On Display: Record of the Kidnapping of Solomon Northup

The slave manifest of the brig Orleans, April 27, 1841 is on display from February 21 to March 30 in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. Today’s post comes from curator Corinne Porter.

From the birth of the American republic to the abolition of slavery, kidnapping for sale into slavery was a constant threat to free black people in the United States. In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free-born African American from New York, was kidnapped by two white men and enslaved for 12 years in the deep South before he could prove his legal right to freedom. However, his liberation from bondage was exceptional—most enslaved free blacks never regained their freedom.

The slave manifest for the brig Orleans includes Solomon Northup, listed as Plat Hamilton, at number 33. (National Archives).
The slave manifest for the brig Orleans includes Solomon Northup, listed as Plat Hamilton, on line 33. (National Archives).

Abducting free blacks for sale into slavery was outlawed in most of the United States. However  uneven law enforcement, the marginal rights of free blacks, and mounting demand for slaves after the end of the transatlantic slave trade made kidnapping an attractive and potentially profitable prospect that encouraged the creation of a reverse underground railroad.

Kidnappers gave their victims aliases to hide their true identities. In his personal narrative, 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup recounts that he first heard the name he would be known by as a slave, “Plat Hamilton,” in New Orleans when it was called from this slave manifest (line 33) for the brig Orleans. Victims who insisted that they were free often faced severe beatings or even death.  Northup accepted his identity as “Plat” because “[He] was too costly a chattel to be lost . . . [and] knew well enough the slightest knowledge of [his] real character would consign [him] at once to the remotest depths of Slavery.”

Vera Williams, a direct descendent of Solomon Northup works at the National Archives. You can read her personal story or learn how she walked in the footsteps of her great-great-great-grandfather Solomon Northup.

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