Descendants of Solomon Northup Walk in His Path

Today’s blog is written by Vera J. Williams, IT Specialist in the BP Project Assistance Division at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

On January 15, 2014, the 85th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a family member, Clayton Adams and I walked in the path of our Great-Great-Great Grandfather Solomon Northup – the object of the award winning movie based on the slave narrative “Twelve Years a Slave”. This book is the true story written by our 3xGreat Grandfather, a free black man from Saratoga, New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, and was eventually rescued twelve years later.

Solomon Northrup

First, Clayton and I visited the corner of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue on the northwest side of Federal Triangle in Washington, DC. This location is the former site of the Shekell’s Tavern, where Solomon was drugged by his “business associates” Merrill Brown (real name Alexander Merrill) and Abram Hamilton (real name Joseph Russell), while he ate dinner. Solomon had originally met these men in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he was encouraged to come to DC for his musical capabilities.

Next, we traveled to 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, the previous site of John Gadsby’s Hotel where Solomon Northup stayed while visiting “Washington City.” Gadsby’s Hotel (also known as the National Hotel) was where he was taken after becoming sick from the drugs that Brown and Hamilton had given him at dinner. Today, this is the location of the Newseum, an interactive museum for news and journalism.

We continued on to the corner of Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW, the previous site of Williams’ Slave Pen. This is where Solomon Northup awoke in chains shackled to the floor, after being drugged and kidnapped, and before being sold into slavery. Here he was viciously beaten as he professed he was a free man and that a mistake had been made, until he no longer protested. Today this is the location of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

From Williams’ Slave Pen, Northrup’s name was changed to Plat Hamilton to hid is true identity, he was then placed in a wagon with other slaves, transported to Richmond, Virginia and put on the Brig Orleans headed for Louisiana. The National Archives at Ft. Worth holds the ship’s manifest (seen below) that imposed a new identity on Solomon Northrup in RG 36 Records of the U.S. Customs Service.

Manifest of Slaves to be Transported on the Brig Orleans
Manifest of Slaves to be Transported on the Brig Orleans

Clayton and I concluded our walk by visiting the US Capitol, which Solomon could see out of his window while being held at the Williams’ Slave Pen.

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The locations mentioned in this blog are very familiar to me. Previously, I visited the US Capitol, had taken the Metro train at Federal Triangle, and I worked at the FAA as a contractor for a few years. However, this time, visiting these locations, I knew the back story and felt heavy hearted thinking of the pain Solomon must have experienced at these locations.

A book recently published by David Fiske, Dr. Clifford Brown and Rachel Seligman – Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, details the information I described as we walked in the path of our 3xGreat Grandfather. The forward of this book was written by Clayton’s mother, Carol Linzy Adams-Sally. Solomon’s story was experienced by many freed blacks, however they were never set free and their story may not have been documented. Their numbers are not known, as human trafficking throughout America and Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, was big business for it contributed extensively to the creation of the abundant infrastructure of our US economy.

I am delighted the movie “12 Years a Slave” was made by Fox Searchlight. It has received multiple awards and nominations, and has introduced numerous Americans to Solomon Northup and the plight of human trafficking in America. I am extremely proud of my ancestor; he had the “American Dream” in 1841. Unfortunately, it was taken from him, yet he survived slavery, achieved his freedom, returned home to his family and wrote a book documenting the experience.

Ms. Williams will have a discussion about Solomon Northrup as part of the Afro-American History Society’s Black History Month Programs on February 25, 2014 at 10:45 am. Please see the flyer below. If you have any questions, please contact Lisha Penn, President of the Afro-American History Society at (301) 837 2043.

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