Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Solomon Northup: His Story Is All Around Us

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These days, Aquia Landing in eastern Stafford County is usually a peaceful, windswept spot, jutting into Aquia Creek just above its confluence with a wide expanse of the Potomac River.

But dial the clock back 100-plus years and this was an incredibly busy place, the Interstate 95 of its era, as I somewhat awkwardly put it in a piece in Sunday’s Free Lance-Star. It was part of a well-traveled path between North and South, the byway for tons of cargo and thousands of people, including enslaved human beings.

One such person was Solomon Northup, who was offloaded here in 1841 from a steamboat and put on a stagecoach for Richmond. Northup, four other slaves and Washington slave dealer James Burch traveled south together in one coach, as part of this human cargo described in his book “Twelve Years a Slave: A Narrative of Solomon Northup.”

Days earlier, Northup–a free black who hailed from Saratoga Springs, N.Y.–was drugged and sold into bondage, imprisoned in Burch’s D.C. slave pen, and beaten into submission there by the dealer–as depicted in the current box-office hit based on Northup’s memoir.

In one scene, the camera’s lens rises from a window of the basement cell where Northup is imprisoned to peer over a wall at the U.S. Capitol’s dome in the distance,

What follows in the award-winning movie adds to a viewer’s sense of dread: Northup and Burch’s other captives are loaded into a wagon in the dark of the night, put on a steamboat and sent south down the Potomac to lives of bondage.

But what the film doesn’t depict is what historian Noel Harrison notes in a post on Fredericksburg Remembered, a regional history blog: On his river voyage, Northup  took some solace from his surroundings.

“The scenery that greeted him, Northup later wrote, encouraged a mindset with which he confirmed the dire nature of his predicament, steadied his morale, and began planning his escape,” Harrison wrote.

Here’s part of what Northup wrote in his 1853 account:

After sunrise in the morning we were called up on deck…. A mulatto woman who served at table seemed to take an interest in our behalf—told us to cheer up, and not to be so cast down. Breakfast over, the hand-cuffs were restored, and Burch [the slave-trader] ordered us out on the stern deck. “We sat down together on some boxes, still saying nothing in Burch’s presence. Occasionally a passenger would walk out to where we were, look at us for a while, then silently return.

It was a very pleasant morning. The fields along the river were covered with verdure, far in advance of what I had been accustomed to see at that season of the year. The sun shone out warmly; the birds were singing in the trees. The happy birds—I envied them. I wished for wings like them, that I might cleave the air to where my birdlings waited vainly for their father’s coming, in the cooler region of the North.

Where he reached land, at Aquia Landing, a recently placed historical marker note that the busy port was “a major crossroads of the interstate slave trade.” Later, during the Civil War, another marker notes Aquia was the gateway to freedom for thousands of people escaping from slavery as Union forces occupied parts of Virginia. That history is why the site is part of the region’s Trail to Freedom and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

But for Northup, when he passed through Stafford and Fredericksburg, no happy ending was in sight. From Aquia, his party traveled along what is today Brooke Road, across the Chatham Bridge, to the Fredericksburg train depot. The railroad carried them on to Richmond.

Northup says: In the forenoon the steamer reached Aquia Creek. There the passengers took stages—Burch and his five slaves occupying one exclusively. He laughed with the children, and at one stopping place went so far as to purchase them a piece of gingerbread. He told me to hold up my head and look smart. That I might, perhaps, get a good master if I behaved myself. I made him no reply. His face was hateful to me, and I could not bear to look upon it. I sat in the corner, cherishing in my heart the hope, not yet extinct, of some day meeting the tyrant on the soil of my native State.

At Fredericksburgh we were transferred from the stage coach to a car, and before dark arrived in Richmond, the chief city of Virginia. 

Upon reaching the state capital, a slave trader there asked Northup where he was from, as Katherine Calos writes in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Forgetting myself, for a moment, I answered, ‘From New-York,’ ” Northup replied.

