPTER III
- CHAPTER IV
- CHAPTER V
- CHAPTER VI
- CHAPTER VII
- CHAPTER VIII
- CHAPTER IX
- CHAPTER X
- CHAPTER XI
- CHAPTER XII
- CHAPTER XIII
- CHAPTER XIV
- CHAPTER XV
- CHAPTER XVI
- CHAPTER XVII
- CHAPTER XVIII
- CHAPTER XIX
- CHAPTER XX
- CHAPTER XXI
- CHAPTER XXII
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
- Title Page
- LETTER FROM WENDELL PHILLIPS, ESQ.
- FREDERICK DOUGLASS
- CHAPTER I
- CHAPTER II
- CHAPTER III
- CHAPTER IV
- CHAPTER V
- CHAPTER VI
- CHAPTER VII
- CHAPTER VIII
- CHAPTER IX
- CHAPTER X
- CHAPTER XI
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
- Title Page
- Preface by the Author
- Introduction by the Editor
- I. Childhood
- II. The New Master and Mistress
- III. The Slaves’ New Year’s Day
- IV. The Slave Who Dared to Feel Like a Man
- V. The Trials Of Girlhood
- VI. The Jealous Mistress
- VII. The Lover
- VIII. What Slaves Are Taught to Think of the North
- IX. Sketches Of Neighboring Slaveholders
- X. A Perilous Passage in the Slave Girl’s Life
- XI. The New Tie to Life
- XII. Fear of Insurrection
- XIII. The Church and Slavery
- XIV. Another Link To Life
- XV. Continued Persecutions
- XVI. Scenes at the Plantation
- XVII. The Flight
- XVIII. Months Of Peril
- XIX. The Children Sold
- XX. New Perils
- XXI. The Loophole of Retreat
- XXII. Christmas Festivities
- XXIII. Still in Prison
- XXIV. The Candidate for Congress
- XXV. Competition in Cunning
- XXVI. Important Era in My Brother’s Life
- XXVII. New Destination for the Children
- XXVIII. Aunt Nancy
- XXIX. Preparations for Escape
- XXX. Northward Bound
- XXXI. Incidents in Philadelphia
- XXXII. The Meeting of Mother and Daughter
- XXXIII. A Home Found
- XXXIV. The Old Enemy Again
- XXXV. Prejudice Against Color
- XXXVI. The Hair-breadth Escape
- XXXVII. A Visit to England
- XXXVIII. Renewed Invitations to Go South
- XXXIX. The Confession
- XL. The Fugitive Slave Law
- XLI. Free at Last
- The Narrative of Sojourner Truth
- The Narrative of Sojourner Truth
- HER BIRTH AND PARENTAGE
- HER BROTHERS AND SISTERS
- HER RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION
- THE AUCTION
- DEATH OF MAU-MAU BETT
- LAST DAYS OF BOMEFREE
- DEATH OF BOMEFREE
- COMMENCEMENT OF ISABELLA’S TRIALS IN LIFE
- TRIALS CONTINUED
- HER STANDING WITH HER NEW MASTER AND MISTRESS
- ISABELLA’S MARRIAGE
- ISABELLA AS A MOTHER
- SLAVEHOLDER’S PROMISES
- HER ESCAPE
- ILLEGAL SALE OF HER SON
- IT IS OFTEN DARKEST JUST BEFORE DAWN
- DEATH OF MRS. ELIZA FOWLER
- ISABELLA’S RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE
- NEW TRIALS
- FINDING A BROTHER AND SISTER
- THE MATTHIAS DELUSION
- THE CAUSE OF HER LEAVING THE CITY
- THE CONSEQUENCES OF REFUSING A TRAVELLER A NIGHT’S LODGING
- SOME OF HER VIEWS AND REASONINGS
- THE SECOND ADVENT DOCTRINES
- ANOTHER CAMP MEETING
- HER LAST INTERVIEW WITH HER MASTER
- CERTIFICATES OF CHARACTER
- About the Authors
- Copyright Page