TORONTO – A Canadian connection to the harrowing film 12 Years a Slave has the real-life descendants of one courageous character beaming with pride.
The unflinching big screen account of slavery in the Deep South — already considered a frontrunner for awards season glory — is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man lured from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1841 and sold into slavery.
Played in the film by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Northup ends up forced to toil on a series of punishing Louisiana plantations where he’s stripped of his papers, freedom and even his name.
His torment ends only after a chance encounter with an enlightened Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass, played by Brad Pitt, who agrees to help him contact friends who can vouch for his identity.
Pitt’s character is based on a real-life figure from Ontario’s Augusta Township, and 160 years later, his descendants say they are amazed to learn of their forefather’s brave response to a man in need.
“The movie is about Solomon Northup, right? But we would never have heard of him, I guess, if he hadn’t met my great great great great grandfather,” says 50-year-old Kenora, Ont., resident Laurie Morris, whose mother is descended from Bass’s second daughter Hannah.
“For the Canadian side of things, it shows we’re good people. I just imagine being down there and being the only Canadian with an opinion like that.”
Morris and other descendants say they are only now discovering details about Bass, who left Canada sometime around 1840 and took on a series of carpentry jobs throughout the United States.
It turns out that other aspects of his life were not so honourable — census records show he left behind a wife, Catherine Lydia Lane, and four daughters: Catherine, Hannah, Martha Maria and Zeruah Bass, says Bonnie Gaylord of the Grenville County Historical Society in Prescott, Ont.
Morris’ 75-year-old mother says that could be why she had never heard of Samuel Bass until 12 Years a Slave.
“He wasn’t talked about in our family, I guess it was because he was never around,” says Rae Moulton Todd of Prescott, located about 100 kilometres south of Ottawa, near the original Bass family farm.
“It is kind of exciting. And then I turn around and I think, ‘He really was a big jerk.’ He left his wife and four daughters here to be looked after by whoever.”
This past summer, historian and author David Fiske traced the wandering Bass to southern Ontario. He says he became curious about the man’s background after doing some broader research on the book Twelve Years a Slave for Fox Searchlight’s marketing department in advance of the film’s release.
He found the link in Sue Eakin’s 2007 book Solomon Northup’s ’12 Years a Slave’ and Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, which included material from the diary of a lawyer Bass hired to draw up a will.
“Bass had told him about some of his family in Canada and about different relatives that he had, some that were living in the United States, and that he still had a wife in Canada,” says Fiske, author of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.
“He gave her name, and he gave names of two of his daughters and so forth, and from that information from the diary … I realized that this matches up with the Samuel Bass that was born in August 1807 in Augusta (Township).”
He notes that John Pamplin Wadill’s diary also offers clues to why Bass left his family.
“He had been separated from his wife for 12 or 15 years,” Wadill states in an entry dated Aug. 30, 1953, which also lists Bass’s wife’s name as Lydia Catlin Lane.
“His only complaint against her was that she had such a temper as to preclude any man from living with her.”
The diary also raises the possibility that Bass may have had a second family in Louisiana, says Fiske. The diary notes Bass died of pneumonia at the home of a free woman of colour in Marksville, La., named Justine Tounier. It says Bass passed away Aug. 30, 1853, just months after Northup regained his freedom.
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“I suspect that there was a relationship (with Tounier) but the diary doesn’t say,” says Fiske, adding he also discovered the death record of a woman who appears to list Bass and Tounier as parents.
“There’s some evidence that Samuel Bass may have descendants that were in Louisiana, and maybe still has descendants in Louisiana.”
Many details about the Bass family in Canada are stored at the Grenville County Historical Society, says Gaylord, noting that includes census records, letters and other documents detailing the sprawling Bass family.
She notes that Samuel Bass’s grandparents were from the United States, and that may have been why he headed south.
His grandparents Adonijah Bass and Lydia Draper were United Empire Loyalists who lived in Walloomsac, near Hoosick, N.Y., at the time of the American Revolution, she says. After Adonijah died in the late 1770s, his wife and children moved to Canada, where Bass’s father John married Hannah Lakins and had 12 children.
