The murdering Harpes: The finale

Published 2:36 pm Monday, April 3, 2023

BY JADON GIBSON

Contributing writer

Wiley Harpe escaped during the shooting that led up to the final confrontation when his brother Micajah was killed. The Harpes always seemed to have a penchant for escape. Wiley Harpe did so on this day.

Wiley was alone for the first time in his life and he had little working skills. He decided to rejoin Captain Samuel Mason and his gang of river pirates at Cave-In-Rock, a huge shelter cave on the Ohio River in what is now southern Illinois.

Captain Samuel Mason, the leader of his gang of river pirates was born in Norfolk, Virginia and began his unsavory career by stealing the horses of Col. John Hite. He was chased and caught by his pursuers who dealt with him harshly. Later he served admirably in the Revolutionary War and was recommended to Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry as one with leadership qualities, becoming a captain.

After the war there was a complete change in Captain Mason as he began using his leadership abilities to lead a band of pirates. Their murder, assaults and thievery caused much heartache and financial loss along the Ohio River, a primary North American waterway then and still today.

In 1803 Mississippi Territorial Gov. C.C. Claiborne announced a reward of $2,000, a huge amount in that era, would be paid for the capture or severed head of Captain Samuel Mason, leader of the gang of pirates on the Ohio River. Wiley got wind of this and thought he had the perfect opportunity to kill Captain Mason for the reward money. He and his big brother Micajah sized up many such opportunities to get ahead before he died. Wiley felt he still had the knack to do it.

He decided an accomplice was needed and a fellow pirate whose last name was May was the man. They sought the best opportunity to kill Mason and collect the reward. They lured him to a secretive site, caught him off-guard and killed him. Then they cut off his head before turning it in for the reward money. That was much easier than trying to deliver the complete Captain Mason. That would be practically impossible.

Wiley Harpe and co-conspirator May made their official claim for the reward money. It had been four years since the death of Micajah and Wiley could never be found … until now that was. One of the soldiers recognized Wiley and he had no chance to get away. He and his accomplice were caught. Several times in the past Wiley escaped incarceration. Could he do it again? Nah!

Guess again. The two were arrested but Wiley escaped again as he was smartly dressed and had taken a fictitious name as he did several times before in his checkered life of crime. He slipped away even before his first meal, but they were able to nab him before he left the area.

A speedy trial followed and Wiley was found guilty and sentenced to hang. His severed head was placed atop a stake along the Natchez Trail to warn would-be felons of the perils of wrong-doing.

Increased interest has led to research into the Harpe family and revealed that Micajah and Wiley were not brothers at all but cousins. They were the sons of brothers John and William Harpe who immigrated to North Carolina from Scotland in the early 1760s.

Micajah and Wiley Harpe left their homes together in the spring of 1775 to work as overseers of slaves in Virginia. Just as their fathers were Tories, loyal to the British, the younger Harpes were also favorable toward the British and soon became members of gangs that terrorized those seeking independence for America.

Later it became necessary for them to take flight to evade prosecution. It led them to Cherokee country and to their eventual murderous killing spree.

Their wrong-doing resulted in both brother’s heads being used to mark pioneer trails in early America.

Jadon Gibson is an Appalachian writer from Harrogate. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.