By Emerson Hough in 1905
Before passing to the review of the more modern days of wildlife on the Western frontier, we shall find it interesting to note a period less known, but quite as wild and desperate as any of later times. Indeed, we might also say that our own desperados could take lessons from their ancestors of the past generation who lived in the forests of the Mississippi Valley.
Those were the days when the South was breaking over the Appalachians and exploring the middle and lower West. Adventurers were dropping down the old river roads and “traces” across Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, into Louisiana and Texas. The flatboat and keel-boat days of the great rivers were at their height, and the population was in large part transient, migratory, and bold; perhaps holding a larger percentage of criminals than any Western population since could claim.
There were no organized systems of common carriers, no accepted roads and highways. The great National Road, from Wheeling west across Ohio, paused midway of Indiana. Stretching for hundreds of miles in each direction was the wilderness, wherein man had always been obliged to fend for himself.
And, as ever, the wilderness had its own wild deeds. Flatboats were halted and robbed; caravans of travelers were attacked; lonely wayfarers plodding on horseback were waylaid and murdered. In short, the story of that early day shows our first frontiersman no novice in crime.
About 20 miles below the mouth of the Wabash River in present-day Illinois, there was a resort of robbers such as might belong to the most lurid dime novel list—the famous Cave-in-the-Rock, in the bank of the Ohio River. This cavern was about 25 feet in height at its visible opening, and it ran back into the bluff 200 feet, with a width of 80 feet. The floor of this natural cavern was fairly flat so that it could be used as a habitation. From this lower cave, a sort of aperture led up to a second one, immediately above it in the bluff wall, and these two natural retreats of wild animals offered attractions to wild men which were not unaccepted.
It was here that there dwelt for some time the famous robber Samuel Mason, who terrorized the flatboat trade of the Ohio River around 1800. Mason was a robber king, a giant in stature, and a man of no ordinary brains. He had associated with him his two sons and a few other hard characters, who together made a band sufficiently strong to attack any party of the size usually making up the boat companies of that time, or the average family traveling, mounted or on foot, through the forest-covered country of the Ohio Valley. Mason killed and pillaged pretty much as he liked for a number of years, but as travel became too general along the Ohio River, he removed to the wilder country south of that stream, and began to operate on the old “Natchez and Nashville Trace,” one of the roadways of the South at that time, when the Indian lands were just opening to the early settlers. Lower Tennessee and pretty much all of Mississippi made up his stamping-grounds, and his name became a terror there, as it had been along the Ohio River earlier. The governor of the State of Mississippi offered a reward for his capture, dead or alive; but for a long time, he escaped all efforts at apprehension. Treachery did the work, as it has usually in bringing such bold and dangerous men to book. Two members of his gang proved traitors to their chief. Seizing an opportunity they crept behind him and drove a tomahawk into his brain. They cut off the head and took it along as proof; but as they were displaying this at the seat of government, the town of Washington, they themselves were recognized and arrested, and were later tried and executed; which ended the Mason Gang, one of the early and once famous desperado bands.
From the earliest days, there have been border counterfeiters of coin. One of the first and most remarkable was the noted Sturdivant, who lived in lower Illinois, near the Ohio River, in the first quarter of the 1800’s. Sturdivant was also something of a robber king, for he could at any time wind his horn and summon to his side a hundred armed men. He was ostensibly a steady farmer, and lived comfortably, with a good corps of servants and tenants about him; but his ablest assistants did not dwell so close to him. He had an army of confederates all over the middle West and South and issued more counterfeit money than any man before. He always exacted a regular price for his money— $16 for $100 in counterfeit— and such was the looseness of currency matters at that time that he found many willing to take a chance in his trade.
He never allowed any confederate to pass a counterfeit bill in his own state, or in any other way to bring himself under the surveillance of local law, and they were all obliged to be especially circumspect in the county where they lived. He was a very smug sort of villain, in the trade strictly for revenue, and he was so careful that he was never caught by the law, in spite of the fact that it was known that his farm was the source of a flood of spurious money. He was finally “regulated” by the citizens, who arose and made him leave the country. This was one of the early applications of lynch law in the West. Its results were, as usual, salutary. There was no more counterfeiting in that region.
A very noted desperado of these early days was Big Harpe, as he was called, to distinguish him from his brother and associate, Little Harpe. Big Harpe made a wide region of the Ohio Valley dangerous to travelers. The events connected with his vicious life are thus given by that always interesting old-time chronicler, Henry Howe:
“In the fall of the year 1801 or 1802, a company consisting of two men and three women arrived in Lincoln County, Kentucky, and encamped about a mile from the present town of Stanford. The appearance of the individuals composing this party was wild and rude in the extreme. The one who seemed to be the leader of the band was above the ordinary stature of men. His frame was bony and muscular, his breast broad, his limbs gigantic. His clothing was uncouth and shabby, his exterior weather-beaten and dirty, indicating continual exposure to the elements, and designating him as one who dwelt far from the habitations of men, and mingled not in the courtesies of civilized life. His countenance was bold and ferocious, and exceedingly repulsive, from its strongly marked expression of villainy. His face, which was larger than ordinary, exhibited the lines of ungovernable passion, and the complexion announced that the ordinary feelings of the human breast were in him extinguished. Instead of the healthy hue which indicates the social emotions, there was a livid, unnatural redness, resembling that of a dried and lifeless skin. His eye was fearless and steady, but it was also artful and audacious, glaring upon the beholder with an unpleasant fixedness and brilliancy, like that of a ravenous animal gloating on its prey. He wore no covering on his head, and the natural protection of thick, coarse hair, of a fiery redness, uncombed and matted, gave evidence of long exposure to the rudest visitations of the sunbeam and the tempest. He was armed with a rifle, and a broad leather belt, drawn closely around his waist, supported a knife and a tomahawk. He seemed, in short, an outlaw, destitute of all the nobler sympathies of human nature, and prepared at all points of assault or defense. The other man was smaller in size than him who lead the party, but similarly armed, having the same suspicious exterior, and a countenance equally fierce and sinister. The females were coarse and wretchedly attired.