The Mississippi River had its pirates and there's mention of their operations from New Madrid and Chickasaw
Bluffs in the old chronicles. Emigrants were frequently waylaid and robbed of their possessions and occasionally,
lives were taken. While the Mississippi River had these terrors, the adventurer from the South Atlantic States had
first to pass the dreaded Mussel Shoals, where the Chickamauga Indians levied tribute upon lives and property.
When the right to travel the trail from Natchez to Bear Creek was obtained from the Indians, bands of highwaymen
began to infest that line of travel, as well.
In April, 1802, Governor Claiborne was informed that a band headed by Samuel Mason and Wiley Harp had
attempted to board the boat of Col. Joshua Baker between the Yazoo and Walnut Hills. The same outlaws had
been operating on the trail and for years had been robbing and committing murders. Col. Daniel Burnet was
ordered to take 15 or 20 volunteers and pursue the banditti and the United States officers at Walnut Hills and
Bear Creek were asked to cooperate. A reward of $2,000 was offered for their capture. Harp seems to have
separated from the band about this period of time and gone up into Kentucky.
John L. Swaney, the old mail rider on the Natchez Trace, claimed to know both Harp and Mason well. He said
there were two brothers, one known as Big Harp and the other as Little Harp. According to this authority, Big
Harp, after a career of crime in Tennessee and Kentucky, was hunted down and killed by a company of men, but
his brother, Little Harp, made his escape and was undoubtedly one of the men hung at Greenville. Mason and
most of his gang made their escape from the country, if the following testimony of Swaney is to be credited. He
"On one of my return trips from Natchez, I fell in with the wife of young Tom Mason. (According to Swaney, the
elder Mason was known as Tom Mason; he had two sons, Tom and John, who, with six or eight other men,
composed the band.) She was carrying a baby and a small sack of provisions in her arms. She was making for
the Chickasaw Agency to go there to her friends. She begged me to help her on her way, which I did by placing
her on my horse. I did this for a day and made up the lost time by traveling all night. Mrs. Mason told me they
were all safe and out of reach."
The usually accepted version of the death of Mason is as follows: Two of his band, tempted by the large
reward, concerted a plan by which they might obtain it. An opportunity soon occurred; and, while Mason, in
company with the two conspirators, was counting our some ill-gotten plunder, a tomahawk was buried in brain or,
according to another, he was shot and his severed head brought to Greenville, in Jefferson County, by the two
traitors. As Circuit Court was in session at the time, they went before the Judge to make their affidavit and get a
certificate to the Governor. The head was duly identified by persons who knew Mason well, but before the
certificate was made out, the two miscreants were recognized by two travelers whose father they ahd recently
robbed and murdered. They first recognized the horses of the two bandits at the tavern where they had just
alighted, and at once, repaired to the court house, identified the men and demanded their arrest, declaring that
they had helped rob and murder their father some two months previously on the Natchez Trace. The prisoners
gave their names as Sutton and May and were tried, convicted and hung at Greenville, being prosecuted by
George Poindexter, attorney-general. The leader, Mason, was now dead, together with two of his gang; Harp had
fled the state, and the disheartened gang dispersed with tthe results that few robberies were committed thereafter
in Mississippi for many years.
The above account of the death of Mason and the rispersal of his band is substantilly corroborated by Thomas
Reed, Esq., in his Centennial history of Jefferson county and by the historian Monette. The historian, Claiborne,
seems to inclined to the belief that the head brought to Greenville was not that of Mason at all, but that Mason
and his gang, after the governor's proclamation, were closely hunted by the whites and Indians and, after a
number of narrow escapes, made their escape across the Mississippi, to somewhere about Lake Providence, in
the Spanish Territory.
The account of Capt. W. L. Harper, of Jefferson County, quoted by Claiborne, is as follows:
"Governor Claiborne offered a large reward for the capture of Mason, the leader of the band that infested the
road. Mason's family then resided in this county, not far from old Shankstown, and his wife was generally
respected as an honest and virtuous woman, by all her neighbors, and one of her sons was a worthy citizen of
Warren County, not many years sgo. The reward tempted two of his band to kill Mason, or someone they said
was Mason, and bring in his head to Greenville for recognition. Many fully identified it by certain marks thereon,
except his wife, who as positively denied it. The Governor had sent his carriage for her expressly to come down
and testify. But some parties had recognized in the claimants two men, who, along with Mason, had robbed them
but a short time before, when they were arrested, tried and hung, thus getting their reward, but not exactly in the
way they sought. They gave their names as May and Sutton, and many believed Mason fled the country and died
in his bed in Canada."
January 16, 1904, George Poindexter, attorney-general of the Territory, informed the acting governor that
several persons were confined in the jail of Jefferson District, charged with capital offenses in the Choctaw
Country, these persons being "notoriously confederates of Mason's junta, who for a length of time have infested
the highway leading from this Territory to the State of Tennessee." Poindexter advised that a special session be
called to dispose of the cases. There is a file in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, an
interesting record, in French, of the trial for Samuel Mason for robbery at New Madrid in January, 1803.