The narrative opens with a promise from narrator and protagonist, Solomon Northup, that the following story will “not be uninteresting to the public.” He tells the reader that the pages to come will detail his life as a free man of the North, his subsequent kidnapping, his twelve miserable years in slavery, and his eventual rescue.
Solomon Northup was born a free man in New York. The son of a liberated slave, Solomon grows up hearing of the atrocities of slavery but knowing freedom. To support his wife, Anne, and their three children, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo, Solomon works hard at several jobs, be it raft-making or fiddle-playing. He loves his family dearly and is a tender father and loyal husband.
One March morning in 1841, Solomon walks around the village in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he currently lives with his family. His wife and eldest daughter are twenty miles away at the coffee shop where his wife works as a cook, and his other two children are with their aunt. Brooding over how he can make a little extra money, Solomon runs into two dignified white men named Abram Hamilton and Merrill Brown, who have heard from one of Solomon’s acquaintances about Solomon’s talent on the violin. Hamilton and Brown explain their connection to a circus based in Washington D.C. and say that they’re in New York for the sake of sightseeing. They planned to pay their travel expenses by putting on small shows in each place they visit but have had difficulty in finding a musician for their shows. They ask Solomon if he would consider traveling with them as their fiddle player to New York City—only a short trip—in exchange for daily wages and a bonus for each show they put on. Solomon hastily agrees. Due to the brevity of the trip, he decides not to write to Anne to tell her where he's going.
Hamilton, Brown, and Solomon depart for New York, first stopping in Albany to put on a show—the only show Solomon witnesses during his entire trip with them. The show is comprised of a series of bizarre circus acts, including ventriloquism and “frying pancakes in a hat.” The turnout is meager, and the show barely generates any money. The next day, the trio arrives in New York City. They ask Solomon if he would consider traveling with them the rest of the way, to Washington D.C., to take part in their circus as their fiddle player. The circus is set to travel north, so Solomon will be able to return to New York shortly. With the promise of generous wages, Solomon agrees. Hamilton and Brown suggest that Solomon obtain free papers before the group travels south, and Solomon is surprised that such a formality would be necessary. The free papers end up being expensive—more than Solomon thinks they are worth—but he obtains them and places them in his pocket. Hamilton and Brown pay Solomon a hefty forty-three dollars, much higher than what Solomon expected to be paid, and apologize for the lack of shows they’ve put on.
The next day, the city buzzes with more excitement than normal, due to General Harrison’s funeral. Solomon walks around New York, in awe of the sights, and is always accompanied by his new friends, Hamilton and Brown. Throughout the day, the men often stop at taverns for a drink. They drink moderately and are always polite enough to pour a little out for Solomon. Later that evening, Solomon gets violently ill, despite having practiced moderation in his drinking. With a pounding headache and unbearable nausea, Solomon retires to his hotel room to rest.
As the night progresses, Solomon grows increasingly ill and is barely conscious. He hears several men enter his room, but he can’t discern who they are or if Hamilton and Brown are among them. The men tell him that he needs to see a doctor immediately, so he stumbles out of his hotel room and follows him into the street. He soon loses consciousness completely.
When Solomon awakens—possibly days later—he finds himself in chains, imprisoned in a small, dark room. He tries in vain to remember the events that led him to this prison, but he is horrified to discover a large gap in his memory. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, he realizes that his free papers have been stolen from his pockets and that he has been kidnapped. He thinks the whole situation must be a terrible misunderstanding, considering he is a free man from New York, not a slave. Soon, a door opens, and Solomon is faced by the coarse-looking James Burch, an infamous slave dealer, and his assistant, Ebenezer Radburn. When Solomon tries to tell Burch that he’s been wrongfully kidnapped and is actually a freeman, Burch procures a whip and beats Solomon severely. Solomon remains in the slave pen for two weeks, along with several other slaves, including a woman named Eliza and her two children, Randall and Emily, who have all been secretly sold into slavery by her master’s son-in-law.
One night, Burch wakes up the slaves in the middle of the night and makes them march through the pitch-black Capitol. They board a steamboat, which soon docks in Richmond, Virginia, where the slaves are transferred to a slave pen belonging to Burch’s good friend, Goodin. While at the pen, Solomon is handcuffed to a man named Robert, who turns out to also be a kidnapped freeman. Between their handcuffs and similar life stories, the two form a tight bond.
