The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock_
Nineteen and Twenty Four_
Otto A. Rothert_
Then, as now, a number of dangerous channels existed in the Ohio and Mississippi. They were designated as such in The Navigator. Near the head of some of them lived reliable settlers who made it a business to pilot boats through for pay. Pirates frequently succeeded in passing themselves off as trustworthy local pilots. Boats turned over to such men for safe steering were usually grounded and immediately thereafter delivered into the hands of outlaws in waiting.
The Purpose Of This Narrative_
This book is intended to give the authentic story of the famous Cave-in-Rock of the lower Ohio River, as collected from historic and romantic sources, and to present verified accounts of the most notorious of those highwaymen and river pirates who in the early days of the middle West and South filled the Mississippi basin with the alarm and terror of their crimes and exploits.
All the criminals herein treated made their headquarters at one time or another in this famous cavern. It became a natural, safe hiding-place for the pirates who preyed on the flatboat traffic before the days of steamboats. It came also to serve the same purpose for highwaymen infesting the old Natchez Trace and other land trails north and south.
A century ago and more, its rock-ribbed walls echoed the drunken hilarity of villains and witnessed the death struggles of many a vanished man. Today this former haunt of criminals is as quiet as a tomb. Nothing is left in the Cave to indicate the outrages that were committed there in the olden days.
One state historian of our own times—Parrish, of Illinois—thus describes it: “The gruesome spot, which in those old border days witnessed many a scene of revelry and bloodshed, is today no more than a curiosity, its past victims, white and black, forgotten. Just below it, where, in 1801, there stood one lone cabin, there is today a thrifty village.” In a sense the victims have been forgotten; yet they survive in the true stories of such of them as the preserved records can be made to disclose.
The story of the Harpes is more than that of mere criminals. They were arch-criminals among criminals, apparently loving murder for its own sake. There was a time when the whole of Kentucky and Tennessee was terrorized at the possibility of their appearance at any hour in any locality. Samuel Mason (or Meason) the Wilsons, and others, measured up more nearly to the standard of true highwaymen and pirates. If they had lived in England their careers would have closed on Tyburn Hill or at the rope’s end on “Execution Dock.” The stories of James Ford show that his real classification must forever remain largely a mystery.
Any history of these outlaws would doubtless be looked upon as wild fiction unless the statements were carefully verified by court records and contemporary newspaper notices, and the records of early writers who gathered the facts regarding them when these facts were told by men and women who lived at the time the atrocities were committed. The adage that “truth is stranger than fiction” is exemplified fully in their careers.
The lives and exploits of these men constitute an important phase in pioneer life because their deeds greatly affected the settlement of the new country. Dread of them brought peaceful settlers together in communities and helped to hasten the establishment of law and order. Their histories are therefore a part of the history of the country. The historian who passes them over as mere blood-and-thunder tales misses entirely one of the high lights in the great adventure of the settling of the Mississippi basin.
Owing to the sparse population and the great distances between settlements in the West, the early accounts of these criminals and their crimes were subject to change and to the effects of terrorizing rumor. In time the deeds of one would be attributed to another, and the circumstances of one crime confounded with others. In the main, however, tradition preserved a generally consistent story. Here and there men like James Hall and the editors of early newspapers preserved accounts of them and so blazed the way to court records and approximated the dates for private archives to be consulted. The pages that follow contain the result of years of patient investigation of these records and of archives that have never been published.
Numbers in brackets inserted in the text refer to the authorities as numbered in the bibliography.
Otto A. Rothert
Louisville, Kentucky, March 17, 1923
The Lair of the Outlaws_
Nature has set her own seal of wonder and immortality upon some of her works. The cavern of Cave-in-Rock, on the northern bank of the lower Ohio River, bears such a seal. Lacking the adventitious aids of immensity, depth, and remoteness, it was regarded with religious interest in the vague traditions of the aborigines, and has excited the curiosity, aroused the imagination and stirred the fear of white men since they first discovered it. The Cave has been at once noted and notorious, famous and infamous, and it remains today, through all the changing years and diversities of its use, actual or attributed, practically unchanged, still challenging curiosity, surprise, fear, and admiration.
