Composed by Jason Walker English
As early as 1760, pioneer families set out from the eastern seaboard colonies toward the
Ohio Valley and the frontier of Mississippi and Alabama. One of the most famous early
frontiersmen was Daniel Boone of the Carolinas, who settled Kentucky. He and his group
of pioneers blazed several trails across the Kentucky and Tennessee wilderness into the
Mississippi Valley area. Two of those trails were known as the Wilderness Road and
Boone's Trace. For many yeaers to come, the pioneer settlers used these trails to reach
After the American Revolution, the lure of rich land and limitless forest drew more and
more people into the Mississippi Valley. By 1800, both banks of the Ohio were dotted with
settlements and the Mississippi was settled sporadically down to Fort Mobile. With more
and more settlements, traders began bi-yearsly trips back and forth down the Mssissippi.
It would take them six months to get down the river on the flat boat and six months to
travel by foot or horseback back home, as the flat boats were not made to navigate up
river and were torn apart and the lumber used for building houses. The Natchez Trace
was the primary route back north.
The dangers to the pioneer family and those traveling down the Mississippi in search of
trade were not limited to navigation of the muddy waters or the sturdiness of their vessel.
Their trips were dangerous, not only on account of the Indians, whose hunting-grounds
bounded their track on either side, but also because the shores of both rivers were
infested with organized bandits, who sought every occasion to rob and murder.
Born in North Carolina, the sons of a Revolutionary War soldier and a Negro slave,
Micajah Harpe and Wiley Harpe, also, knkown as Big Harpe and Little Harpe,
respectively, are the most infamous and despicable of these bandits. Although historians
sometimes contradict themselves on minor details, the basic facts are consistent in every
recantation. My research has led me to believe that the Harpe brothers were more than
likely the first serial killers on American soil. Paul Wellman, in his 1964 book, Spawn of
Evil, describes Big Harpe as being ".....above the ordinary stature of man; his frame was
bony and muscular, his breast broad, his limbs gigantic. His clothing was uncouth and
shabby, his exterior weatherbeaten and dirty, indicating continual exposure to the
elements." His description of Little Harpe was similar, except he had red hair and "bore
a look of cunning and treachery." Historians agree that Little Harpe was the more
scheming of the two and Big Harpe was the brute of evil.
Their recorded history begins in 1795, when they left North Carolina heading west. Two
sisters accompanied them, Susan and Betsey Roberts. Susan claimed to be the wife of Big
Harpe and Betsy, according to "The Outlaw Years" by Robert M. Coates, was wife to either
of the Harpes, "as the mood seized her, or them." From North Carolina, the foursome
traveled into Central Tennessee and associated themselves with a renegade tribe of
Cherokee Indians. "It was from the Indians," Coates writes, that "they learned to strike
with cunning and walk warily."
Moses Doss was the first known person murdered by the Harpes. Moses was a friend of
the Harpes and lived with them, the Indians, and their women in the wilderness. His
mutilated body was found on a trail lending to the Cherokee Indian town of Nickajack. It
is said that Micajah Harpe murdered Doss because of dthe affection he was showing the
Harpe women. It was shortly after the murder was discovered that the Harpes learned of
Andrew Jackson's planned attack on the Cherokees of Nickajack village (in retaliation for
the attacks on Nashville) that the Harpes, their women, and four of their Indian friends,
removed themselves to their hideout in the Cumberland Mountains.
William Lambuth, a circuit rider preacher for the Methodist Church, was the next
person who reported meeting the Harpes. In fact, he was one of a few men who ever
crossed their path and lived to tell about it. Wellman details Lambuth's account of their
The Harpes, while traveling on the Wilderness Road, approached him. After robbing
him of his belongings and horse, Micajah Harpe was rifling through Lambuth's Bible,
when he saw the name of George Washington on the flyleaf, just below the owner's name.
Big Harpe asked Lambuth if he had ever seen George Washington. Lambuth replied that
he had seen him once in Richmond. Big Harpe commented "That is a brave and good
man, but a mighty rebel against the King!"
Apparently, Big Harpe was impressed that Lambuth had seen George Washington and
softened. When the Harpes realized that Lambuth was a preacher, they returned all his
belongins. "As the Harpes, by then joined by their women and drove of livestock, made
their exit for the woods, Lambuth heard the shout, "We are the Harpes!" Thus, Lambuth
eventually made his way to the next settlement and related his story, which soon was
carried up and down the frontier by the many emigrants and traders.
The Harpes were reported as settling down in the young town of Knoxville, where they
kept the appearance of honest settlers for some time. They built a cabin on a small tract
of land along the Beaver Creek. It is here that Little Harpe met and fell in love with Sally
RIce, the respectable daughter of a frontier preacher and they were married. However, it
wasn't long before this facade dimmed and they began stealing livestock. When some of
their neighbors became suspicious and contacted the authorities, a series of mysterious
fires destroyed their barns and outhouses. Before long , the Harpes decided it was time to
move on and stole a fine team of horses to take with them. Horse thieving was as bad a
crime as murder and perhaps that is why the Harpes from this point forward, never left
any of the victims alive to tell the story.
Before long, they happened upon a pioneer named Johnson and kidnapped and killed
him. Their next victim was a traveler nemd Peyton, who was a peddler, going from
settlement to settlement, selling his household wares. The Harpes had no respect for a
kind soul, as was evidenced by their murder of Stephen Langford. On December 12, 1789,
the Harpes wandered up to a tavern owned by John Farris on the banks of the Rockcastel
River n Kentucky. Langford, a guest at the tavern, was eating breakfast. When Langford
noticed the two men and three pregnant women, they seemed "objects of pity." When
Farris asked if the crude looking group wanted breakfast, one of them answered they had
no money. Feeling brotherly love and compassion, Langford bought their breakfast. The
innkeeper reported that Langford left with the Harpes on their way through wilderness
country. When the Harpes came out of the wilderness, Langford was not with them,
however, his horse was.
It was soon thereafter that two young men named Bates and Paca were unfortunate
enough to cross paths with the Harpes. Susan Harpe, after her arrest in Russellville,
Kentucky, told how both Big Harpe and Little Harpe, after murering the men, took their
clothes from the dead corpses and dressed in them, strutting around and bragging about
how pretty they were. As the bodies were being found, word spread through the territory.
People were afraid of the Harpes. Soon a posse found the two men and three pregnant
women and took them back to Stanford, where they were housed in the jail. While
awaiting trial, two of the women gave birth. Before the brothers could be brought to trial,
they escaped, leaving thier women behind. Shortly after, the third woman gave birth.
The women wwer released and helped by the "kindly folk, made up a collection of
clothing and money and provided an old mare for them."
The Governor of Kentucky presented James Ballenger an order authorizing him to
pursue the Harpes and granting permission to cross state boundaries in order to execute
this order. The search party happned upon the home of Col. Daniel Trabue, A
Revolutionary soldier and one of Kentucky's finest gentlemen. His 13 year old son had
been sent to a neighbor's and hadn't returned. Several weeks later, the boy's body, cut
into pieces, was found in the bottom of a sinkhole.
The Governor of Kentucky passed a proclamation calling for the capture of the Harpes
dead or alive. The Harpes and their women headed into lower Green River country and
worked their way to Cave-in-Rock, Ohio. The number of dead they left in their wake is
unknown. Cave-in-Rock was a haven for outlaws. The Harpes were eventually driven
from the cave by the other band of outlaws. It seems the Harpes were too brutish for even
the outlaws. The time was May, 1799. In July, 1799, another cruel murder of a farmer
named Bradbury was discovered and a few days later, a young boy named Coffey, was
brutally murdered. Two days later, they killed William Ballard. After this series of
murders, the Harpes left that area and headed to Harriman Junction. On July 29, they
murdered James Brassel by beating him to death. His brother, Robert, escaped and ran to
get help, but it was too late to help James. A posse followed the tracks, which indicated
that the Harpes were headed toward Knoxville.
The citizens of Tennessee were alarmed that the Harpes were back in their territory.
Every man, woman and child was carrying a weapon of some sort. The word, "the Harpes
are here" was hurriedly sent out. Soon newspapers were publishing accounts of the
Harpes' crimes. Many gathered to search for theHarpes, but the despicable band of
barbarians continued on their homicidal path. On their way to Russellville County,
Kentucky, they raided an encampment of settlers, killing all but one man who escaped
and ran for help. When he returned, the mutilated bodies of five adults and three
children were found. It is known that Big Harpe killed one of his own children, a nine
month old baby, at one time.
Still heading for Kentucky, they went to the home of Squire Silas McBee, justice of the
peace, who was active in the hunt for them. They went to his house bent on butchering
him, but it happened that Squire McBee had a large pack of hunting dogs and when the
Harpes started sneaking around, the dogs attacked and the Harpes withdrew. Next they
headed to the home of Moses Stegall, a comrade in various crimes. Upon finding Mrs.
Stegall alone with her baby, they spent the night in the loft and, before leaving, cut the
throats of both the mother and child.
For two days and nights the posse, joined by Moses Stegall, tracked the outlaws, until
finally, they were spotted up on a ridge. When they saw the posse, they each moumnted
their horses and went in opposite directions. The pursuit continued and before long, they
caught up with Big Harpe. As they fired shots it was evident that Big Harpe was shot in
the leg. The chase continued and as Big Harpe stopped to reload his weapon, "Leiper
took unerring aim and fired. The shot severed his spine, but he didn't quit fighting. He
tried his gun, which wouldn't shoot. Then he grabbed a tomahawk and threw it. As he lay
dying, he begged for water and Stegall took his shoe and retrieved water from a nearby
brook and gave it to him. Stegall then took a gun and shot him in the side and proceeded
to cut his head off and place it in a sack. Susan Roberts was forced to carry the head on a
stick for miles back to the nearest settlement, where it was nailed to a forked tree on the
trail near Roberton's Lick and, thereafter, known as Harpe's Head.
The three women eventually made decent lives for themselves, taking on new names.
Little Harpe continued in his life of crime, joing with Samuel Mason in his terrrrorization
of the settlers along the Natchez Trace in Mississippi and was eventually hung in Natchez.
This report was Jason's Freshman Final. He got an A! Thanks so much, Jason.
Coates, Robert M., "The Outlaw Years"
New York, The Literary Guild of America, 1930.
Wellman, Paul I., "Spawn of Evil"
Great Britain, John Gardner Printers, Ltd., 1964
Rothert, Otto A., "The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock"
Cleveland, Ohio, A. H. Clark Co., 1924