Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Illinois 'River Pirates' in the Northwest Territory in the 1790s.

The "Wild West" image that comes to mind is that of the Western United States in the decades after the Civil War. In the late eighteenth century, the Wild West was a bit further east, so to speak. In its pre-statehood days, Illinois had its share of ne'er-do-wells, confident men, thieves, and murderers.
Samuel Ross Mason

One such man was Samuel Ross Mason (also spelled Meason). Mason was born in Virginia in 1739 and served in the Pennsylvania Militia during the Revolutionary War. Mason stole provisions in Virginia, robbed houses in Knoxville, Tennessee, and killed a constable in Kentucky.

This final act led him to move his headquarters further downriver to Cave-in-Rock (now the Cave-in-Rock State Park in Hardin County) on the Illinois shore in 1797. By this time, he had gathered a number of followers who openly based themselves at Cave-in-Rock. 

The Ohio River in the 1790s was a teeming inland highway of commerce and emigrants.

Here, Mason and his men would warmly welcome riverboat travelers to rest and eat. However, while these visitors enjoyed the hospitality, Mason's men checked their supplies and goods for anything of value. If they found something, they would wait until the next day and, when the visitors continued, would rob them as they made their way around the river's bend.

Philip Alston was a South Carolinian of polished manners and good education who, early in his life, learned the art of counterfeiting, His specialty was not bogus notes so much as bogus coins. A coin die, for the making of counterfeit half dollars, was found in the cave, which may have belonged to Alston and later to John Duff.
Cave-in-Rock, Illinois.
Cave-in-Rock was the most famous of the counterfeiting caves and one of the first of the "coiners," John Duff, was the probable brother-in-law of Samuel Mason, seems to have operated in the Cave while Mason and his robbers were still there, and began those operations even before Mason moved in.
While at Cave-in-Rock, Mason and his men briefly harbored the notorious Wiley Harpe and his brothers, who were on the run from the law. The Harpe Brothers were the most brutal outlaws then and distinguished themselves as America's first serial killers. Though the Mason Gang could be ruthless, even they were appalled at the actions of the Harpes. After the murderous pair began to take travelers to the top of the bluff, stripping them naked and throwing them off, they were asked to leave.
Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, view on the Ohio River (circa 1832).
In the summer of 1799, the Mason Gang was forced to leave Cave-in-Rock when they were attacked by a group called the “Exterminators.” Captain Young of Mercer County, Kentucky, led this group of vigilante bounty hunters. Mason then moved his operations downriver, settled his family in Spanish Louisiana, and became a highwayman on the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, robbing and killing unsuspecting travelers. It was on the Natchez Trace that Mason received his most infamous nickname. He would leave a message after each crime (often in the blood of his murdered victims), proudly stating, "Done by Mason of the Woods."

In April 1802, Mississippi Governor William C.C. Claiborne was informed that Samuel Mason and Wiley Harpe had attempted to board the boat of Colonel Joshua Baker between Yazoo and Walnut Hills, now Vicksburg, Mississippi. The governor responded by ordering Colonel Daniel Burnet, with 15-20 volunteers to track down Mason and his men. A reward of $2,000 was offered for their capture.

Though there were dozens of men searching for the Mason Gang, the outlaws continued with their evil deeds along the Natchez Trace, striking one caravan with horrific brutality. In response, another posse of local residents and a few bounty hunters was raised to go after them. Learning that Mason and his men were hiding out less than a mile west of the Trace near Rocky Springs, Mississippi, the posse quickly pursued. When they came upon the camp, they found it had been hastily abandoned. Though the outlaws' trail was fresh, most of the posse chose not to follow, instead remaining at the camp searching for any hidden loot that the outlaws may have left. A few men, however, continued the pursuit, but when they lost the trail, they abandoned the search.

Months later, Spanish officials were more successful. In January 1803, they arrested Mason, four of his sons, and several other men at the Little Prairie settlement, now Caruthersville, in southeastern Missouri. Mason and his family members were taken to the colonial government in New Madrid, Missouri, where a three-day hearing was held to determine whether Mason was a pirate. Although Mason claimed he was simply a farmer who had been maligned by his enemies, the presence of $7,000 in currency and 20 human scalps in his baggage convinced the Spanish he was guilty. Mason, his family, and the other men were then boarded on a boat to be taken to New Orleans, where they would be handed over to the American governor in the Mississippi Territory. However, while being transported, Mason and Wiley Harpe, using John Sutton's alias, overpowered their guards and fled. Though Mason was shot in the leg, he made good his escape.

Governor William C. C. Claiborne immediately added an additional $500 reward for their recapture, making the total reward $2500. This staggering amount prompted Wiley Harpe and another man to bring Mason's head in an attempt to claim the reward in September 1803. Whether they killed Mason or he died from his leg wound is unknown. However, rather than collecting a reward, the two pirates were recognized, arrested, tried in federal court, and found guilty of piracy. They were hanged in Greenville, Mississippi, in early 1804.

Rivers hold many legends and stories. Mason's is one of the few stories of river pirates in Illinois that can be substantiated. It speaks to Illinois's days as a part of the wild frontier.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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