Outlaws, Rascals & Ruffians!
Presented by the Mississippi Local History Network
SAMUEL MASON and LITTLE HARPE
The Mississippi River had its pirates and there is mention of their operations from New Madrid and Chickasaw Bluffs, in the old chronicles. Emigrants were frequently waylaid and robbed of their possessions and occasionally lives were taken. While the Mississippi River had these terrors, the adventurer from the South Atlantic States had first to pass the dreaded Mussel Shoals, where the Chickamauga Indians levied tribute upon lives and property. When the right to travel the trail from Natchez to Bear Creek was obtained from the Indians, bands of highwaymen began to infest that line of travel also.
In April 1802, Governor Claiborne was informed that a band headed by Samuel Mason and Wiley Harp, had attempted to board the boat of Col. Joshua Baker between the Yazoo and Walnut Hills. The same outlaws had been operating on the trail, and for years had been robbing and committing murders. Col. Daniel Burnet was ordered to take 15 or 20 volunteers and pursue the banditti, and the United States officers at Walnut Hills and Bear Creek were asked to cooperate. A reward of $2,000 was offered for their capture. Harp seems to have separated from the band about this period of time and gone up into Kentucky.
John L. Swaney, the old mail rider on the Natchez Trace, claimed to know both Harp and Mason well. He said there were two brothers, one known as Big Harp, and the other as Little Harp. (see The Harpes] According to this authority, Big Harp, after a career of crime in Tennessee and Kentucky, was hunted down and killed by a company of men, but his brother, Little Harp, made his escape, and was undoubtedly one of the men hung at Greenville.
Mason and most of his gang made their escape from the country, if the following testimony of Swaney is to be credited. He says:
"On one of my return trips from Natchez, I fell in with the wife of young Tom Mason (according to Swaney, the elder Mason, was known as Tom Mason; he had two sons TOm and John, who, with six or eight other men composed the band), carrying a baby and a small sack of provisions in her arms. She was making for the Chickasaw Agency, to go thence to her friends. She begged me to help her on her way, which I did by placing her on my horse. I did this for a day, and made up the lost time by traveling all night. Mrs. Mason told me they were all safe and out of reach."
The usually accepted version of the death of Mason is as follows:
Two fo his band, tempted by the large reward, concerted a plan by which they might obtain it. An opportunity soon occurred; and while Mason, in company with the two conspirators, was counting out some ill-gotten plunder, a tomahawk was buried in his brain, or, according to another, he was shot, and his severed head brought to Greenville, in Jefferson County, by the two traitors. As Circuit Court was in session at the time, they went before the Judge to make their affidavit and get a certificate to the Governor. The head was duly identified by persons who knew Mason well, but before the certificate was made out, the two miscreants were recognized by two travelers whose father they had recently robbed and murdered. They first
recognized the horses of the two bandits at the tavern, where they had just alighted, and at once repaired to the court house, identified the men and demanded their arrest, declaring that they had helped rob and murder their father some two months previously on the Natchez Trace. The prisoners gave their names as Sutton and May and wre tried, convicted and hung at Greenville, being prosecuted by George Poindexter, attorney-general. The leader Mason was now dead, together with two of his gang; Harp had fled the State, and the disheartened gang dispersed, with the results that few robberies were committed thereafter in Mississippi for many years.
The above account of the death of Mason and the dispersal of his band is substantially corroborated by Thomas Reed, Esq. in his Centennial history of Jefferson county and by the historian Monette. The historian, Claiborne, seems to incline to the belief that the head brought to Greenville was not that of Mason at all, but that Mason and his gang, after the governor's proclamation were closely hunted by the whites and Indians, and after a number of narrow escapes, made their escape across the Mississippi, to somewhere about Lake Providence, in the Spanish Territory.
The account of Capt. W. L. Harper, of Jefferson County, quoted by Claiborne, is as follows:
"Governor Claiborne offered a large reward for the capture of Mason, the leader of the band that infested the road. Mason's family then resided in this county, not far from old Shankstown, and his wife was generally respected as an honest and virtuous woman, by all her neighbors, and one of her sons was a worthy citizen of Warren County not many years ago. The reward tempted two of his band to kill Mason, or someone they said was Mason, and bring in his head to Greenville for recognition. many fully identified it by certain marks thereon, except his wife, who as positively denied it. The Governor had sent his carriage for her expressly to come down and testify. But some parties had recognized in the claimants two men who, along with Mason, had robbed them but a short time before, when they were arrested, tried and hung, thus getting their reward, but not exactly in the way they sought. They gave their names as May and Sutton, and many believed Mason fled the country and died in his bed in Canada."
January 16, 1904, George Poindexter, attorney-general of the Territory, informed the acting governor that several persons were confined in the jail of Jefferson District, charged with capital offenses in the Choctaw Country, these persons being "notoriously confederates of Mason's junta, who for a length of time have infested the highway leading from this Territory to the State of Tennessee." Poindexter advised that a special session of oyer and terminer be called to dispose of the cases. There is a file in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History as interesting record, in French, of the trial for Samuel Mason for Robbery at New Madrid in January 1803.
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