Shortly before Bass was born in 1807, Upper Canada (now Ontario) abolished slavery in 1793, adds Gaylord, suggesting the fact Bass grew up amid that sea change may have influenced his ardent anti-slavery views.
Fiske says Bass was certainly passionate in his opposition to slavery, often speaking out against the practice even though few seemed to share his views at the time.
“They kind of got a kick out of him because there weren’t that many people that were berating slavery in Louisiana. They would say, ‘Oh, there goes Samuel Bass again, going on about slavery,'” says Fiske, adding that it’s not known if Bass helped any other slaves.
“It was dangerous for him to have written the letters (for Northup) in the first place because, obviously somebody that was opposed to slavery or helping slaves in Louisiana was not going to be looked at kindly by the other people. But he was willing to go even (further) because he was willing to travel all the way to New York State to actually bring direct word and find somebody in Saratoga that knew Northup and would be able to get him freed. As it turned out he didn’t have to do that.”
The fact much of Bass’s past appears to have been purposefully obscured makes it difficult to accurately piece together his story, Fiske and Gaylord add.
Gaylord notes that Northup’s memoir describes Bass as an “old bachelor,” while Fiske refers to a New York Daily Times story at the time that is suspiciously short on details about the person who helped Northup write letters.
Fiske says it’s possible Northup declined to share details in his interview about his Canadian friend, fearful it could cause trouble.
“He doesn’t want people to go and blame Samuel Bass for this and get him in trouble because he realizes there could be repercussions for Bass,” says Fiske, speaking from his home in Ballston Spa, N.Y., near Saratoga Springs.
“When he did his book he revealed a lot more, but that was some months later.”
The film 12 Years a Slave diverges from the book in one key aspect involving another Northup ally, says Fiske. In the film, a storekeeper from Saratoga Springs travels to Louisiana to rescue Northup. In fact, the storekeeper passed the letter on to other people and an attorney named Henry B. Northup actually went south, he says.
“There are descendants of Henry B. Northup that I think are going to be a little bit disappointed that his character was written out of the movie,” says Fiske, guessing that filmmakers thought it would be too confusing to have another character named Northup.
He says Henry B. Northup was a descendant of the family that originally owned Solomon Northup’s ancestors.
And as to whether Bass looked anything like Pitt, who plays him in the movie, Gaylord says she has yet to come across any photos of the man.
But she does note that the A-lister’s tenuous connection to a local family has made the community excited and interested in its own history.
“So many people have been asking me if Brad Pitt came to our archives,” chuckles Gaylord, a distant Bass relative by marriage. “Unfortunately not.”
Donna Geary of Peterborough, Ont., who says Bass is her great great great uncle, says she caught wind of a family connection in the summer when a cousin noticed the film was heading to the Toronto International Film Festival.
That eagle-eyed film fan actually recognized the name Samuel Bass in the film’s synopsis and quickly spread the word.
“It started quite a buzz,” says the 54-year-old Geary, a marketing consultant who also teaches at Toronto’s Seneca College.
“It was a shock to everyone in our family.”
She sent out a general tweet about her family ties, admitting: “I thought Brad Pitt might reply but I couldn’t find him on Twitter.”
Further east in Prescott, Todd says she, too, was especially tickled to learn Pitt would play her ancestor.
“I was pretty neared floored — Brad Pitt!” she exclaims. “I almost jumped over myself.”
It didn’t take long for her to spread the word to other relatives, who all seemed equally excited about the discovery.
“We sent it out to everybody, everybody we know. It’s all gone on the Internet and all our relatives all over the place,” says Todd, who dug into her own stash of family photos and was stunned to find images of her great great grandmother Hannah and Hannah’s husband David Nelson Brown.
Since learning of the story, Todd says she and her husband went out to the old Bass property to check out the house Bass grew up in — now empty — and an old barn that still stands.
She admits to bringing a hammer to get a souvenir for “the Sam Bass museum in my basement.”
“I got myself some commemorative things out of there,” she says. “Just an old door hinge and a pull off a door…. Any little thing that happened to be laying on the floor, mostly.”
“It is exciting and it’s great. That (this) can happen in a little town like this…. We may start a Sam Bass day.”