Solomon Northup, born a free Black man in upstate New York in 1808, recounts his life up to the age of thirty-three. Solomon’s father, a kind, intelligent slave named Mintus Northup, gave him and his siblings a good education, and Solomon grew up helping his father on the farm, reading books, and playing violin. At twenty-one, Solomon marries his wife, Anne, and they have three beloved children and a happy life. Solomon has several different jobs in Saratoga: he’s a carpenter, a construction worker on the railroad, and a violin player, and he sometimes works at the United States Hotel during its busy season.
It is March 1841, and while looking for work, Solomon meets Brown and Hamilton, two respectable-looking white men who are searching for a musician to accompany their traveling circus to New York City and Washington, D.C. Solomon immediately agrees to be their violinist and departs with them, believing the journey will be short enough that he doesn’t need to let his wife know that he’s leaving. Because they are leaving the state, Brown and Hamilton encourage Solomon to obtain papers stating that he’s a free man; Solomon does so, interpreting their suggestion to mean that they are trustworthy. One night in Washington, D.C., Solomon begins feeling ill after sharing drinks with Brown and Hamilton. They encourage him to get some rest. While Solomon’s recollection of that night is fuzzy, he recalls people leading him outside to see a doctor before his memory fails completely. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a dark cell with chains locked around his wrists and ankles.
The chapter opens with Solomon having been locked in the cell for several hours. Two men enter the cell; Solomon later learns that they are slave dealer James Burch and his lackey, Ebenezer Radburn. When Solomon asks why he is imprisoned, Burch tells Solomon that he is now a slave. Solomon refutes this claim, stating that he is free and has a family in Saratoga. Every time Burch says that Solomon is a slave, Solomon argues that he is not, until Burch begins brutally whipping him with a paddle and a cat-o’-ninetails. He stops to ask if Solomon will now say that he’s a slave, but Solomon refuses to yield, so Burch continues to beat him. Eventually Burch ceases his attack but tells Solomon that if he ever again claims to be free, or speaks of his kidnapping, Burch will kill him. Over the next few days, Solomon discovers that he is being held in a place called William’s Slave Pen, and he meets some of the others who have been kidnapped. Among them are a man named Clemens Ray and a child named Randall. A few day later, a woman and her daughter are brought in. It turns out that they are Randall’s mother, Eliza, and his half-sister, Emily, and the small family shares a tearful reunion.
Solomon and his fellow captives are led aboard a steamboat on the Potomac, with no idea of their destination. Eliza and Clemens are utterly heartbroken at the idea of becoming slaves in the South. Eventually the group arrives in Richmond, Virginia, where they are brought to a slave pen owned by Mr. Goodin. There, Solomon meets a man named Robert, who had also been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Later, the group—minus Clemens Ray—is put on a brig called the Orleans; Solomon later finds out that Clemens escaped to Canada.
The brig docks in Virginia, and Solomon befriends an enslaved man named Arthur. Like Solomon, Arthur was a free man and was kidnapped on the street while returning home one night. Solomon and Arthur hatch a plan to take over the ship and sail back to New York. They bring Robert in on their plot, but before they can act, Robert dies of smallpox. A white sailor, John Manning, notices how depressed Solomon seems and asks if he can do anything to help. He brings Solomon a pen, ink, and paper, and Solomon writes a letter to his family explaining his plight. John mails the letter for him, but when it reaches Solomon’s friends in New York, they are unable find out where he’s been taken. When the ship arrives in New Orleans, a slave trader named Theophilus Freeman calls out for a “Platt.” When no one answers, Freeman tells Solomon that his name is now Platt. The kidnapped men, women, and children are taken off the ship and once again placed into a slave pen.
Potential buyers come to examine the captive men, women, and children. Eliza’s son Randall is sold, much to her grief. A man offers to buy Solomon and Eliza, and Eliza begs him to buy her daughter Emily as well so that they can stay together. The man offers to buy Emily, but Freeman says that Emily is not for sale. In a heart-breaking scene, Eliza and Emily are forcibly parted, the mother weeping as her daughter begs her not to go. Solomon reveals that Eliza never sees her children again.
Solomon introduces his new master William Ford, a kind-hearted man who is nevertheless blind to the immorality and horror of slavery. Solomon impresses Ford by building a raft and thereafter becomes known for his skill in many trades. A carpenter named Tibeats comes to Ford’s plantation to work on his house, and Solomon is told to assist him. Solomon describes Tibeats as the opposite of Ford in every way. A cruel and ignorant man, Tibeats doesn’t own his own plantation but makes his living by working on the plantations of others.
