Natchez Trace Bandits: Big and Little Harpe, A Vintage Vignette

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Natchez Trace Bandits: Big and Little Harpe
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
January 26, 2011

When I was seven years old, my parents moved us several miles north from Natchez, Mississippi, onto a 200-acre farm outside Washington. We were actually a mile away from Selma (a named place along U. S. Highway 61, with only one house and a small country store), but the small village of Washington was where I went to school. Washington had been the territorial capital of both Mississippi and Alabama in the early 1800s. Washington sits along the southern end of the old Natchez Trace Wilderness Road between Natchez and Nashville with connections to Knoxville. The route cuts across the northwest corner of Alabama, a crossing today's Highway 72 about two miles west of the little town of Cherokee, between Florence and Iuka, Mississippi. The Trace was used mostly from 1790 to the 1840s by pioneers returning home laden with money from downriver markets after selling their flatboats filled with produce or products in New Orleans or Natchez. In fact, the original route of the Natchez Trace passed along the eastern edge of our land and right by the front of our old house, which had been built before the Civil War. The dirt road had seen more travel than we can imagine today, as evidenced by the fact that it was worn down through the soil to a depth of at least four or five feet in most places.

As I grew up along the Trace, I developed an interest in its history and lore, even before portions of it were developed into a modern thoroughfare as part of a National Park adjoining our farm. Of particular fascination to me were the stories of the Natchez Trace bandits, gut-wrenching as they were. One cannot imagine the ruthlessness of those who preyed upon the money-carrying travelers along the Trace in those days, but the book “The Outlaw Years” by Robert M. Coates, published in 1930, describes in great detail many of the murders committed along the route. One of the more notorious murdering groups was that of the Harpes, brothers Micajah (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley (“Little Harpe”), who terrorized Trace travelers for about three years before meeting their own end. They were born in North Carolina, Big Harpe in 1768 and Little Harpe in 1770. They lived for a time with a renegade band of Cherokees in the wilderness, and in 1795 they headed into middle Tennessee with two women, sisters Susan and Betsy Roberts. Susan claimed Big Harpe as her husband, while Betsy acted as a wife to both brothers, whenever the mood suited her or them. They settled for a time on Beaver Creek west of Knoxville after robbing a preacher along the trail. While there, Little Harpe married Sally Rice, daughter of neighboring preacher John Rice.

Their acceptance in the community soon faded, as barns and outhouses were burned whenever people disagreed with the Harpes. When a team of prime horses were stolen from a neighbor, the posse caught up to the Harpes with the horses and their three women. The unruly gang vanished along the Trace to resurface from time to time as numerous gruesome murders were discovered on the trail and the river system. The Harpes for a while lived with pirates along the Ohio River at “Cave In The Rock”, but they were too violent even for the murderers staying there and soon were driven out. Their victims were usually tortured, then often disemboweled, with rocks put into the body cavities for sinking in streams.

Eventually, rewards of $300 apiece were posted for them. At the end, in July of 1799 when a posse finally caught up with the gang, Big Harpe was shot in the spine and lingered long enough for his head to be cut off and displayed in the fork of a tree. Before he died, Big Harpe told the posse that he regretted only one of his many murders, that of a baby of his wife Susan. When it cried too much for him, he grabbed it by the heels and slung its head against a tree by the side of the trail, then threw it into the woods as the gang moved on.

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