The scenery above and below the Cave attracted the attention of the earliest western travelers. Much deforestation has taken place during the past century, but the landscapes along the banks of that section of the Ohio stand today, as they did in the olden days, unsurpassed by any other along the river’s course. The mouth of the Cave is in a high bluff overlooking the Ohio, which is the central link in a chain of majestic landscapes. It seems almost a paradox that a spot so beautified by nature should have been made the headquarters of outlaws, and the scene of much that was hideous in crime.
Pioneers in the West were likely at any time to encounter wild animals or to be forced to battle with plundering or revenge-seeking Indians. Whether traveling overland trails or upon navigable streams, the first-comers in the middle West were always in danger of highway robbers or river pirates. The cruelest of all highwaymen were the Harpes and the shrewdest of the river pirates were the Masons.
Cave-in-Rock’s history as a rendezvous of outlaws does not begin until about 1795. The date of the discovery by white men has not been ascertained. The earliest record found is in The History of New France, by Charlevoix, in 1744. It includes Bellin’s Map of Louisiana presenting the general course of the Ohio, drawn from observations made by M. de Lery. When this explorer came down the river in 1729 he noted the location of the Cave by referring to it as “Caverne dans le Roc.” After 1778 it is indicated on many English and American maps. Early travelers designated it by various names, each of which, except “House of Nature,” contained the word “cave.” Since 1800, Cave-in-Rock has been practically the only name applied.
The early French called the Ohio “La Belle Riviere.” In the days of primeval forests it was one of the most beautiful streams in the world. Evidences of its former grandeur are nowhere so well retained as in the neighborhood of Cave-in-Rock. The last of the giants of the forests standing on the bluffs and in the bottoms along the river will some day disappear, but Cave-in-Rock will defy time and its changes, and ever stand as a reminder of the days when wilderness was king.
Cave-in-Rock is in Hardin County, Illinois, about twenty miles below Shawneetown and twenty miles above Golconda, or about eighty-five miles below Evansville, Indiana, and fifty miles above Paducah, Kentucky. It is about two and one-half miles below Ford’s Ferry and a half mile above the village of Cave-in-Rock. Its position commands a long view up and down the Ohio River. It has a large and dark tunnel-like opening extending into a gray limestone bluff which is partly hidden by shrubbery and small trees. Whether one sees it while passing in a boat or approaching it from the shore the view invariably stirs the beholder. It has the appearance of a large arched crypt, imbedded in solid rock. It is a “house” built by Nature, and is as solid as Gibraltar. It is sphynx-like in its silence, and bewilders those who enter.
The mouth is an arched opening, semi-elliptical in form, about fifty-five feet wide at the base. The cavern extends back horizontally one hundred and sixty feet with an almost uniform width of forty feet. The walls and roof, which change to more or less of an ellipse near the mouth, again change near the center into a semi-ellipse and retain that curvature to the end. The ceiling is horizontal throughout its length, while the floor, beginning about seventy-five feet from the entrance, gradually inclines upward toward the rear, and at the extreme end comes within a few feet of the arched ceiling. At this end there is a hole large enough to permit a man to climb out into a sinkhole in the surface above. The upward incline of the floor in the rear is due to a deposit of earth, washed there during the past half-century by water coming down through the sinkhole during heavy rains. Near the middle of the ceiling are two perpendicular crevices with an average width of less than a foot, extending across and beyond the Cave, and upward to within about fifteen feet of the surface of the cliff. One of these narrow crevices has, near the center, a chimney-like opening sufficiently large to admit a man. It leads to a rough-walled enlargement about four feet wide and ten feet high. This small place is known as the “upper cave,” and has a history and fiction of its own.
