James Hall on frontier outlawry
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Hall on frontier outlaws
Sketches of the West
A frontier is often the retreat of loose individuals, who, if not familiar with crime, have very blunt perceptions of virtue.

The genuine woodsman, the real pioneer, are independent, brave, and upright; but as the jackal pursues the lion to devour his leavings, the footsteps of the sturdy hunter are closely pursued by miscreants destitute of his noble qualities. These are the poorest and idlest of the human race, averse to labour, and impatient of the restraints of law and the courtesies of civilized society. Without the ardour, the activity, the love of sport, and patience of fatigue, which distinguish the bold back-woodsman, these are doomed to the forest by sheer laziness, and hunt for a bare subsistence; they are the "cankers of a calm world and a long peace," the helpless nobodies, who, in a country where none starve and few beg, sleep until hunger pinches, then stroll into the woods for a meal, and return again to their slumbers.

A still worse class also infested our borders — desperadoes flying from justice, suspected or convicted felons escaped from the grasp of the law, who sought safety in the depth of the forest, or in the infancy of civil regulations. The horse-thief, the counterfeiter, and the robber, found here a secure retreat, or a new theatre for the perpetration of crime.

We have spoken, in another work, of two brothers named Harpe, who appeared in Kentucky about the year 1793, spreading death and terror wherever they went. Little else was known of them, but that they passed for brothers, and came from the borders of Virginia. They had three women with them, who were treated as their wives, and several children, with whom they traversed the mountainous and thinly settled parts of Virginia into Kentucky, marking their course with blood. Their history is wonderful, as well from the number of variety, as the incredible atrocity of their adventures.

Passing rapidly through the better settled parts of Kentucky, they proceeded to the country south of Green river, which at that time was just beginning to be inhabited.

Here they soon acquired a dreadful celebrity. Neither avarice, want, nor any of the usual inducements for the commission of crime, seemed to govern their conduct. A savage thirst for blood-a deep roots malignity against human nature, could alone be discovered in their actions. They murdered every defenceless being that fell in their way, without distinction of age, sex, or colour. In the night, they stole secretly to the cabin, slaughtered its inhabitants, and burned their dwelling — while the farmer who left his house by day, returned to witness the dying agonies of his wife and children, and the conflagration of his possessions. Plunder was not their object; travellers they robbed and murdered, but from the inhabitants they took only what would have been freely given to them, and no more than was immediately necessary to supply the wants of nature; they destroyed without having suffered injury, and without the prospect of gain. A negro boy, riding to a mill with a bag of corn, was seized by them, and his brains dashed out against a tree; but he horse which he rode, and the grain, were left unmolested. Females, children, and servants, no longer dared to stir abroad; unarmed men feared to encounter a Harpe; and the solitary hunter, as he trod the forest, looked around him with a watchful eye, and when he saw a stranger, picked his flint and stood on the defensive.

It seems incredible, that such atrocities could have been repeated in a country famed for the hardihood and gallantry of its people; in Kentucky, the cradle of courage and the nurse of warriours. But that part of Kentucky, which was the scene of these barbarities, was then almost a wilderness, and the vigilance of the Harpes for a time insured impunity. The spoils of their dreadful warfare, furnished them with the means of violence and of escape. Mounted on fine horses, they plunged into the forest, eluded pursuit by frequently changing their course, and appeared, unexpectedly, to perpetrate new enormities, at points distance from those where they were supposed to lurk. On these occasions, they often left their wives and children behind them; and it is a fact honourable to the community, that vengeance for these bloody deeds, was not wreaked on the helpless companions of the perpetrators.

A person named Meason, who also conspicuous in the early history of this region, as an audacious depredator. At that period, vast regions along the shores of the Ohio and Mississippi were still unsettled, through which, boats navigating those rivers, must necessarily pass; and the traders, who, after selling their produce at New Orleans, attempted to return by land, had to cross immense tracts of country totally destitute of inhabitants. Meason, who was a man above the ordinary stamp, in talents, manners, and stature, was both a land and a water-pirate, infesting the rivers and the woods, seldom committing murder, but robbing all who fell in his way. Sometimes he plundered the descending boats; but more frequently he allowed these to pass, preferring to plunder the owners of their money as they returned; and pleasantly remarking, that "these people were taking produce to market for him."

At a later period, the celebrated counterfeiter, Sturdevant, fixed his residence on the shore of the Ohio, in Illinois; and for several years set the laws at defiance. He was a man of talent and address. He was possessed of much mechanical genius, was an expert artist, and was skilled in some of the sciences. As an engraver, he was said to have few superiors; and he excelled in some other branches of art. For several years, he resided at a secluded spot in Illinois, where al his immediate neighbours were his confederates, or persons whose friendship he had conciliated. He could, at any time, by the blowing of a horn, summoning from fifty to a hundred armed men to his defense; while the quiet farmers around, who lived near enough to get their feelings enlisted, and who were really not at all implicated in his crimes, rejoiced in the impunity with which he practised his schemes. He was a grave, quiet, inoffensive man in his manners, who commanded the obedience of his comrades and the respect of his neighbours. He had a very excellent farm, his house was one the best in the country; his domestic arrangements were liberal and well ordered. Yet this man was the most notorious counterfeiter that ever infested our country, and carried on his nefarious art to an extent which no other person has ever attempted. His confederates were scattered over the whole western country, receiving through regular channels of intercourse, their supplies of counterfeit bank notes, for which they paid him a stipulated price — sixteen dollars in cash for a hundred dollars in counterfeit bills. His security arose, partly from his caution in not allowing his subordinates to pass a counterfeit bill, or do any other unlawful act in the state in which he live, and in his obliging them to be especially careful of their deportment in the county of his residence; measures which effectually protected him from the civil authority; for although all the counterfeit bank notes, with which a vast region was inundated, were made in his house, that fact could never be proved by legal evidence. But he secured himself further, by having a band of his lawless dependents settled around him, who were ready at all times to fight in his defence; and by his conciliatory conduct, which prevented his having any violence enemies, and even enlisted the sympathies of many reputable people in his favour. But he became a great nuisance, from the immense quantity of spurious paper which he threw into circulation; and although he never committed any acts of violence himself, and is not known to have sanctioned any, the unprincipled felons of whom he was surrounded, were guilty of many acts of desperate atrocity; and Sturdevant, though he escaped the arm of the law, was at last, with all his confederates, driven from the country by the enraged people, who rose, almost in mass, to rid themselves of one, whose presence they had long considered an evil as well as a disgrace.

James Hall. 1835. Sketches of History, Life and Manners, in the West. Philadelphia: Harrison Hall. 2:86-91.

©2000 Jon Musgrave
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