Burch flew into a rage.  ‘If ever I hear you say a word about New-York, or about your freedom, I will be the death of you—I will kill you; you may rely on that,’ ” he warned Northup.

The place where Northup was held before being put on a brig for Norfolk and then New Orleans was most likely William Goodwin’s slave pen at Broad and Union Streets in Shockoe Bottom, according to University of Virginia professor Mauie D. McInnis, author of “Slaves Winning for Sale,” and researcher David Fiske, author of “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.”

In later years, James Burch (or Birch) bought the Alexandria offices of Franklin & Armfield, the largest slave-trading firm in the antebellum South.  The name of the business became Price, Birch & Co.–”dealers in slaves”–as the sign on its building proudly announced. Wartime photos of the building, taken by Union military photographer Andrew J. Sullivan, are among the most evocative of the Civil War, at least for me.

A Union army guard and other men pose in front of the Alexandria building of Price, Birch & Co., dealers in slaves. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The What Was There website, which I discovered Saturday night, shows several of those images–with the addition of a cool, modern-day “Street View” slider with which you can blend the past and present scenes.

As you can see, the building still stands. Years ago, I walked right by it with no idea of its historical importance. But now, as Associated Press writer Brett Zongker wrote last month about the structure, the public is invited to visit the site and see interesting exhibits offered by Freedom House Museum.

A display at Freedom House Museum in Alexandria, where a major slave trader once operated–the same slave trader who sold Solomon Northrup into bondage after the free man’s abduction. ALEX BRANDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Wartime photographers also recorded a series of images simply labeled “Alexandria, Virginia. Slave pen.” in the digital archive at the Library of Congress. It’s not clear to me if they are of the same building or one associated with it, or of a different site. Regardless, they are fascinating and rare recordings of an institution of which few photographs survive. (Fredericksburg, of course, had its share of such places. One 1854 notice–published the year after Northup published his account–boasted “Fredericksburg seems to be the best place to sell slaves in the State.”

“Slave Pen, Alexandria, Va.” LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

“12 Years A Slave,” which won nods from the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild last week, is showing locally in an extended run at the Paragon Village 12 theaters in Spotsylvania County.

This is a beautifully filmed story, with superb acting, though it is sobering and sometimes tough to watch. Highly recommended–and don’t wait for the DVD. The big-screen adaptation of Northup’s experience is a blockbuster that, as a friend suggested, “every American should see.”

I am grateful–and greatly surprised–that Hollywood came to make it.


  • Irene Zahos

    Thank you for your further enlightening of the journey and area that met Solomon Northup upon his kidnapping and sale into the bonds of slavery. I had spent part of a summer at Hampton Roads, Va. in 2008 but was not aware of the history and relationship to Solomon. This further builds onto the knowledge that I have read beginning with, Twelve Years A Slave, many years ago. Sue Eakin and David Fiske have been invaluable in researching thoroughly Solomon Northup’s life and the chronicle of his experiences from his life at Saratoga Springs, New York through his years of slavery and work on the Underground Railroad upon his release from the Louisiana Plantation of Mr. Epps. I am so glad that a 160 year old narrative/memoir has found life thanks to director, Steve McQueen and actor, Brad Pitt. The casting is ‘right on the money’ as each actor and actress has brought to life from the pages of a book characters that present with a vitality that explodes in all of the sensitivity and brutality of the antebellum

    plantation of the South. Historically, what we must not forget is that America was built on a slave economy from its early beginnings of the circa 1560-1700 colonization period into the Industrial Revolution. Both the North and the South had slaves along with Latin America, the West Indies and the Caribbean. I do hope that in viewing this film that the viewer would look further into this history and with this knowledge involve themselves in panel discussions and other educative venue. I hope that everyone may come to the table and search for mutual understanding and right the wrongs of our past regardless of skin pigmentation and stereotyping niches. As a descendant (great, great-granddaughter of Solomon Northup), I feel that this is part of the continuation of the legacy that Solomon has charged us with.