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Fiske looks at how family lived while Northup a slave

Sunday, May 4, 2014
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Q & A


With the success of Steve McQueen’s film “12 Years a Slave,” almost everyone is familiar with the tragic tale of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in Saratoga Springs who was sold into slavery. But the movie, Ballston Spa’s David Fiske will remind you, didn’t tell the whole story.

That’s not a knock on Hollywood or McQueen’s work. Fiske enjoyed the film, but the story didn’t end when Solomon was rescued from slavery in Louisiana in 1853. And, the movie makes no mention of Northup’s family and their story during his 12 years of captivity in the deep South.

Fiske, who co-authored the book “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave” with Union College professor Cliff Brown and Skidmore College curator Rachel Seligman, will fill in some of the other details about Northup’s life with a presentation at 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Schenectady County Historical Society.

With “Anne Northup, Wife of Solomon Northup,” Fiske will tell the story of how Northup’s wife overcame adversity during Solomon’s absence as well as after his return to freedom.

In 2011, Fiske retired after a long career as a librarian at the Mildred Elley School and the New York State Library. He wrote “Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery,” which was published in 2012, and then joined forces with Wood and Seligman to produce their book in the summer of 2013 before the release of the film.

Fiske’s website, solomonnorthup.org, focuses on Northup’s story, and with the popularity of the movie he has been a highly sought-after speaker at historical societies, libraries and other venues over the past eight months.

Fiske was born in Maine and grew up in Connecticut. He got his undergraduate degree from Cornell University and his master’s in library science at the University at Albany.

Along with his work on Northup, he has written “Forgotten on the Kennebec: Abandoned Places and Quirky People,” and was co-author of “Madame Sherri: The Special Edition,” with Eric Stanway.

Q: Can you tell us a little about Anne Northup’s early life?

A: There’s very little of her in the movie, and the little bit that there is makes her look like a spendthrift because she wanted Solomon to buy her a fancy piece of luggage. So she’s barely in the movie. She grew up in Hudson Falls, then called Sandy Hill, and she started cooking for a man named John Baird, who ran hotels in various places, including Hudson Falls, Albany and Lake George. Her father’s name was William Hampton, and we know very little about her mother. There’s some discrepancy about her birth, but I assume she was born right after 1800.

Q: When did she marry Solomon Northup?

A: There’s also some discrepancy about that. In Solomon’s book he says they were married on Christmas Day in 1829, but Anne stated that it was 1828 and the justice of the peace who married them, Timothy Eddy, also said 1828. As I sometimes say in my talks about Solomon, he probably wasn’t the first man to get his anniversary wrong. They were married in Fort Edward and lived at what is now the Old Fort Museum there. It’s the only place in the North where Solomon actually lived that is still standing. They had three children.

Q: What was Anne’s life like when Solomon was held in slavery?

A: The family lost a lot of income with Solomon not there, and in the summer of 1841, Elizabeth, the oldest daughter, and Anne go to work as servants at Madame Jumel’s Mansion in New York City. Alonzo, the son, is also there, but the youngest daughter, Margaret, goes to Hoboken because Madame Jumel had a relative whose young daughter needed a playmate. So, while Solomon is being held as a slave, his family is living in a mansion on the East River in New York City. But they were only there for about two years, and Anne brings the family back to Saratoga and she begins working as a cook at various hotels.

Q: What do we know about their life after Solomon’s return?

A: He traveled a lot, giving talks about his book, and we know that she had her own work to do, which included working at the Mohican House, a very prominent hotel in Bolton Landing on Lake George. Of course, when the Civil War comes, nobody’s interested in listening to Solomon’s story any longer, and I get the impression he enjoyed his crusade against slavery.

But it seems like he fell onto hard times. You have to remember he had a rough time of it in the South and there are accounts of him drinking a lot. It couldn’t have been easy for him. He wanted to fight against slavery, and Anne probably wasn’t as motivated as he was. She hadn’t seen it firsthand, and she was probably more worried about keeping food on the table for her family. It seems like they didn’t spend that much time together.

Q: We know Solomon’s later life and death is a complete mystery. What happen to Anne?

A: The family sold their land in the Glens Falls area and moved across the river to Moreau. She was doing chores for a man in Moreau, laundry or cooking, and she sat down to take a rest, and she just expired. It was 1876, so she was in her 70s.

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or bbuell@dailygazette.com.

 
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