In the lower part of what may be designated the lower lip of the mouth-like opening is a large, level, wedge-shaped space about five feet lower than the floor of the Cave. At its outer extremity this wedge-shaped space is almost as wide as the mouth itself, but rapidly tapers inward to a width of about four feet. It then continues back into the mouth about twenty-five feet through the solid rock, in the form of an excavated channel or passage about three and one-half feet wide. This narrow channel, about five feet deep at the beginning, inclines upward until it reaches the general level of the floor of the Cave. The top of the rock on either side of the excavation is level and resembles a platform. These two platforms or stage-like floors extend inward and, like the inclined passage, soon reach the general level of the Cave. This excavated channel and the part of the wedge-shaped space from which it leads may have been made by men, but whether by Indians or early whites is not known. It may possibly be the result of erosion.
At a normal stage of the river the mouth of the Cave is, measured in the perpendicular, about half-way between the top of the bluff and the water’s edge. In spring the river frequently comes up to within a few feet of the opening. When the water is extremely high it enters; during great floods there is ample depth to row a skiff the entire length of the Cave.
Such is Cave-in-Rock today, and such it was in pioneer times, except that in the rear a deposit of earth had not been washed in, and that large trees, which stood in front of the mouth and hid or partly concealed it, have long since disappeared. It was an ideal lair for river outlaws; it furnished shelter and gave them every advantage over passing travelers.
In March, 1766, John Jennings, a Philadelphia merchant, going down the Ohio with a cargo of goods for Fort de Chartres, Illinois, notes in his Journal that he stopped for an hour near “a large rock with a cave in it,” some twenty-five miles below the mouth of the Wabash River. The earliest record of a homeseeking pioneer who came to the Cave-in-Rock country and there began an overland trip into Illinois dates back to about 1780, when Captain Nathaniel Hull, of Massachusetts, appeared at what later became Ford’s Ferry. “He and several other young men,” writes Governor John Reynolds in his Pioneer History of Illinois, “descended the Ohio to a point near Ford’s Ferry on that river [for a while known as Hull’s Landing and later as Robin’s Ferry] and came across by land to Kaskaskia.... At this day the Indians were not hostile as afterwards, so that Hull and party escaped through the wilderness without injury.” Nor had any white man as yet practiced piracy on the lower Ohio.
Victor Collot, a French engineer, is one of the first writers who stopped at the Cave and published a brief description of it. He knew of its existence long before he arrived, for his book, A Journey in America, shows that he had planned to stop at the “Big Cave,” and did so in the summer of 1796 when he went down the river to New Orleans.
A few months later the place was visited by Andrew Ellicott, then on his way to Natchez for the purpose of determining the boundary line between the United States and Spain. An entry in his Journal, dated December 15, 1796, shows he “dined at the Great Cave ... one of the greatest natural curiosities on the river.”
On April 16, 1797, Francis Baily, the English astronomer, stopped there. His Journal of a Tour in the Unsettled Parts of North America contains a few pages on the “Big Cave.” Among other things he says, “its entrance was on a landing-place. It had somewhat the appearance of an immense oven. We entered it and found the sides very damp.... We beheld a number of names cut in the sides of the cave, which in this solitary place, and cut off as we were from society, gave us a degree of pleasure to look over.” Baily apparently heard of no outlaws during his short stay. This probably was due to the fact that his visit was made at a time when the Cave was very damp, as is frequently the case in spring. Had he appeared later, he might not have survived to tell of his interesting travels in America, for during the greater part of the year 1797 the place was occupied by the notorious Mason family.
Perrin du Lac, in his Travels through the two Louisianas, writes that he embarked at Pittsburgh, April 22, 1802, “in a pirogue thirty feet long and three feet broad” and that a few weeks later he stopped at the Cave. He says “it is considered one of the greatest natural curiosities in North America.”
