Free Blacks Kidnapped and Enslaved; Was This Really a Thing?

Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave tells the heartbreaking story of Solomon Northrup, a free, northern black who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.

How common was this?

Also, he disappeared a second time after his return to freedom. Is it likely he was kidnapped and enslaved again?

I can’t produce numbers but the legal system made it possible and it definitely did happen. The Fugitive Slave Act said that all a person had to do was identify a black person as a runaway slave and that gave them the legal right to take that person into custody (and it was illegal for anyone else to interfere - other people were in fact legally obligated to assist if asked). The slave hunter then transported the accused person down to a court in a southern state where there was a hearing to determine if they actually were a runaway. There was effectively no due process; the accused was not allowed to present a defense or any witnesses. So the hearing pretty much came down to the slave hunter repeating his story. The judge then ruled whether or not his claim was true. And as added incentive, the judge was paid a higher fee if he declared the accused was a slave then he was if he declared he was not.

Do you have cites for that? Not saying I know you’re wrong, but I’d like to see the cites.

Honestly, I don’t see how it could NOT be a thing. The concept of slavery in the first place means you arbitrarily decided that a formerly free person is now a slave, so what’s stopping you from doing it again?

Yeah I feel the same way. I mean maybe you’ve got papers to show that you’re free but uh if someone is ballsy enough to physically trap you they are ballsy enough to burn said papers. You’ve then got nothing to go on but the color of your skin and that does not help you in any way.

What kind of documentation do you think would be kept in such places, indicating that yes, they kidnapped a free black man and ruled that he was a slave?

Perhaps the first hand account of someone who was actually kidnapped and held a slave? The testament of his friends and associates; his family and records of him being returned from slavery. Maybe if this guy wrote a book and they made a movie about it . . . .

Yeah, I know, Wikipedia, but:

Which of course was exactly the situation described in 12 Years a Slave. No numbers in the Wiki article, but perhaps the above reference may have some.

Slaves were property, and like any other property, there would have been documentation. No doubt court records from those times still exist and could be searched.

I haven’t seen the film, but there seems no doubt about its veracity. What we don’t know, is how widespread this practice of kidnapping black people and selling them as slaves was, and how, ow whether, Southern judges connived in the scheme.

I think this quote from Dred Scott sums up the pre-civil war US legal system’s attitude toward it’s black population.

It kinda seems like a no brainer since

  1. Blacks had little-to-no legal rights (and enslavement was a noble deed).
  2. “Aiding” fugitive slaves was illegal.
  3. “Recovering” fugitive slaves was rewarded.
  4. Kidnapping was well known by contemporary Americans.

Part of the problem is ID. In the days before fingerprints and DNA, all anyone had to go on was the world of people who should know you, and rough items like “hair colour black, eyes brown, skin brown, height 5 foot 8 inch”.

So if a guy shows up with an affidavit, “that’s my property - here’s a bill of sale from 1842 when he was 5 years old…” what are the odds that anyone’s going to do an inventory of the plantation to see if he’s double-counting? Or worse yet, it’s not like a used car registration - they guy could have sold the slave 10 years ago, but keep the bill of sale around to use the next time he finds an unclaimed piece of property.

My guess is the only thing that stopped this was the small number of suitable candidates to kidnap.

Plus, considering the number of active helpers in the underground railroad and the general reluctance to help with slavery in a number of northern states, I suspect sometimes the kidnapping could not be too blatant.


Arbitrary? Certainly not in all cases. Wasn’t much of ancient slavery made of war conquests and criminals? While it certainly offends our post-1863 morality, it can’t be considered arbitrary.

It also wouldn’t be particularly hard to fake a bill of sale to match the man you kidnapped.

Free whites were routinely captured and sold into slavery. Of course, because they were white, it isn’t film-worthy.

Well, this film was based on a book. Can you recommend a book on a white person kidnapped into slavery? Yes, I’ve heard of the Irish sent to the New World against their will in the 17th century.

But I think you’re hinting about something else…

Considering the scams we see today - I don’t doubt there were plenty of unscrupulous people willing to do whatever it takes to make themselves rich.

IIRC the common wisdom said a typical healthy male slave was worth hundreds of dollars, even thousands - back when that was real money. Once slave traffic from Africa was banned, the long lead times for additional inventory would make slaves even more valuable.

During the Gettysburg campaign, Confederate troops captured free black people and Pennsylvania and carried them south into slavery.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped is probably at least partly based on a case where a white person, heir to an estate, was allegedly kidnapped and sold into slavery; more details here.

This case was never satisfactorily resolved.

There’s one other black woman on my floor. We look absolutely nothing alike. And yet people confuse us all the time. When I first started, we would get asked if we were related.


So I can totally see slaveowners truly believing they had recovered lost “property”, especially if their runaway ran away a long time ago. And I can see bounty hunters scooping up any guy or woman who “meets the description”. Except for the slave, who the hell is going to care?

We all know about this particular incident. The question for this thread is how prevalent it was. I asked for cites to back up what Little Nemo posted, which was not focused on one particular incident.

I don’t know if you were intending snark, but if so, it’s snark failure.