The slaves are later forced to board another steamboat, this time heading for New Orleans, where they will be auctioned off by Burch’s business partner, Theophilus Freeman. On the boat, Solomon and Robert befriend a man named Arthur, who, like them, has also been kidnapped and torn from freedom. The three men conceive an escape plan but are never able to put it into action, as Robert falls deathly ill with the smallpox and soon dies. While on the boat, Solomon befriends a white sailor named Manning, who agrees to send a letter when the boat docks to Solomon’s lawyer friend, Henry B. Northup. Once in New Orleans, Manning successfully mails the letter, and Solomon’s friend Arthur is rescued by friends from home.
The slaves are taken to Freeman’s slave pen and he prepares them to be sold. The slaves are bathed, dressed up, and taught to saunter back and forth as potential customers examine them. Solomon watches Eliza’s family be torn apart, and his heart breaks at Eliza’s overwhelming grief. Luckily, Solomon and Eliza are bought by a kindly, wealthy gentleman named William Ford, an esteemed Baptist preacher from the Red River region of Louisiana. Solomon, Eliza, and Ford travel to the Great Pine Woods to Ford’s home. Ford proves to be a compassionate, gentle owner, and treats his slaves like his own children. He reads the Bible to them and teaches them to trust in God, who loves all children, free or enslaved.
Ford falls under financial strain, owing a lot of money to a carpenter named John Tibeats, who does carpentry work for Ford. Tibeats is widely disliked by white men and slaves and is known as being rude and disagreeable. With little choice, Ford sells Solomon to Tibeats. Since the price Tibeats pays for Solomon is greater than the debt that Ford owed Tibeats, Ford secures a four-hundred-dollar mortgage on Solomon.
Tibeats and Solomon travel thirty miles to a plantation Ford owns on Bayou Boeuf, overseen by a nice white man named Chapin. Although Solomon likes Chapin, he immediately hates new master, as Tibeats forces him to labor tirelessly and is never pleased with Solomon’s work. On one occasion, Tibeats tries to whip Solomon for using the wrong nails (even though the overseer, Chapin, told Solomon to use the nails in question). Solomon tackles to the ground and whips his master, which sets in motion a near-deathly series of events. Chapin punishes Tibeats for nearly whipping Solomon over something as trivial as nails, and Tibeats rides off on horseback, only to appear later with two companions carrying whips and rope. Tibeats and the two men prepare to hang Solomon and tie him up so tightly that he can’t move. When they slip the noose around Solomon’s neck and begin to drag him toward a tree, Chapin runs out, pistol in each hand, and forces the men to leave the property.
Not long after this incident, Tibeats hires Solomon out to Ford’s brother-in-law, Peter Tanner, who uses religion to scare his slaves into obeying him. Once Solomon is returned to Tibeats, Solomon’s life is threatened once more when Tibeats tries to attack him with a hatchet. Solomon manages to run away but is quickly pursued by Tibeats on horseback and a pack of vicious dogs. Solomon swims through a dangerous swamp and throws the dogs off of his scent and eventually turns around, deciding to head to Ford’s house.
Under Ford’s protection, Solomon is able to rest for three days but is eventually returned to Tibeats, who soon sells Solomon to a man named Edwin Epps. Although Solomon is initially relieved to be under new ownership (and far away from Tibeats), he quickly discovers that Epps is much worse. Epps is a gruff, uneducated man who frequently overindulges in alcohol and cares only about profit. He is a violent master, as he makes all of his slaves live in constant fear and prides himself on his ability to “break” slaves. When he comes home drunk in the middle of the night, he often awakens his weary slaves and forces them to dance while Solomon plays the fiddle. If they dance too slowly, they are brutally whipped. One of Epps’ slaves, a twenty-three-year-old girl named Patsey, receives particularly inhumane treatment. Epps frequently rapes Patsey, which eventually leads his wife, Mistress Epps, to passionately hate Patsey out of jealousy.
Epps hires Solomon out to harvest sugar cane, which coincides with the off-season for cotton. During this time, Solomon is also hired out to play the fiddle for other slave owners, and because of a Louisiana custom, Solomon is allowed to keep the money he makes while working on Sundays. Solomon also plays the fiddle at the much-anticipated Christmas feast each year, when Epps gives his slaves three days off.
