Some past Oscar winners are so bad they’re unwatchable, but 12 Years a Slave is a great movie that topped a lot of other really good movies released in 2013. The setting of the movie is primarily in Louisiana between 1841-1853. Because this region was frontier wilderness then, the movie inspired me to read the book for insight into the area’s natural history. Most of this essay will focus on this natural history, but first I want to comment on the literary quality of the book, and an odd misconception of slavery I found while researching this topic.
12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a freed black man, who was kidnapped and forced into slavery for 12 years until he was rescued by his white friend from New York. Solomon Northrup is credited with authoring the book–it is his story. But he had an excellent ghost writer by the name of David Wilson. Though Northrup was not illiterate, he had been forbidden to read or write for 12 years, and there is no way such an unpracticed individual could have produced such a well written book without professional writing help. Some of the best books I’ve ever read were written by ghost writers. Ozzie Osboure had an amazing ghost writer for his biography. Ozzie is admittedly illiterate due to a learning disability. Moreover, it’s difficult to understand his mumbling speech. Nevertheless, Ozzie’s ghost writer did a fantastic job capturing his voice, just as Wilson captured Solomon’s voice.
Portrait of Solomon Northrup. When one of his psychopathic slave-owners attacked him with an axe, he fled into a virgin bottomland forest and saw dozens of alligators and hundreds of cottonmouth water moccasins in just 24 hours.
While researching this topic, I came across a stupid blogger who claimed slaves were well off because they had room and board. This is a surprisingly prevalent revisionist view among some right-wingers. I wonder if any of these right-wingers would be willing to trade room and board for whippings, forced labor, rape, and being separated from their children forever. What kind of cuckoo land propaganda brainwashes these delusional dumb asses?
Solomon Northrup endured 4 “masters.” One was a nice guy, though, of course, misguided; two were greedy sadists, and another was an homicidal maniac. One day, the homicidal maniac tried to kill Solomon with an axe. Fortunately, Solomon was able to overpower this crazy little dude and choke him unconcious, giving him time to flee into a virgin bottomland swamp. (This scene was not depicted in the movie.) When Tibeats, the name of this psycho, revived, he jumped on his horse and sought the help of professional slave trackers who used a pack of a vicious type of mutt to hunt down slaves.
Virgin bottomland forest of cottonwood and hackberry in Louisiana. The forest Solomon fled through was swampier than this and had cypress and tupelo giants growing in it.
This dog is known (if you’ll excuse the ugly adjective) as a nigger hound. It isn’t actually a hound but rather a cross between an old fashioned working bulldog and a mastiff. Slave-owners used them to hunt down escaped slaves.
The standard slave hunting dog, known variously as a Cuban bloodhound or nigger hound, was not an hound at all but rather a cross between an old fashioned American bulldog and a mastiff. In Louisiana most slaves were easily captured because few knew how to swim, and eventually they’d reach a bayou they could not cross. The dogs would either tree the slave or trap them against the watery barrier. Dogs often seriously injured or killed slaves before the trackers could catch up to them. Solomon knew how to swim and successfully escaped the dogs by fleeing deep into the swamp and losing his scent in the numerous watercourses. He found himself inside a virgin bottomland forest of immense trees consisting of cypress, tupelo, oak, and sycamore. Tree frogs croaked constantly as Solomon navigated around alligators and cottonmouth water moccasins. He claimed to have seen over 100 of the latter during 12 hours of daylight. He traveled all night and eventually found his way back to his old “master” who still owned the deed on him, though he had mortgaged him to Tibeats. (Slaves were traded in lieu of cash for debts.) Ford, the nicer “master,” convinced Tibeats to rent Solomon to another plantation-owner instead of punishing him for fending off the axe attack. Tibeats later sold Solomon to a greedy sadist who whipped slaves almost daily.
Solomon later learned of a trick slaves could use to keep nigger hounds from tracking them, though he never again dared attempt a direct escape. He knew of an escaped slave that built an hut in the wilderness and lived there for a year before she returned to the plantation. The plantation dogs refused to track her because when no one was looking, she had intimidated the dogs and showed the dogs she was dominant over them. Solomon often had to supplement his diet with raccoon or oppossum, and he used a club and the plantation dogs to hunt these critters. When he was in the woods with the dogs, he’d become dominant over them, so that if he ever tried to escape again, they’d refuse to track him.
The ration Solomon received was miserable–cornmeal, maggoty bacon, and the occasional sweet potato. With no cooking utensils he had to subsist on unleavened cornbread baked in ashes–in other words…a dog biscuit. The bacon was often so infested with fly spawn it was not edible. He built a box fish trap and baited it with corn dough, and this supplied him with most of his daily protein. He didn’t write what kind of fish he caught, other than they tasted good. The nearby Allemande Lake is known as the “catfish capitol of the world.” Solomon likely caught channel, flathead, and blue catfish in his trap.
The area where Solomon slaved for most of his days in captivity is known as Bayou Beouf, named for all the feral longhorn cattle that formerly abounded in this neighborhood. These longhorn cattle were wild descendents of cows the Spanish brought from Europe. This is a dangerous breed capable of fending off large predators. There were also planty of feral hogs here.
La Bayou Boeuf was named after all the feral and semi-tame cattle that roamed the region when Americans first settled in this wilderness. The cattle descended from those brought to Texas from Spain.
When Solomon was first brought to Louisiana he stayed at Ford’s plantation in “The Big Piney Woods.” This plantation was located in the middle of a longleaf pine savannah–a now rare type of environment that formerly covered most of the southeast’s coastal plain. While working for Ford, he also encountered Chickasaw Indians, still living in the region.
Tibeats rented Solomon to a man in the process of clearing a forest on his plantation. To reach this territory, Solomon’s party traveled through a massive canebrake–a huge monotypical stand of bamboo cane, also a now rare environment that formerly was commonplace. This is how he describes it:
“After passing through Baton Rouge swamp, and just at sunset, turning from the highway, we struck into the “Big Cane Brake.” We followed an unbeaten track, scarcely wide enough to admit the wagon. The cane, such as are used for fishing rods, were as thick as they could stand. A person could not be seen through them the distance of a rod. The paths of the wild beasts run through them in various directions–the bear and the American tiger abounding in these brakes, and wherever there is a basin of stagnant water, it is full of alligators.”–Solomon Northrup 1853
Apparently, jaguars occurred as far east as Louisiana until as late as 1887 (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/how-recently-did-the-jaguar-panthera-onca-roam-eastern-north-america/) Early colonists referred to them as “the American tiger” to distinguish them from a cougar which they called “panther.”
Jaguar killing a caiman. Solomon Northrup and the early Louisiana settlers referred to jaguars as the “American tiger.” They abounded in an area known as the “Big Canebrake.”
Solomon didn’t mind the hard work of cutting down trees, but the mosquitoes and gnats were intolerable in this virgin swamp forest on the other side of the Big Cane Brake.
We may consider outselves more enlightened than people were in the 19th century, but I’m certain there are just as many greedy sadists and violent psychopaths now as there were then. The wilderness, however, is gone. I prefer the wildernes over humanity.
Tags: big cane brake, big piney woods, box fish trap, jaguar killing caiman, jaguars known as the American tiger in Lousiana, nature of 12 years a slave, nigger hound, Ozzie Osbourne, Solomon Northrup