12 Years a Slave covers five primary periods in Solomon Northup’s life:
1. Solomon Northup: Free Man
In Chapters I and II, Northup tells of his life as a free black man living in upstate New York. Born in July 1808, he was the son of an emancipated slave. He grew up working on a farm at his father’s side, and also was educated to a degree of competence in reading and writing. Additionally, he learned to play the violin, a skill that would be both a blessing and curse to him in coming years. At age 21, he married Anne Hampton, and they settled down to raise a family. Solomon worked in many trades, including farming, lumberjacking, and performing on the violin, while Anne earned money as a cook. They had three children.
In 1841, Solomon met two white men who offered him lucrative work with a circus—if he would travel with them to Washington, D.C. Unsuspecting, he joined them in their travels and in Washington, D.C., after a day of unusual revelry and drinking, became terribly ill. On his way to see a doctor, he passed out. When he woke up, Solomon Northup was alone, chained in darkness.
2. Solomon Northup: Captive
This second period of 12 Years a Slave, told in Chapters III–VI, relates how Solomon finds himself a prisoner in the slave pen of James H. Burch, a brutal slave trader in Washington, D.C. When Solomon protests his captivity and asserts his right to freedom, Burch responds by beating him into submission and threatening to kill him if he ever mentions his freedom again. At length, Solomon is allowed to join the other slaves being held by Burch, and he discovers just how hopeless his situation is. Surrounded by slaves and a few other kidnap victims, he is transported downriver, eventually landing in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Solomon and the rest of “Burch’s gang” are transferred into the slave pen of Burch’s associate, Theophilus Freeman. Freeman changes Solomon’s name to “Platt,” thereby erasing any connection to his past. Solomon is put up for sale, but his sale is delayed when he contracts smallpox, which nearly kills him. After he finally recovers, he is sold, along with a slave girl named Eliza, to a man named William Ford.
3. Solomon Northup: Slave
Next begins the third leg of Solomon Northup’s journey, told in Chapters VII–XI. Solomon is now a full-fledged slave named “Platt,” working on the plantation and lumber mill of William Ford, deep in the heart of Louisiana. Ford is a kindly master, devout in his Christian faith, and given to generosity toward his slaves. Solomon finds it almost a pleasure to be in Ford’s service and even figures out a way for Ford to save considerable time and money by transporting lumber via waterway instead of by land. Solomon is well-liked by Ford in return. However, a series of financial missteps result in Ford selling Platt to a cruel carpenter named John M. Tibeats.
Tibeats soon becomes Platt’s worst enemy, constantly threatening and berating him. While working on a project, Tibeats becomes so enraged that he attempts to whip Platt. Platt is the stronger of the two, though, and he turns the tables on his new master, whipping him instead. Hell-bent on revenge, Tibeats twice attempts to murder Platt. Only the intervention of William Ford and his overseer, Mr. Chapin, saves the slave’s life. Unable to kill him, yet bearing murderous hatred toward him, Tibeats sells Platt to the notorious “nigger breaker,” Edwin Epps.
4. Solomon Northup: Slave Under Edwin Epps
The fourth phase of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, told in Chapters XII–XX, focuses on the ten years he lived under the tyranny of Edwin Epps on two different plantations in Bayou Boeuf, along the banks of the Red River in Louisiana. Epps is indeed a cruel master. A whip is his constant companion, and he uses it almost daily on his slaves. Solomon describes his life under Epps in detail, relating stories of abuse, humiliation, and deprivation among all the slaves.
Patsey, a slave girl, gets the worst of Epps’ treatment: She is repeatedly raped by him and also whipped by him at the insistence of his jealous wife. At the worst point, she visits a friend at a nearby plantation simply to get a bar of soap because Epps’ wife won’t allow her to have any. When Patsey returns, Epps is furious, thinking her guilty of a sexual encounter. Platt is forced to whip a naked, helpless Patsey while she screams for mercy.
The years pass by, and Solomon almost loses hope. Then he meets a carpenter named Bass, an abolitionist from Canada who is hired to work on a building project for Epps. Bass learns of Solomon’s story and decides to help. He sends letters to Solomon’s friends in the North, asking them to come and rescue the slave from his captivity.
5. Solomon Northup: Free Man Again
The final section of 12 Years of Slave, Chapters XXI and XXII (and Appendix), tells of Solomon’s escape from captivity. Thanks to the faithfulness of Bass, Solomon’s friends in the North are alerted to his location and come to set him free. Henry B. Northup, a white man who is a relative of the person who once owned Solomon’s father, gathers legal support and travels to Louisiana to find the slave. After some searching, he finds “Platt” and, with the help of a local sheriff, emancipates him from the clutches of Edwin Epps.
They travel back to New York, stopping for a time in Washington, D.C., to pursue legal charges against James H. Burch for his role in the kidnapping of Solomon Northup. In the end, though, Burch is acquitted because of false witnesses and racist bias in the courtroom. After that, Solomon is finally reunited with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he finds that his daughter has married and he is now a grandfather. His grandson has been named in his honor: Solomon Northup Staunton.