The first detailed description of Cave-in-Rock ever printed, as far as now known, appeared in one of the earliest editions of Zadok Cramer’s The Ohio and Mississippi Navigator and was republished in the appendix of Journal of a Tour, 1805, by Thaddeus M. Harris without credit to Cramer.
Thomas Ashe, an unreliable English traveler, wrote an account of Cave-in-Rock shortly after the Cramer or the so-called Harris description was published, and at a time when reports of some of the early robberies that had been committed there were still in fresh circulation. His book entitled Travels in America performed in 1806, contains a chapter of fabrications headed “Cave in the Rock, Ohio Bank, September, 1806.”
In July, 1807, Christian Schultz, then a young man, started from Pittsburgh down the Ohio in a flatboat. He arrived at “The Cave in the Rock” about October 1, continued his trip to New Orleans, and returned, via ship, to New York. In his Travels on an Inland Voyage, he devotes a few pages to the Cave, saying, among other things:
“It is a very curious cavern.... I could not help observing what a very convenient situation this would be for a hermit, or for a convent of monks.... I have no doubt that it has been the dwelling of some person or persons, as the marks of smoke and likewise some wooden hooks affixed to the walls sufficiently prove. Formerly, perhaps, it was inhabited by Indians; but since, with more probability, by a gang of that banditti, headed by Mason and others, who, a few years ago, infested this part of the country and committed a great number of robberies and murders....”
Fortesque Cuming, an unprejudiced Englishman, wrote in his Tour to the Western Country that the Cave is “one of the finest grottoes or caverns I have ever seen.” This interesting traveler, in January, 1807, proceeded to Maysville, Kentucky, by boat, and from there made horseback trips to central Kentucky and Ohio. Returning to Pittsburgh, he started, on May 7, down the Ohio in a flatboat for New Orleans. From old Bruinsburg, a few miles above Natchez, he visited old Greenville. In this town about three years before, one of the Cave-in-Rock outlaws had been convicted under unusual circumstances and hanged and buried in an unusual manner. When traveling by boat Cuming always carried a few skiffs in order to get ashore more easily. On May 18, 1807, a few minutes after passing the head of Cave-in-Rock Island, he landed at what is known as Cave Spring, a cave-like opening a few hundred yards above Cave-in-Rock from which a strong spring of water constantly flows. This crevice in Cave-in-Rock bluff is about nine feet high, three feet wide, and extends back some forty feet. Cuming at first mistook it for the famous Cave, as has been done by more than one traveler since his day. In his sketch pertaining to his visit to Cave-in-Rock he writes:
“Rowing along shore [below Cave Spring] with the skiff, we were soon undeceived as to that’s being the Rocking Cave, as a third of a mile lower down, one of the finest grottoes or caverns I have ever seen opened suddenly to view, resembling the choir of a large church as we looked directly into it. We landed immediately under it and entered it. It is natural, but it is evidently improved by art in the cutting of an entrance three feet wide through the rock in the very center, leaving a projection on each hand, excavated above to the whole breadth of the cavern, the projections resembling galleries.... It is crowned by large cedars, and black and white oaks, some of which impend over, and several beautiful shrubs and flowers, particularly very rich columbines, are thickly scattered all around the entrance.... Standing on the outside, the appearance of some of the company at the inner end of the cave was truly picturesque, they being diminished on the eye to half their size, and removed to three times their real distance.
“There is a perpendicular rocky bluff just opposite the lower end of Cave Island, about two hundred yards above the Cave, where the river narrows to less than half a mile wide, forming a fine situation for fortification.”
Thomas Nuttall probably was the last distinguished traveler who came down the Ohio in a flatboat and commented on the Cave. In his Journal of Travels into the Arkansa Territory he states that he and his party left Shawneetown December 14, 1818. After floating a short distance they came up with three other flatboats and, lashing them together, proceeded upon an all-night journey. He further comments: “The river is here very wide and magnificent and chequered with many islands. The banks of Battery Rock, Rock-in-Cave, and other places are bold and rocky with bordering cliffs. The Occidental wilderness appears to here retain its primeval solitude; its gloomy forests are yet unbroken by the hand of man; they are only penetrated by the wandering hunter and the roaming savage.”
