Solomon Northup’s Family in New York City
By David Fiske
Around the end of the winter in 1841, Solomon Northup encountered two men in Saratoga Springs, New York, who promised him work if he’d travel with them to New York City. Northup was a free black man who had lived in the resort for about seven years, where he had done various sorts of work to support his wife and three children. The two men, who were from a neighboring county, probably understood that employment in Saratoga was harder to find during the winter months when all the tourists were not around — therefore they had a good chance of finding a potential victim in need of cash.
Northup accepted the men’s offer and went to New York with them, but once there, they convinced him to continue on to Washington, D. C. In that city, Northup dined with the men, but became ill afterward. He was vaguely aware of being led through the streets of Washington, to a place where he was able to fall asleep. Waking in the morning, he was shocked to find that he was confined in one of the city’s slave pens. Before long, he was shipped to New Orleans, where began his period of enslavement. Rescued years later, he returned to New York State and penned a narrative: Twelve Years a Slave. Northup’s story has become widely known as a result of the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. But few people know how his wife and children fared during the years that he was gone.
Northup had been able to get a letter sent to an old friend of his — lawyer Henry B. Northup — and this man undoubtedly informed Mrs. Northup, so that by that summer she at least knew her husband had been kidnapped and taken to Louisana. But no further news was received that year, nor for a number of years afterward.
During Northup’s absence, his wife, Anne, still had to care for their children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. This must have been difficult because along with the loss of its father, the family had lost his income.
Some information is available regarding the life of Northup’s family after his kidnapping, thanks to a somewhat unlikely source: the records of the litigation involving the estate of Madame Eliza Jumel. Jumel, who’d been married to former Vice President Aaron Burr, owned a mansion in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, and she was a frequent visitor to Saratoga. After her death, Anne Northup, and daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, gave evidence in the court case involving Jumel’s estate.
Their testimony, given about 30 years after Solomon Northup’s kidnapping, shows that, in the summer of 1841, Anne met Madame Jumel at the Pavilion Hotel in Saratoga. Anne, known for her work in the kitchens of various hotels, probably worked then as a cook at the Pavilion.
At the end of that summer, Elizabeth Northup, went to New York City with Madame Jumel, to work as her servant. She was about ten years old at the time. Jumel owned a substantial mansion, today called the Morris-Jumel Mansion. (The mansion is open to the public and is billed as “Manhattan’s Oldest House.”)
Shortly afterward, Anne and her two other children traveled to Manhattan. Perhaps Anne wanted to finish out the busy summer season in Saratoga before going down to Madam Jumel’s. In one of history’s inexplicable oddities, the family of Solomon Northup moved into an elegant, historic mansion at a time when he was living in rudimentary slave quarters is Louisiana.
Anne apparently cooked for Jumel, and Elizabeth helped with that. Anne and Solomon’s only son, Alonzo, was just a young boy, but performed easy chores around the house. His mother testified that Jumel meant to bring him up as her footman.
Daughter Margaret, about eight years old, was soon sent across the Hudson River to Hoboken, New Jersey. She lived at the home of Mary Chase, one of Jumel’s relatives, where she served as a playmate for her daughter, Eliza Jumel Chase.
The Northups’ accounts of the time spent downstate are vague about just how long they were there. Elizabeth (who appeared in person at the trial, under her married name of Elizabeth Price) stayed the longest: two, perhaps, three years.
Regrettably, the transcripts from the trial don’t tell us some of what we’d like to know about the Northups. The case revolved around George Washington Bowen’s claim to being Jumel’s illegitimate son, and questions asked of the Northup’s focused on what knowledge they may have had concerning that. Of interest, however, is a conversation remembered by Anne and Elizabeth, in which Jumel referred to Elizabeth as her own daughter — a claim which the girl instantly contradicted, saying that she was her mother’s child, not Jumel’s.
Elizabeth’s testimony was summarized in the Commercial Advertiser issue of January 25, 1872, which described her as “an intelligent mulatto.” According to the paper, she told how Jumel had treated her as an adopted child, and that they slept in the same bed together. Jumel often spoke to her openly, sometimes mentioning a son of hers in Providence, Rhode Island.
Anne, after about a year with Jumel, decided to return to Saratoga Springs. Margaret, for reasons that are unclear, had left the Chase home in Hoboken, and was lodged with a black family in Harlem. She thought she remembered that it was her mother who’d taken here there, but was uncertain. She stayed with that family only a short time — perhaps as long as three months — till her mother took her and Alonzo back to Saratoga. Again, we are left in the dark about things we’d like to know: why did Anne depart, why did Elizabeth stay, and why was it necessary to temporarily leave Margaret with a family in Harlem?
Anne and two of her children were likely back in Saratoga by the summer or fall of 1842. Elizabeth remained with Jumel — for at least one year longer, possibly two. The mother and all three children were together again in Saratoga by 1843 or perhaps 1844.
The Northup family lived in Saratoga till at least 1846 — a document held by the Saratoga Springs Historian’s office shows Anne borrowed some money there that spring. By 1850, they had relocated to Glens Falls in Warren County, where Anne was the cook at a hotel. When a letter written in Solomon Northup’s behalf arrived in the fall of 1852, it was in Glens Falls that Anne would have learned the news. Over the winter of 1852-1853, attorney Henry B. Northup traveled to Louisiana, located Northup, and brought him back to his family at Glens Falls. There, the family was together for a time, until Northup began touring the Northeast to lecture and sell copies of the book he’d written that detailed his experiences. Evidence shows that he was involved with the Underground Railroad in the early 1860s. Then his trail goes cold.
Eventually Anne and Margaret (who had married a man named Philip Stanton) moved to the nearby town of Moreau, and later to Sandy Hill (today known as Hudson Falls). Elizabeth married someone named Price, and was living in Manhattan in 1872 when she testified before the jury in the Jumel case. Alonzo married and moved to central New York where he raised a family. Following Anne’s death in 1876, Margaret, husband Philip and their daughter Florence moved to the Washington D. C. area.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion, located at 65 Jumel Terrace, is open to the public. For information, consult their web site: www.morrisjumel.org.
The testimony of Elizabeth Price, Anne Northup, and Margaret Stanton is given on pages 242-250 in a reprint published as part of Gale’s Making of Modern Laws Series. The title is U. S. Supreme Court Transcript of Record, Bowen v. Chase.
David Fiske is a librarian and researcher with extensive experience in African American history. His published works include Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery and Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.