During cotton-picking season, Solomon returns to work for Epps, where he is made a driver, given a whip and made to punish any slave who doesn’t pick fast enough. However, Solomon learns how to whip the slaves without actually touching them to spare them from the unnecessary violence.
Every day, Solomon watches for a chance to obtain paper so that he can write to his friends and family. After nine watchful years, Solomon finally obtains a single sheet of paper. He learns how to make his own ink and pen, which he uses to write a letter to an acquaintance whom he thinks can help rescue him. As a slave, Solomon has no means for sending the letter. However, when a poor white man named Armsby comes to Epps’ plantation to work, Solomon seizes his chance to enlist the white man’s help. Although Solomon is skeptical about if he can trust Armsby, Solomon asks him to send a letter on his behalf. Armsby agrees and vows not to tell Epps. Armsby promptly betrays Solomon the following morning, but Solomon manages to convince Epps that Armsby lied about the whole thing to make himself look good.
One day, Epps treats Patsey with more barbarity and cruelty than ever before. Convinced that Patsey is secretly visiting a whit man who lives nearby, Epps flies into a jealous rage. He ties Patsey’s wrists and ankles to four stakes in the ground. Brandishing his thickest whip, Epps forces Solomon to beat Patsey. Against his will, Solomon administers forty lashes but refuses to do the innocent girl any further harm. Epps snatches the whip and tortures Patsey with even more forceful blows. He stops once Patsey is disfigured and nearly dead. From then on, Patsey’s mental and physical health decline rapidly.
Epps hires a white contractor named Bass to undertake a new construction project, and Solomon is also ordered to help. Bass is a middle-aged Canadian man with strong anti-slavery opinions that make Epps laugh. Over time, Solomon and Bass develop a close friendship, meeting in the middle of the night to talk about Solomon’s kidnapping and wishes to escape. Risking his safety for his new friend, Bass promises to write letters to Solomon’s contacts in New York. He follows through on the promise, sending one to Judge Marvin, one to Solomon’s friends Perry and Parker, and another to the Collector of Customs at New York. Several weeks go by without a reply, and Solomon feels dejected. Bass has to leave Epps’ plantation for another job but promises to visit on the day before Christmas to deliver any news.
When Bass arrives once again on the day before Christmas, he tells Solomon that he has still not received a reply to any of the letters. However, he says that his contruction jobs will be completed in April, when he will then travel to New York himself to seek out Solomon’s friends and family.
Solomon interjects in the narrative, flashing back to September, when Bass’ letter reaches Perry and Parker. The two men send it on to Anne, who immediately seeks advice from longtime friend and lawyer, Henry B. Northup. Northup takes on Solomon’s case and is eventually granted legal power by the Governor to find and release Solomon from slavery.
In December, Northup leaves for Louisiana. He arrives in the town where the letter was postmarked, Marksville, and teams up with a local lawyer named John Waddill. Although the author of the letter is unknown, Waddill thinks it may have been written by the only outspoken abolitionist he knows, a contractor named Bass who sometimes works in the Bayou Boeuf area. The men locate Bass, who tells them that Solomon, now called Platt, is a slave at Epps’ cotton plantation. Just after midnight, Henry B. Northup and the local sheriff depart for Bayou Boeuf.
A few days after Christmas, Solomon is toiling in the cotton fields when he sees a carriage rumbling toward the property. A sheriff and another man step out and ask which slave is named Platt. Coming forward, Solomon is confused as to what the sheriff wants from him but is immediately overjoyed at the sight of his friend Northup. The sheriff and Northup settle Solomon’s release with Epps, who is furious and threatens to kill whoever sent the letter to Perry and Parker. Solomon’s release is finalized in court the following day, and Solomon departs with Northup.
The pair travel first to New Orleans and then to Washington D.C., where they file a complaint against Burch for selling Solomon into slavery despite him being free. In court, Burch is allowed to testify on his own behalf, and Solomon is not. Burch is quickly found innocent. He later files a complaint against Solomon, claiming that Solomon conspired with two white men (Hamilton and Brown) to defraud Burch. Solomon is arrested and brought to court, but Burch drops the charges in the middle of the case.
Finally, Solomon and Northup are able to return to New York, where Solomon reunites with his family. He reminds the reader that the narrative that he has just completed is entirely true and is an accurate depiction of slavery. Emphasizing his gratitude toward all those who helped free him, Solomon vows to live a quiet, humble life for his remaining years.