random topic 001 (continued)
About 4 1/2 months after the October 2013 release of the movie 12 Years A Slave, an article in Vanity Fair describes writer Katie Calautti’s attempt to determine the fate of the real Patsey, learning “just how impossible it can be to find one woman when that woman was a slave.” After working for more than two months to find an answer, in the end, Patsey’s question of “What’ll become of me” remained unanswered.
I have scoured annotated versions of Northup’s text, census records, court documents, online genealogy databases, libraries, and newspapers from the era. I’ve spoken with experts in the fields of genealogy and historical research, consulted professors, archivists and historians, even traveled to the town in Louisiana where Epps’s plantation, once stood—all in an attempt to track Patsey’s life after Northup’s departure in 1853. I practically went cross-eyed after days of squinting at vital records recorded in miniscule cursive writing; I pulled archival books as heavy as small children from high shelves in cavernous, dusty warehouses; I almost hydroplaned into ditches while exploring unpaved backroads during rainstorms. I drove through towns with a Louisiana-history picture book on my lap in an attempt to match the old and new. I hand-cranked microfiche machines until my wrist was so stiff I couldn’t move it. The investigation has unearthed two new theories for every one posed, protruding from the murk of research like so many cypress knees lining Louisiana’s bayous. How can it be this hard to find one woman? The question seems as deceptively simple as Patsey’s, but the difficulty in answering proves emblematic of the lost histories of many slaves.
One contact, historian Meredith Melançon, told Calautti, “If I was Patsey and I survived to emancipation, I’d get the heck outta this place—as far away from Edwin Epps as possible.”
The biggest discovery of Calautti’s research was a an 1895 clipping from the “Idaho Register” where a veteran’s recollection told of Northern soldiers recounting a visit to the Epps plantation.
Soon after the war, I met a number of returned soldiers who were with Banks on his Red river expedition, who told be of having read the book at the time it was published (in 1854), and who had visited the plantation of Edwin Epps, where Northup, or Platt, as he was known as a slave, passed years of his life. They told me of seeing and talking with his former slave comrades, whose names were Uncle Abram, Wiley, Aunt Phoebe, Patsy, Bob, Henry, and Edward.
Calautti, though, identifies problems with this evidence. It was recounted 30 years after it happened. It may have been that the soldiers told him they had talked to some of the slaves and the narrator referenced his copy of Northup’s book to cite the names of all of Epps’s slaves. Patsey might have left by then or she might have died.
It seems, however, based on a letter by a Captain Devendorf to the Mexico Independent newspaper, that Patsey was alive as late as June 1863 and had left the plantation, going away with the union army.
Excerpt from a letter to “Nell” by Capt. Devendorf; Headquarters 110th Reg’t N.Y.S.V., Alexandria, La, May 11, 1863; published in the Mexico Independent, Mexico, N.Y. Thursday, June 18, 1863:
Now for a little item that will be of interest to you. One night before halting, I went on about two miles ahead to look out a camping place. I came to a bridge across the bayou, at a good point, as I supposed, for supplies, on which stood a couple of negroes. I asked one of them, about 30 years old, dressed up pretty well, with a nice silk hat on, what his name was. He answered Bob. “Who do you live with?” “Master Epes” Bob and Epes: Solomon Northrup immediately occurred to me, and I asked him if he ever knew a slave by the name of Platt. “ Oh! golly, yes, master!” said he “He raised me. I guess I does know him. He came to our camp at night and proved to be the veritable Bob of Solomon Northrup celebrity, and Massa Epes the same master, and we were then on his plantation, the same that Solomon had worked on so many years ago. I tried to get Bob to go with me, he being an intelligent darkey; but he would no on account of his mother, whom, he said, he must now stay with and support. I found on inquiry among the negroes about that Platt was a very popular darkey among them; also that his story was true. Patsey went away with our army last week, so she is at last far from the caprices of her jealous mistress.
It seems that Patsey had survived until the Union troops came through and, then, emancipated, did exactly what Meredith Melançon suggested, got “the heck outta this place!”