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’s 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.”