Author unearths new accounts of those kidnapped into slavery

Solomon Northup’s story was both tragic and inspirational, and interesting enough to merit the atten
David Fiske
David Fiske

Solomon Northup’s story was both tragic and inspirational, and interesting enough to merit the attention of the Hollywood film industry.

David Fiske isn’t sure if he has that same kind of cinematic gold with “Solomon Northup’s Kindred: The Kidnapping of Free Citizens Before the Civil War,” but his new book does contain some very intriguing stories.

A retired librarian from the New York State Library, Fiske wrote “Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery,” in 2011, and then teamed with Skidmore’s Rachel Seligman and Union College’s Cliff Brown to produce “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave” in 2013, just before the release of Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave.”

In “Solomon Northup’s Kindred,” published by Praeger Publishing/ABC-CLIO, Fiske tells the often-overlooked stories of other free black men and women who had similar stories to Northup’s during the first half of the 19th century.

The book was released on Jan. 30, and Fiske will be signing copies at the Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza on March 12 at 3 p.m.

A Maine native who grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Ballston Spa, Fiske got his four-year degree from Cornell University and his master’s degree in library science from the University at Albany. For more information visit Fiske’s web site,

Q: When and why did you start thinking about a follow-up book to your two other books on Solomon Northup?

A: Over the course of doing historical research on Northup, which I’ve been doing since the mid-1990s, I often came across cases of other people who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film about Northup, “12 Years a Slave,” brought his story to a very wide audience, creating a “learning moment.” So it seemed like a good opportunity to document the stories of others who were kidnapped, and to explain some of the reasons that such crimes occurred. There were some dastards involved in these cases, but there were also some heroes — both North and South — who assisted victims.

Q: How did you collect all your research? Libraries, historical societies, museums, the Internet?

A: I consulted some books held by local libraries, but the bulk of the information was located through online sources. I found quite a bit in digitized local history books on the internet, and databases of newspapers from before the Civil War were an immense help.

I did get some documents from the Library of Virginia, and from the Indiana Historical Society, because they weren’t available online.

Q: Were there any other Solomon Northup “types” connected to the Capital Region or upstate New York?

A: In 1817, some men went up and down the Hudson River buying up slaves that they planned to send to the South, and they came as far north as Albany to obtain some. The people they kidnapped were mostly slaves, but a few were apparently free. Even though slavery was legal in New York State at the time, it was against the law to remove slaves from the state, so the men had committed a crime even if their victims were slaves.

I found a number of cases of upstate kidnappings. Two men from Geneva, one from Watertown, and two children from Bath. There was also a man who had lived in Rochester and Auburn, but he was kidnapped while he was in Maryland.

Q: The illustration for your book cover is a historical drawing showing a black man being kidnapped by four white men. What do you know about the image?

A: It shows the kidnapping of Peter John Lee, who is in the book, and it’s from the Anti Slavery Almanac of 1839.

Q: How did you get the blurb from Henry Louis Gates, star of “Finding Your Roots,” currently being aired on PBS?

A: Professor Gates has been very supportive of my research. He was the historical consultant for the “12 Years a Slave” film, and before it was released he asked to see an advance copy of the Northup biography I worked on with Prof. Clifford Brown, from Union, and Rachel Seligman at Skidmore’s Tang Teaching Museum. Gates and I keep in touch some via email. He gave me a chance to provide some suggestions for the forthcoming Norton Critical Editions release of “Twelve Years a Slave,” which he edited. He readily agreed when I asked him to look at my manuscript.

Q: Do you have a strong opinion on the Confederate flag issue?

A: I really don’t take stands on issues, as I feel it would detract from my perceived objectivity as a historian. I don’t advocate, I educate.

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

Categories: Entertainment

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