Getting his start as an honorable man, Samuel Mason served as a militia captain in the American Revolution. Later, however, he would turn pirate on the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers and lead highwaymen along the Natchez Trace.
Samuel Mason was born in Norfolk, Virginia to a distinguished family on November 8, 1739, and raised in what is now Charles Town, West Virginia. He married Rosanna Dorsey in about 1767 and the couple would eventually have eight children. In 1773, he moved his family to Ohio County, West Virginia. During the American Revolution, he became a captain of the Ohio County Militia, Virginia State Forces in January 1777. He was given command of Fort Henry on the Ohio frontier, in present-day West Virginia.
In the summer of 1777, while colonial soldiers to the east were fighting the war for independence, Mason feared attacks by the Indian allies of the British. He was proven correct on August 31, 1777, when a band of Native Americans from several eastern tribes attacked the fort.
Initially, the Indians fired on several men who were outside the fort rounding up horses. When Mason heard the shots, he gathered 14 men and rode to their rescue. This, however, was exactly what the warriors had hoped for and quickly ambushed the rescue party, killing every last man, with the exception of Captain Samuel Mason. The captain; however, was badly wounded and escaped death by hiding behind a log. He was soon rescued and recovered from his wounds to continue to command Fort Henry for two more years.
In 1779, he moved to Washington County, Pennsylvania, where he bought a 500-acre farm. In July 1781, he was elected justice of the peace and just a few months later, was named as an associate judge. In 1782, Mason appeared to be successful, as he paid taxes on his 500-acre farm as well as two horses, four cows, and six sheep. He also owned four slaves. However, Mason was struggling financially and had become deeply indebted. After having been repeatedly accused of being a thief, he made his way to Kentucky in 1784. The following year, his Pennsylvania farm was sold at a sheriff’s sale to pay part of his debt. In 1789, the Pennsylvania court sent a man to Kentucky to attempt to collect the remaining debt, but, was unsuccessful.
By the early 1790s, Mason was settled at Red Banks, now known as Henderson, Kentucky. Later, he moved downriver on Diamond Island, where he began to engage in criminal activity. By 1797, he moved his headquarters further downriver to Cave-in-Rock on the Illinois shore. By this time, he had gathered a number of followers who openly based themselves at Cave-in-Rock. Here, Mason and his men would warmly welcome riverboat travelers to rest and eat. However, while these visitors were enjoying the hospitality, Mason’s men were checking their supplies and goods for anything of value. If they found something, they would wait until the next day and when the visitors continued on, would rob them as they made their way around the bend of the river.
While at Cave-in-Rock, Mason and his men briefly harbored the notorious Harpe brothers, who were on the run from the law. The Harpes were a couple of the most brutal outlaws at the time and distinguished themselves as being America’s first serial killers. Though the Mason Gang could be ruthless, even they were appalled at the actions of the Harpes. After the murderous pair began to make a habit of taking travelers to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked, and throwing them off, they were asked to leave.
In the summer of 1799, the Mason Gang was forced to leave Cave-in-Rock when they were attacked by a group called the “Exterminators.” This group of vigilante bounty-hunters was led by Captain Young of Mercer County, Kentucky. Mason then moved his operations downriver and settled his family in Spanish Louisiana and became a highwayman on the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, robbing and killing unsuspecting travelers.
In April 1802 Mississippi Governor William C. C. Claiborne was informed that Samuel Mason and Wiley Harpe had attempted to board the boat of Colonel Joshua Baker between Yazoo and Walnut Hills, now Vicksburg, Mississippi. The governor responded by ordering Colonel Daniel Burnet, with 15-20 volunteers to track down Mason and his men. A reward of $2,000 was offered for their capture.
Though there were dozens of men searching for the Mason Gang, the outlaws continued with their evil deeds along the Natchez Trace, striking one caravan with horrific brutality. In response, another posse of local residents and a few bounty-hunters was raised to go after them. Learning that Mason and his men were hiding out less than a mile west of the Trace near Rocky Springs, Mississippi, the posse quickly pursued. When they came upon the camp, they found it had been hastily abandoned. Though the outlaws’ trail was fresh, most of the posse chose not to follow, instead, remaining at the camp searching for any hidden loot that may have been left by the outlaws. A few men; however, continued the pursuit, but when they lost the trail, they abandoned the search.
