12 Years A Slave and the new Solomon Northup Trail

By | Category: Travel destinations
image of Chiwetel Ejiofor,

12 YEARS A SLAVE, Chiwetel Ejiofor, 2013,  ph: Francois Duhamel/TM and Copyright ©Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved./courtesy Everett Collection

The Alexandria and Pineville Visitors Bureau in Central Louisiana have launched the Solomon Northup Trail in homage to the book and subsequent Oscar award winning film, 12 Years a Slave. It is now possible to visit Edwin Epps’ house, the courthouse in Marksville where Northup gained his freedom and see several of the plantations where Solomon laboured.

It is a steamy hot summer’s day and the heat envelopes me as soon as I step out of my car.  Humidity in central Louisiana and throughout the state of Louisiana is legendary; today the temperature will be a smouldering 90 degrees but it will feel much hotter.

I have come out to the University of Louisiana at Alexandria (8 miles from town) to see the home of Edwin Epps, a plantation and slave owner.  The scenery is flat, green and open, punctuated only by a few buildings and strands of trees.  At one time, this land produced cotton and sugar and was the life blood of the area’s economy.  Even the University is built on a farm, the Oakland Plantation; though the only thing remaining from that period is the bell that would have been rung at the start and end of the working day.

The Epps House

the house of Edwin Epps

In the film, 12 Years a Slave, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon, a free man living in New York State who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. During the period of Northup’s life when he works for Edwin Epps, Solomon and Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter played by Brad Pitt, builds this house.  This is an important turning point for Solomon as he is able to convince Samuel to take a letter to his family, telling of his plight.  In real life, Solomon and Bass were not building a gazebo, as is portrayed in the film, but were constructing the Epps’ home that is now on this site, having been moved from Bunkie. It is now filled with historical information about life and slavery in Central Louisiana.

One timber with the curve from a water wheel from William Ford’s Lumber Mill on Indian Creek is exhibited here.  Ford was one of Northup’s masters.  Northup used his knowledge from working on the canals in New York to make the bayous around Ford’s mill navigable.

It is on seeing Epps’ modest home that one can get a sense of how difficult life might have been for plantation owners.  Hollywood often focuses on the South’s enormous, glamourous antebellum mansions and their equally vast holdings.  But many land holdings were small and owners would have worked the land alongside their slaves during the humid summer months and also during the important harvest.

The people who have researched Solomon’s life and brought it to the attention of the public are honoured with exhibits that catalogue their accomplishments.  This includes local historian, Dr. Sue Lyles Eakin, who worked as a professional journalist in Bunkie and studied the southern plantation system in depth.  Even as a child she was interested in Solomon’s story and owned a copy of his book.

kent House outbuildings

outbuildings at the Kent House plantation

Kent House Plantation

Quite close to Alexandria is the Kent House Plantation which is the oldest known structure in the Rapides Parish.  As is typical for the area, this house is built on stilts to protect it from regular flooding as the Rapides Bayou overflowed regularly.  It is possible to explore this house and outbuildings which was originally built prior to the Louisiana Purchase and owned by local families such as the Hynsons. Fascinating details about how these families lived and coped in near isolation are explained during guided tours. Strangers would have been welcomed onto the plantation for several days and had their own room separate from the family. These strangers were often the only people who would have news of the outside world. There is even a small sugar mill where the family refined sugar for their own use.

Sadly, the Pleasant Shaw plantation home in Bunkie, where Patsey would have visited Mistress Harriet Shaw, no longer exists. There is also no record of what happened to Patsey.

the sign for Red River

the sign for Red River

Alexandria’s Red River

The landing in Alexandria (101 Murray Street) at Red River is where Solomon arrived from Washington D.C. on the steamer Rodolf in 1841.  There are significant flood defences around the city as the river is prone to flooding and this levee is now a park have walking trails.  It is certainly worth spending time here to view the powerful waters of this river.

Marksville Courthouse

Marksville courthouse

the current Marksville Courthouse. The small, old courthouse is in the grounds

Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a white agent had to personally appear in court with other sworn testimony to prove an accused person’s free status. Lawyer Henry B. Northup, who had owned and then freed Solomon’s father, had been approached by Northup’s wife, Anne, with the letter Bass mailed.  Henry decided to make the journey to Marksville in the Ayoyelles parish to secure Solomon’s freedom.

Once in Marksville, John P. Waddill was employed to secure Solomon Northup’s freedom and Judge Ralph Cushman issued the order granting this.  The documents are still on file at the Avoyelles Parish Courthouse.

The original courthouse was a simple two room building in 1823 standing in the current courthouse square at the location of the law office of Rodney Rabalais.

Rapides Parish Recreation

ferns in the Kisatchie National Forest

Kisatchie National Forest

The Kasatchie National Forest is located in the Rapides Parish and is known for its Longleaf Pine trees and also its Wild Azalea Trail.  The trail is 19.2 miles and has spectacular blooms in spring and early summer.  Camping, fishing, shooting and use of off road recreational vehicles are all permitted in designated areas of the national forest.  Some of the wild animals here are turkeys, Louisiana black bears and red-cockaded woodpecker to name a few.

Not far from Alexandria’s town center is Cajun Landing (2728 N. Macarthur Blvd., Alexandria), for those who might need to grab a meal while on the trail.  It features Cajun, Creole and all manner of southern fried food including alligator tail nuggets.

Thought Central Louisiana is slightly off the beaten track; the Solomon Northup Trail is just one of the recreational options enticing visitors here.  It is certainly a part of the world worth visiting.

For more information visit: http://alexandriapinevillela.com/northuptrail

For more inforation about Louisiana, click here.

Story and images © Lynn Houghton



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