Ford faces financial troubles and must sell Solomon to Tibeats. Tibeats and Solomon go to work at another plantation owned by Ford, which is overseen by the reasonable Mr. Chapin. One morning, Tibeats becomes angry with Solomon even though Solomon has done exactly what Tibeats asked. When Tibeats tries to whip Solomon, Solomon fights back, refusing to be punished for following orders. Chapin intervenes and tells Tibeats that there is no reason to whip Solomon. Tibeats leaves but returns with two men who tie up Solomon and discuss where to hang him. Chapin orders Tibeats and the men to leave, then sends a messenger to Ford to alert him that Tibeats tried to murder Solomon. Inexplicably, Chapin does not free Solomon from the ropes that bind him.
Solomon remains bound with a noose around his neck, unable to move. Chapin is nearby, but inexplicably allows Solomon to suffer under the burning sun, Solomon’s legs and arms swelling painfully against his bindings. A slave named Rachel gives Solomon a sip of water. After many hours, Ford arrives and cuts Solomon free. That night, Chapin takes Solomon to sleep on the floor in his own house in order to protect him from Tibeats. Over the next month, Solomon is sent to work at the plantation of Ford’s brother-in-law, Peter Tanner; while there, he’s safe from Tibeats.
Solomon returns from Ford’s brother-in-law’s plantation and begins working for Tibeats again. One morning, Tibeats becomes angry with Solomon and grabs a hatchet. The two men fight until Solomon, fearing for his life, runs from the plantation. He swims through the dangerous Pacoudrie Swamp in order to escape the dogs that Tibeats has sent after him. Solomon eventually finds his way to Ford’s plantation, where he explains what happened. Ford gives him food and allows him to stay in one of the cabins that night.
Ford allows Solomon to stay on his plantation to recover for a few days. When Ford brings Solomon back to Chapin’s plantation, Tibeats joins them. Ford advises Tibeats to sell Solomon as it is clear they cannot get along. The next day, Tibeats leaves, and a man named Mr. Eldret arrives, saying that Tibeats hired Solomon out to work for him. Solomon and Mr. Eldret head to Eldret’s plantation. After four weeks, Eldret allows Solomon to visit his friends at Chapin’s plantation. On his way back to Eldret’s, Tibeats encounters Solomon and tells him he has sold him to an Edward Epps.
Solomon describes Edward Epps as repulsive, coarse, inhumane, and often drunk. Solomon also describes the process of picking cotton, explaining that each slave must pick at least 200 pounds of cotton every day. If a slave picks under 200 pounds in a day, he or she is whipped. If a slave picks over 200 pounds, however, then he or she must pick that much every day from then on or face punishment. Solomon reveals that life on this new plantation includes long hours and very harsh living conditions, especially compared with life at Ford’s plantation.
Solomon becomes very sick soon after beginning work at Epps’s plantation. Before Solomon has recovered, Epps orders him out to the cotton field, but after Solomon proves unskilled at picking cotton, he’s sent to work at the ginhouse instead. Solomon says that Epps is a brutal man who torments his slaves daily, sometimes forcing them to dance for hours at night and whipping them if they dare to stop for rest. Solomon describes an enslaved person’s life as one invariably filled with fear, exhaustion, and suffering. He also goes into detail about a fellow slave named Patsey. Solomon describes Patsey as beautiful, strong, spirited, and lightning-quick at picking cotton. Patsey is the victim of terrible abuse from Epps and his jealous wife; the former rapes and whips her, and the latter takes delight in seeing her suffer. Solomon reveals that Patsey has more than once asked him to take mercy on her and kill her.
The cotton crop on Epps’s plantation has been destroyed by caterpillars, and Solomon and others are sent to work on sugar plantations. Solomon is hired out to a man named Judge Turner, who assigns him the role of “driver” in his sugar house, a role that entails Solomon whipping any slaves who appear idle (if he doesn’t, he’ll be whipped instead). Solomon says that it is the custom in Louisiana that slaves receive compensation for any work they do on Sundays, and that they generally spend the money on basic items like utensils, kettles, knives, ribbons, and tobacco. By playing his violin, Solomon is able to earn seventeen dollars, and he gets satisfaction from counting his money and imagining what he might buy with it.
While Solomon is absent from Epps’s plantation, he learns that Epps has been whipping Patsey with horrible frequency and brutality, partially to satisfy his jealous wife. Solomon is unable to help Patsey, and she suffers terribly. At the end of the chapter, Solomon says that it isn’t a slaveholder’s fault that he’s cruel as much as it is the fault of the society in which slavery flourishes; he describes the institution of slavery as cruel, barbaric, and inhumane.