Months later, Spanish officials were more successful. In January 1803, they arrested Mason, four of his sons, and several other men at the Little Prairie settlement, now Caruthersville, in southeastern Missouri. Mason and his family members were taken to the colonial government in New Madrid, Missouri, where a three-day hearing was held to determine whether Mason was a pirate. Although Mason claimed he was simply a farmer who had been maligned by his enemies, the presence of $7,000 in currency and 20 human scalps in his baggage convinced the Spanish he was guilty. Mason, his family, and the other men then boarded on a boat to be taken to New Orleans, where they would be handed over to the American governor in the Mississippi Territory. However, while being transported, Mason and Wiley Harpe, who was using the alias of John Sutton, overpowered their guards and fled. Though Mason was shot in the leg, he made good his escape.
Governor William C. C. Claiborne immediately added an additional $500 reward for their recapture, making the total reward of $2500. This staggering amount prompted Wiley Harpe and another man to bring Mason’s head in an attempt to claim the reward in September 1803. Whether they killed Mason or he died from his leg wound is unknown. However, rather than collecting a reward, the two pirates were recognized, arrested, tried in federal court, found guilty of piracy. They were hanged in Greenville, Mississippi in early 1804.
Of the thousands of dollars of cash and other valuables stolen by the Samuel Mason over the years, it was never recovered, prompting a number of lost treasure tales. Some of this treasure is said to have been hidden at Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, where the Mason Gang made their headquarters for several years. This large cave, worn into the limestone bluffs of the Ohio River, has been used for thousands of years by the Native Americans. However, it is better known for the many outlaws it harbored. In addition to the Mason Gang, it also served as the hideout of the vicious Harpe brothers; highwaymen, James Ford and Isaiah Potts; a number of counterfeiters; the post-Civil War bandit, Logan Belt, and many others.
In this 55-foot wide cave, which leads a short distance into the bluff, it is said that over $1 million worth of stolen loot, gold, cash, and counterfeit bills changed hands between 1790 and 1830 alone. In 1800, the Mason Gang was rumored to have hidden a large stash of gold here, but, Mason was killed before he could retrieve it. In addition to the gold allegedly hidden by Mason, more caches of gold and silver all said to be hidden along the cliff face. If the hidden treasure isn’t enough of a legend, the notorious Cave-in-Rock is also said to be haunted. But, that’s a whole ‘nuther story.
Cave-in-Rock is now a state park located in Hardin County, Illinois.
Another legend of Mason cache is said to continue to be hidden somewhere in the Rocky Springs, Mississippi area where Samuel Mason and Wiley Harpe once had a hideout in the early 1800s. After having made a large robbery on the Trace, they returned to their campsite. Though they often carried their stolen loot on the backs of a couple of mules, they knew that they were being aggressively pursued. This time, they decided to bury their cache near their camp to be retrieved later. However, neither Samuel Mason nor Wiley Harpe would be able to do so, as they would both be dead. According to the legend, there is said to be some $75,000 in stolen gold and silver coins buried somewhere between the old church and cemetery at Little Sand Creek. However, looking for it today would be a bad idea, as the property is privately owned or belongs to the National Park Service.
Another tale says that Samuel Mason buried a very large chest – some seven feet long about four miles northwest of Roxie, Mississippi. The chest, filled with stolen valuables including gold coins and jewelry, was allegedly buried on the Reber Dove Farm near an artesian well. If the story is true, the cache has never been found.
Yet, more tales say that Mason loot was hidden at Stack Island, Mississippi; the ghost town of Tillman, Mississippi in Claiborne County; and as much as $250,000 somewhere near one of the gang’s favorite drinking spots – the Colbert Tavern and Inn on the Natchez Trace near Bissell, Mississippi.