Saratoga County

Birthday celebrated by Northup family

Solomon Northup Day Sunday was about more than a few stories and a birthday cake for Jamie Adams

Paul McCarty, center, Director of the Old Fort House Museum in Fort Edward speaks to an audience in celebration of the birth of Solomon Northup at the Saratoga Springs Visitors’ Center Sunday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Paul McCarty, center, Director of the Old Fort House Museum in Fort Edward speaks to an audience in celebration of the birth of Solomon Northup at the Saratoga Springs Visitors’ Center Sunday.

Solomon Northup Day Sunday was about more than a few stories and a birthday cake for Jamie Adams — it was about family pride and heritage.

Adams, 37, is Northup’s great-great-great grandson. Northup was a free black man who was kidnapped from the area in 1841 and sold into slavery before being rescued in 1853. Adams joined about 25 of his fellow Northup descendents for an event at the Saratoga Springs Visitor Center.

“The ability to be able to trace back your history is very hard,” Adams said. “It helps in understanding who you actually are.”

The event featured an exhibit on loan from Union College, stories from historians and descendents and a large birthday cake. Northup was born in 1808 but the date is unknown.

Adams was emotional while speaking about his family. His grandmother, Victoria Dunham-Northup, died last year at 98. At the time, she was the oldest living descendent with the Northup name.

Adams said knowledge of his heritage is important so he can pass on a legacy to his children. Adams lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two daughters.

Mary-Jane Rau Pelzer, a heritage educator at the Visitor Center, said that at least two dozen of Northup’s descendents from across the country were contacted to come to Saratoga Springs for the event.

“We were lucky enough to be able to bring probably 25 descendents,” she said. “I think it’s just huge that they would take the time and effort to come.”

In 1841, two Fulton County men approached Northup in Saratoga Springs and persuaded him to come with them, claiming that they had work for him as a fiddle player at a circus in New York City.

Once he got to New York, they then persuaded him to go to Washington, D.C., for a more lucrative job. While there, he was drugged and sold into slavery in the south.

He spent 12 years in slavery before he was rescued by Henry Northup, the son of the man who owned Solomon Northup’s father. Henry Northup’s father, also named Henry, freed Solomon Northup’s father in his will after he died.

In a coincidence, Adams said that his grandmother died last year on Oct. 3 — the same day of the year that Henry Northup, the man who freed Solomon Northup’s father, died.

Friends and family attempted to locate Solomon Northup during his enslavement but were unsuccessful until he was able to get a letter to them through an abolitionist carpenter who he met while working on a home in Louisiana about 150 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.

Henry Northup collected petitions from local residents affirming that Solomon Northup was a free man and then used his high-powered connections in Washington to persuade a judge and sheriff in Louisiana to order his release.

“The south was perfectly willing to return free blacks because they wanted the north to return slaves,” said Clifford Brown Jr., a professor at Union College.

“Henry B. Northup, to me, is like the untold hero of this story,” said historical re-enactor Clifford Oliver Mealy. “To be a Yankee, oh my God, it’s lucky he got away with his life.”

Mealy attended Sunday’s event wearing traditional plantation worker clothing. He has told stories about Solomon Northup in character at over 30 events in the last nine years, he said.

After his release, Northup wrote a book about his experiences “Twelve Years a Slave.” In it, he wrote about his time in Washington, D.C.

“So we passed, handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington — through the Capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he wrote.

The exhibit at the Visitor Center includes excerpts from the book and copies of several documents relating Northup’s story, including a copy of the man’s signature.

Historian R. Paul McCarthy said the signature is important because it proves that Northup could read and was educated, which was not as common in the 1800s as it is today.

“He was a skilled man,” Mealy said. “I think that’s what got him through slavery.”

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