Solomon describes the intensive work required on a sugar plantation and explains that slaves are given a break only once a year, at Christmas time. He says that they look forward to this celebration all year, and they come together from different plantations to eat, dance, and play music. Solomon reveals that his violin has been a great source of comfort to him during his many years of slavery, allowing him to earn money, make friends, and find moments of peace and respite.
Solomon explains that he wishes to get a letter to his acquaintances in Saratoga, in the hopes that they will deliver papers that prove he is a free man. Solomon is able to steal a sheet of paper and make his own ink, but he has no way of delivering the letter to the post office. Without revealing the letter’s contents, Solomon asks Armsby, the overseer on the plantation next door, if he would mail a letter for him. Armsby agrees, but the next day, Epps confronts Solomon, saying that Armsby told him that Solomon wanted to mail a letter. Solomon denies this, and satisfied with Solomon’s response, Epps leaves. Solomon throws his letter into the fire. He says that rescue is his only source of hope, but his hope is constantly crushed.
Atter Wiley—another slave on Epps’s plantation—attempts to escape, Solomon confesses that he has not gone a day in captivity without thinking about escaping. However, he knows that an escape attempt is likely to get him caught or killed. Solomon dreams of other ways of getting his freedom back, such as the Mexican army invading their land.
Solomon describes the cruelty he and other slaves endured from Epps and Mrs. Epps. When Epps believes that Patsey is having an affair with a nearby plantation owner, he orders Solomon to whip her. Solomon does so to prevent Epps from whipping her even more severely, but eventually tells Epps that he won’t continue. Then, Epps takes the whip and flays the skin from Patsey’s back. When Epps grows tired of whipping her, Solomon carries Patsey to a hut where she lies in agony for days. She eventually recovers, but Solomon believes that her spirit has been broken forever. He observes that Epps’s twelve-year-old son has grown up watching his father’s brutal treatment of his slaves, and at the age of ten is now indifferent to their suffering. He takes pleasure in riding around the plantation and whipping them, and views Black people as no different than animals. Solomon reflects that it is no wonder that people like Epps grow up to be so cruel when they are raised to treat others in such a way.
Epps contracts a carpenter to build a house on his property. Solomon befriends one of the carpenter’s workers, Bass, a white man originally from Canada whom Solomon will later describe as intelligent, honorable, and good-hearted. Bass is known for his unconventional opinions. One day, Solomon overhears Bass arguing with Epps that the institution of slavery is morally wrong and should be abolished. Seeing an opportunity, Solomon approaches Bass and explains that he is a free man who was kidnapped. Solomon and Bass meet at night and write a letter to Solomon’s acquaintances in Saratoga, which Bass promises to mail. They estimate they’ll receive an answer within six weeks. After four weeks, Bass finishes his work and must leave, but he promises to visit the day before Christmas.
Bass returns and tells Solomon that he has not yet heard back from anyone in Saratoga. He tells Solomon that he plans to travel to Saratoga in the spring and will try to contact Solomon’s acquaintances then. Solomon feels hopeful that Bass will live up to this promise. About a week after Christmas, Solomon and the others are working when they see two men stepping out of a carriage down to the field.
Solomon explains what happened when his letter arrived in Saratoga. When one of his acquaintances received it, he told Solomon’s wife and children, who were thrilled to learn that Solomon was still alive. They immediately sought legal advice from Henry Northup, a lawyer who had freed Solomon’s father and who had been Solomon’s lifelong friend. Northup contacted the governor of New York on the basis that Solomon’s captivity was illegal, and the governor appointed Northup to restore Solomon’s freedom. Although Northup knew Solomon was in New Orleans, he was unable to locate him; no one he asked had heard the name Solomon Northup, as Solomon was known to everyone there as Platt. Upon hearing about Bass, an abolitionist with unpopular opinions, Northup deduced that Bass had assisted Solomon with his letter and contacted Bass to find out Solomon’s location. Later, the sheriff and Northup arrive at Epps’s plantation and confirm Solomon’s identity, and Solomon leaves with them.
The final chapter opens with Northup and Solomon traveling to New York. Northup files a lawsuit against James Burch for Solomon’s kidnapping, but the lawsuit fails when Burch tells the ludicrous lie that Solomon identified himself as slave and told Burch that he wanted to go south. Solomon, being Black, is not allowed to testify on his own behalf. Northup and Solomon then continue back to Saratoga, where Solomon joyfully reunites with his wife and children.