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Historical Era

Thinking Skill


Twelve Years a Slave

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National Archives Education Team
Making Connections
Historical Era:
Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
Primary Historical Thinking Skill:
Historical Analysis & Interpretation
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Bloom's Taxonomy:

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Twelve Years a Slave


Students will examine several documents related to the life of Solomon Northup, whose life story is told in his autobiography 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.

You can teach with this activity during a unit on slavery, or specifically when investigating the Fugitive Slave Act. For grades 8-12. Approximate time needed is 90 minutes.

Author’s Notes

To begin, launch the activity and click on “To Slideshow” in the bottom right corner. Read the first excerpts from the autobiography. Click on the first primary source document, a Census record from 1830. Explain to students that the United States Constitution requires a census or “roll call” of every person in the country to be taken every ten years. The first census was taken in 1790. The 1830 and 1840 Censuses (included in this activity) document White persons, free persons of color, and enslaved people in different categories.

Model careful document analysis and answer the questions related to the 1830 Census in the blank text box as a class.

Then divide students into small groups. Guide them to then read the next excerpts, analyze the 1840 Census record, and answer the questions in the next blank text box.

Direct students read the next excerpts and analyze the slave manifest for the Brig Orleans by answering the questions. Explain to the students that after 1808, it was no longer legal to import slaves from other countries to the United States. During this time, the domestic slave trade was legal and with the rise of cotton as a southern commodity, thousands of slaves were shipped from the upper south to the lower south regularly from 1808–1860. Slave manifests were required by law for each ship transporting slaves and needed to include every slave’s name, sex, height, and complexion or class. In addition, slave manifests required the names of the slave owners or shippers and their residence, plus the names of the individuals the slaves were consigned to if necessary. Two copies of these manifests were required, one would be filed with the customs agent at the port of departure and the other manifest would be filed at the port of arrival. The customs agents were required to sign these manifests.

Discuss the following questions with students:

  • Why do you think this information was required by the slave manifests?
  • How long do you think it would take to sail from Richmond to New Orleans?
  • What date did the Brig Orleans leave the Port of Richmond? (April 27, 1841)
  • What date did the Brig Orleans arrive at the Port of New Orleans? (May 24, 1841)

Have students then analyze the 1850 Slave Schedule for Edwin Epps and answer the questions in the next blank text box.

Explain to students that for the 1850 and 1860 Censuses slaves were enumerated separately on what is referred to as a Slave Schedule. The name of the owner was recorded, but unfortunately, most schedules do not provide personal names for slaves. In most cases, individuals were simply numbered and can be distinguished only by age, sex, and color.

After analysis of all of documents, discuss the following questions found in the “I’m Done” section:

  • How do the documents corroborate the excerpts found in Northup’s autobiography?
  • How does the Fugitive Slave Act relate to Solomon’s story? (You may wish to point students to the Compromise of 1850 that established the stricter fugitive slave act.)

Excerpts are taken from the full autobiography found at the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South website.

For the rest of the story, on the same website, read the New York Times article “The Kidnapping Case. Narrative of the Seizure and Recovery of Solomon Northup. Interesting Disclosures.” January 20, 1853.

Documents in this activity: