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 their destinations.
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 meeting.
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, 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