Natchez Trace Bandits: Little Harpe & Sam Mason, A Vintage Vignette

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Natchez Trace Bandits: Little Harpe & Sam Mason
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
February 2, 2011

The Natchez Trace was the way home for pioneers who took goods to New Orleans or Natchez on riverboats. Beginning in 1811, steamboats became an alternate method of upstream journeys, with common usage by the late 1830s. The early history of the Natchez Trace was a bloody one, with many murdering bandits accosting travelers to take their produce or money from downstream sales. America's first serial killers, Big and Little Harpe, had terrorized the northern parts of the river system and the upper Trace around Nashville, as well as the Kentucky Wilderness Road. Big Harpe was killed by a posse in 1799, but Little Harpe disappeared for several years before he was seen again. When he resurfaced, Little Harpe was part of the Mason gang of river and Trace pirates.

Sam Mason was born in Virginia in 1750. He fought with honor as a patriot in the Revolutionary War. After the war, he settled in Kentucky. By 1790 he was a man of prominence, commissioned as a Justice of the Peace, with a daughter and three sons. At that time, a fugitive from crimes committed in the Carolinas came to visit and eloped with Mason's daughter. After a few weeks, Mason sent word that reconciliation should be accomplished with a party for them at his house. As the dancing progressed, Mason and his sons took the son-in-law outside into the forest and killed him. Mason and his sons then fled to escape justice, along the way killing Captain John Dunn, “the only recognized officer of the law in all of the territory”. Mason proceeded to develop a loose organization of criminals along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for about a decade.

By 1801 Mason was reported to have robbed and killed several travelers along the southern portions of the Trace, mostly men leaving Natchez to return home with piles of gold coins. Since almost all of the victims were dead, there were few witnesses to fear in event of capture. Victims who did survive were generally unavailable, scattered even into Georgia. When Mason and one of his sons rode into Natchez, they were recognized as the robbers who had accosted three men along the Trace a few months earlier. Mason and his son were arrested only for robbery, with no witnesses to actual murders around to testify. The Masons received a public flogging of 39 lashes each and turned loose. As crimes continued along the travel routes, often the name “Mason” was written with the victims' blood at the scene. Evidence increased that Wiley (“Little”) Harpe was a part of the gang, and $2000 was offered for the capture of Harpe and Mason. News came that the hideout of the gang was only 40 miles north of Natchez along the Trace, but they escaped capture.

Increasing crime levels got the attention of the Spanish authorities on the west bank of the Mississippi River. In January of 1803, reports came that some of the Mason gang were living about 20 miles downstream of New Madrid, Missouri. A party of militia was sent to investigate and found Mason there, with three of his sons and one other member of the gang. Arrested and tried, they were sent to New Orleans, where the Spanish officials decided to send them to Natchez for American courts. Along the way they escaped when the boat was beached for repairs. The gang eluded capture for months, and Mason encamped in swamps around Lake Concordia, just west of Natchez. Before the year was out, he was killed there by two men called Mays and Setton, who were actually members of his gang using aliases. They cut off Mason's head and brought it back to Natchez for the reward, but Wiley Harpe (alias Setton) was recognized by two men in town, one of whom had wounded Wiley during a knife fight in Knoxville years earlier. The scar confirmed the identification of Setton as Little Harpe. Both men were hanged in Natchez on February 8, 1804, ending for a time part of the violence along the Trace, but the next article will tell of a more sinister criminal of later years on the pioneer road.

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