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Required reading for genealogists

If you spent the last 24 hours in a facility without electricity or even a cellphone, let The Legal Genealogist bring you up to date:

12 Years A Slave won the best picture award last night at the Oscars.

NorthrupLupita Nyong’o took the best supporting actress award for her portrayal of the slave girl Patsey and John Ridley won for the screenplay.

This cinematic depiction of slavery has focused attention on the strength of our African-American community — its survival in the face of raw and unrelenting brutality — and it is above all else a story with the power of truth.

This isn’t fiction. Solomon Northup lived. You can find him and his family on the 1840 census of Saratoga County, New York, where he was recorded in the Town of Saratoga Springs as a free man of color, aged 30-40 years.1

It was just one year later when he was kidnapped from Washington, D.C., and sold as a slave. You can read his own account of that kidnapping and its aftermath. It’s a memoir called Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana, and it’s available on Google Books.2

You can see the manifest of the brig Orleans, bound from Richmond in 1841, that carried Northup, under the name “Plat Hamilton” — describing him as male, age 26, height 5 feet 7 inches, color “yellow.”3

You can find him on the 1855 New York State census after he was rescued from slavery, living in Warren County, New York, with his wife Anne and son Alonzo.4

With just a little effort, today, you can find Solomon Northup’s story. It’s a story worth reading, in its long form, and with all its constituent pieces.

What you won’t find, at least not yet, is the story of Patsey, the slave girl, after Solomon Northup was rescued.

And that, by itself, is a story worth reading.

Because, in so many ways, it is the story of today’s African-American genealogists and their own struggles in trying to find their roots.

Katie Calautti, a writer for the magazine Vanity Fair, set out to find the answer to Patsey’s question, the one she asked as Solomon Northup was leaving the plantation a free man again — her heart-wrenching cry: “What’ll become of me?”

And even with help and input from some of America’s top experts in Louisiana research, including genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills, Calautti couldn’t find out what happened to Patsey.

By the time the article was due, she had reached the same point so many of our colleagues reach in researching their own enslaved families: “How can it be this hard to find one woman?” she wrote. “The question seems as deceptively simple as Patsey’s, but the difficulty in answering proves emblematic of the lost histories of many slaves.”5

Solomon Northup’s story.

What can be found of Patsey’s story.

The story of research into slave ancestors.

Required reading for us all.


SOURCES

  1. 1840 U.S. census, Saratoga County, New York, p. 262 (stamped), Solomon Northup; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 2 Mar 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication M704, roll 336.
  2. Solomon Northup and David Wilson, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana (New York : Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855); digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 2 Mar 2014).
  3. Celebrating the life of an ancestor who was ‘12 Years A Slave,’” National Archives Prologue blog, posted 17 Dec 2013 (http://blogs.archives.gov/prologue : accessed 2 Mar 2014). The manifest itself can be seen here.
  4. 1855 New York State census, Warren County, New York, page 14 (penned), dwelling 110, family 126, Solomon Northup; Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 2 Mar 2014); citing New York State Archives microfilm.
  5. Katie Calautti, “‘What’ll Become of Me?’ Finding the Real Patsey of 12 Years a Slave,” Vanity Fair, posted 2 Mar 2014 (http://www.vanityfair.com : accessed 2 Mar 2014).
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