Twelve Years a Slave is an 1853 memoir and slave narrative by American Solomon Northup as told to and edited by David Wilson. Northup, a black man who was born free in New York state, details his being tricked to go to Washington, D.C., where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. He was in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana before he was able to secretly get information to friends and family in New York, who in turn secured his release with the aid of the state. Northup’s account provides extensive details on the slave markets in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, and describes at length cotton and sugar cultivation and slave treatment on major plantations in Louisiana.
The work was published eight years before the Civil War by Derby & Miller of Auburn, New York, soon after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel about slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), to which it lent factual support. Northup’s book, dedicated to Stowe, sold 30,000 copies, making it a bestseller in its own right.
After being published in several editions in the 19th century and although later cited by specialist scholarly works on slavery in the United States, the memoir fell into public obscurity for nearly 100 years. It was re-discovered on separate occasions by two Louisiana historians, Sue Eakin (Louisiana State University at Alexandria) and Joseph Logsdon (University of New Orleans). In the early 1960s, they researched and retraced Solomon Northup’s journey and co-edited a historically annotated version that was published by Louisiana State University Press (1968).
The memoir has been adapted as two film versions, produced as the 1984 PBS television film Solomon Northup’s Odyssey and the Oscar-winning 2013 film 12 Years a Slave.