November 9, 2013

Solomon Northup hauled Peru trees


PERU — With an 18th-century familial history in Peru, Helen Nerska Allen never stops learning something new about her predecessors.

Allen, who lives on her ancestral homestead on the Jabez Allen Road, is Clinton County Historical Association Board of Directors president and the manager of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm.

At a recent North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association Board meeting, she learned she has a familial link to Solomon Northup, the subject of director Steven McQueen’s cinematic release, “Twelve Years A Slave,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.

“My family was in the lumber business in those days,” Allen said. “Our timber was harvested from this area.”


The link was discovered by board member Mitchell Ray. Vetting a book for the museum’s gift shop, he was reading, “The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years A Slave,” written by David Fiske, Clifford Brown and Rachel Seligman.

The book includes a Saratoga Springs court case between Northup and George Washington Allen.

“Mitch asked me, ‘Are you related to (George) Washington Allen?’” she said, and affirmed that she was.

George Washington Allen was a brother of Nerska Allen’s great-great-great grandfather, Josephus.

“He may or may not have lived in this particular house,” she said, estimating its age as built in the early 1800s. “The front part is built like a barn. The property has been in the family since 1788.”

Jabez is the patriarch who begat Isaac who begat Josephus, George Washington and another Isaac.

“They were Puritans and kept passing the same names down. If one son or daughter died, the next child received the same name. It gets confusing.”


Beside her uncle Fuller Allen’s voluminous writing on their patriarch, there exists only a diary of her grandfather’s written when he was 10.

“They were farmers all along,” Nerska Allen said. “I found on, they provided sheep and potatoes during the Civil War. You just wished you asked your grandmother more questions.”

During Northup’s and Washington Allen’s dispute, the Allens were felling white pines on their property.

“He needed to hire people to do that. That’s the first time Solomon Northup’s name popped up.”

The court case is documented in Box A-33 at the Saratoga County Clerk’s Office.

“At White Hall, Washington Allen hired David Morehouse to replace Northup, and Morehouse had hired extra help,” Nerska Allen said.


While living in Saratoga Springs, Northup engaged in rafting on the Champlain Canal.

“On June 8, 1838, he entered into a written contract with Washington Allen of Peru, Clinton County, to use rafts to transport some lumber from White Hall to Waterford via the Champlain Canal.”

To cut through the legalese, Washington Allen didn’t want Northup to complete the job because he was intoxicated on the job.  

Washington Allen refused to pay Northup his wages, though his drinking didn’t impair his ability to accomplish his work, as witnessed by Louis Shattuck, Dyer Beckwith and James Prindle.

Washington Allen sued and lost. He appealed the ruling and lost again to Northup, who was awarded $100 plus court costs.

“I don’t know anything more than was written in this book,” Nerska Allen said.

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WHAT: "Underground Railroad Experience," featuring hands-on activity on the run, local history presentation and campfire.

WHEN: 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23.

WHERE: Pok-O-MacCready Outdoor Education Center, 1391 Reber Road, Willsboro.

COST: $5 person. For ages 10 and older. PHONE: 963-7967.

SPONSORS: Pok-O-MacCready Outdoor Education Center, North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association and 1812 Homestead Educational Foundation. Also, a spaghetti dinner set for 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16, at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 1435 Route 9 in Keeseville will raise money for the Underground Railroad Association and the Town of Chesterfield Heritage Center. Cost is $7 adults; $3 children younger than 12. For takeout, call 834-4689.