While at birth he was granted free man status, as he was born in Minerva, New York in 1808, Solomon Northup was the son of a liberated slave. He grew up in his father’s farm and received a basic education. He moved to Saratoga after marrying Anne Hampton in 1828 and had three children. Solomon worked several jobs, sometimes at once, in order to support his family. Besides being a loyal husband and a loving father, he was also locally renowned as a remarkable violinist.
In March 1841, two white men by the names of Abram Hamilton and Merril Brown approach Solomon and introduce themselves as circus promoters. They offer to recruit him as a musician for their travelling circus for a hefty sum. Struggling to make ends meet, Solomon hastily agrees to travel with them. His wife and daughters were away at the next town where his wife works as a cook. Considering the brevity of the trip, he decides it is unnecessary to inform Anne about it and sets off for New York City with Hamilton and Brown.
They stop at Albany for their first show. With only a meager turnout, Hamilton and Brown pay him much higher than he had expected them to. The trio reaches New York City the next day and he is given the choice to travel with them all the way to Washington D.C. Since the circus is due to travel north afterwards, Solomon could return to New York briefly. He swiftly becomes convinced due to the promise of a generous wage. The pair tells him to procure his “Free Papers”. Solomon is surprised by the importance of such an arbitrary document but still does it anyway at significant cost. Later, he roams around the city excitedly, accompanied by his new friends. They stop at taverns and drink during the day. However, he becomes unbearably nauseous and decides to retire back to his hotel room. As the night goes on, his condition worsens and he loses consciousness.
Solomon wakes up, possibly a few days later, with a large gap in his memory. He finds himself chained in a small cell of a slave pen and becomes horrified as he realizes that he’s been kidnapped and his free papers have been stolen. A man by the name of James Burch enters the room and Solomon tries to explain to him that he’s a free man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. His words are met with a whip and Burch severely beats him. He remains in his cell along with several others for the next two weeks until they are boarded on a steamboat. Once they arrive in Richmond, they are taken to a slave pen that’s owned by a friend of Burch’s.
There, Solomon is handcuffed to a man named Robert, who he forms a tight bond with. They are forced aboard another steamboat headed towards New Orleans. On the boat, they meet Arthur, who has also been kidnapped. Together, they hatch an escape plan. However, their plan is soon foiled as Solomon and the other enslaved prisoners contract small pox and Robert dies in agony. Solomon then meets a white sailor named Manning who sympathizes with him. Manning agrees to help Solomon send word to his family in New York. Once the boat is docked, Manning manages to successfully mail the letter and Arthur is rescued.
The rest of the slaves, including Solomon, are taken to Theophilus Freemans’s slave pen to be bathed and dress as Freeman sets up an auction. Solomon is told that his new name is “Platt” and he is sold to William Ford, a wealthy Baptist preacher from Louisiana. Ford is a compassionate owner and treats his slaves adequately. He leases Solomon to other owners from time-to-time. However, Solomon is soon sold to a man named John Tibeats due to Ford’s debt. Unlike Ford, Tibeats is cruel and treats his slaves very poorly. He forces them to work tirelessly and beat them often. Solomon and Tibeats travel to one of Ford’s plantations, one that is overseen by Chapin.
As Solomon works at the plantation, he is constantly pestered by Tibeats. During his initial years of slavery, Solomon was treated fairly well because of carpentry skills. Tibeats, however, paid no heed to Solomon’s competence and instead beat him over minor disagreements. When Tibeats tries to beat him over using a different set of nails, Solomon tries to defend himself, which aggravates Tibeats even more. He leaves the premises only to come back with two henchmen and attempts a lynch. Chapin intervenes in the middle as the men try tying Solomon’s limbs and hanging him from a tree.
Solomon is still forced to work for Tibeats. He faces another near-death situation when Tibeats tries to assault him with a hatchet. Solomon manages to barely escape as Tibeats chases him on horseback with a pack of hounds. He flees to Ford’s house where he resides for a couple of days under Ford’s protection but he is eventually sent back to Tibeats. Luckily, Tibeats decides to get rid of Solomon and sells him to Edwin Epps. Although initially relieved, Solomon quickly finds out that Epps is significantly worse.
Edwin Epps is an uneducated alcoholic who takes pride in sadism. He always bragged about how he could “break” a slave properly. A particular twenty-three-year-old girl by the name of Patsey was a victim of his severe cruelty. He would frequently rape her, which in turn made his begrudged wife hate her even more. Solomon works under Edwin for majority of his years as a slave. Edwin makes him harvest sugar canes, play the violin for money and even work as a slave driver. Solomon is often given a whip and made to beat other slaves. When Edwin suspects Patsey of seeing a man in the area, he ties her up and forces Solomon to beat her up. Solomon had become friends with Patsey by that time and his refusal to induce harm towards her only enrages Edwin even more. He snatches the whip from Solomon’s hands and doesn’t stop until Patsey is nearly dead, leaving her disfigured and with severe emotional scarring.
Under Edwin’s ownership, Solomon actively searched for means of contacting someone from home. Once, he managed to obtain a single piece of paper and made his own ink and pen to write with. But being a slave meant that he is unable to send a letter to his family by himself. Resultantly, when he made the acquaintance of a white man named Armsby, he requested him to send a letter for him. However, Solomon was betrayed as Armsby told Edwin about it making it impossible for Solomon to seek any sort of help from the outside. His failed attempts at escaping only worsened Epps’ treatment of him.
It isn’t until Epps hires an outside contractor named Samuel Bass that Solomon sees a glimmer of hope in his life. Epps is a Canadian carpenter who is against slavery. Solomon is made to work with him and they quickly became friends. Solomon confides in Bass and for the first time since the incident with Burch, he tells someone about being a free man. Against all odds, Bass decides to help Solomon get word to his family. Subsequently, he mails letters to Solomon’s friends and the state.
Months pass by as Solomon waits in anticipation for a reply. Bass has to leave for another job. During Christmas, Bass visits Solomon and tells Solomon that he hasn’t gotten any replies to the letters yet. Solomon is further disheartened but Bass reassures him and tells him that he’s willing to travel to New York in April after his current job is done. Back in New York, Solomon’s friends Parker and Perry receive the letter and send it to Anne. She contacts Henry B. Northup for legal advice. Henry is a member of the white family that had liberated Solomon’s father and had been his friend and lawyer for a long time. Henry takes the case and is eventually granted permission to release Solomon from his owner. He leaves for Marksville, the town that was postmarked on the letter, and seeks the assistance of John Waddil, a local attorney.
The letter had been posted anonymously which made locating Solomon a significantly challenging process. However, Waddil knew that the only outspoken abolitionist in town is Samuel Bass and suspects that he might’ve been the author. Upon reaching Bass, Henry finds out that Solomon goes by the name Platt and discovers his whereabouts. He travels to the plantation accompanied by the local sheriff and successfully manages to locate “Platt”. Solomon becomes euphoric as he sees a familiar face for the first time in twelve long years. Solomon is officially released the next day and he departs with Henry.
They travel together and file a lawsuit against Burch for enslaving Solomon despite him being a free man. During the trial, Burch is allowed to provide his own testimony but Solomon is not. Solomon loses the trial and receives zero remuneration. Finally, Solomon returns to New York. The narrative ends with his reunion with Anne, his daughters and a grandson whom he sees for the first time.