The early western travelers already cited, and a number of their contemporaries and followers who saw the Cave, published descriptions or references that agree in the main, but each, in his own way, was evidently more impressed by certain of its various features than were some of the others who visited the place. A few speculated upon it as an Indian temple of prehistoric times. Some commented upon it from a geological standpoint. A number were especially interested in the names they found carved on the walls; some in the trees that grew around the opening. Others dwelt upon it as a rendezvous of outlaws.
For what various purposes the Cave may have been used in prehistoric times by Mound-builders and Indians, or even Cave Dwellers, is a question for archaeologists and ethnologists. There is far less physical evidence to indicate a previous presence of robbers and counterfeiters than there is to prove that the place was inhabited by prehistoric man. A rusty home-made dagger blade and a part of a counterfeiter’s mold are the only relics that point toward the outlaw occupancy. On the other hand, five well-defined mound sites in the level fields above Cave-in-Rock bluff, and the many flint and stone implements picked up during the past century in and near the Cave indicate beyond doubt the former presence of Indians and Mound-builders. In April, 1918, Robert L. Yeakey, while spading his garden on this bluff, unearthed a carved stone image, six inches high and four inches wide, weighing two pounds, six ounces, representing a man in squatting position. The probability that the image is an idol gives strength to the inference that the Cave was used as a temple some time in the prehistoric past.
The mounds are additional evidence to this effect. These were opened many years ago and have since been plowed over often. Each contained, it is said, from five to ten human skeletons. The bodies had been placed in a stone-walled sepulcher that was covered with flags of stone a few inches thick, over which a circular mound of earth was thrown. The fact that each of these mounds contained a number of skeletons, apparently placed there at one time, leads many to the conclusion that a battle, or battles, must have been fought in or near the Cave and that all, or some, of the dead were buried together. Scientists advance a plausible explanation of this: “We know not if these burials indicate famine, pestilence, war, or unholy sacrifice. We can only conjecture that they were not graves of persons who had died a natural death.” Because of the Cave’s temple-like form and its proximity to these old mounds, it appears more probable that they were erected in connection with the ceremony of “unholy sacrifice” than for any of the three other suggested causes.
The Harris description of the Cave, written about 1803, refers to it as “the habitation of the Great Spirit.” Some thirty years later, Edmund Flagg, in The Far West, written after his visit to “Rock-Inn-Cave,” says: “Like all other curiosities of Nature, this cavern was, by the Indian tribes, deemed the residence of a Manito, or spirit, evil or propitious, concerning whom many a wild legend yet lives among their simple-hearted posterity. They never pass the dwelling place of the divinity without discharging their guns (an ordinary mark of respect) or making some other offering propitiatory of his favor.”
From official records we learn that the section of the country in which Cave-in-Rock is embraced was sold, in 1803, to the United States by the Kaskaskia tribe. In 1818, when the sale was confirmed by the same Indians and the three other tribes then constituting the Illinois confederacy, it became unchallenged government property. Thus, when the Masons, the Harpes, and other early outlaws held forth there, it was still in the Indians’ territory.
From a geological standpoint, the Cave is evidently nothing more than a prosaic hole in a limestone bluff. In neither the main cave nor the crevices above are there any stalactites or stalagmites, but an incrustation resembling such a formation occurs here and there on the walls. In 1818, Henry R. Schoolcraft, in his Personal Memoirs, says: “The cave itself is a striking object for its large and yawning mouth, but to the geologist presents nothing novel.” Collot, in 1796, expressed the opinion that “it is an excavation made in the rocks by the continual beating of the flood.” In a Report published in 1866, A. H. Worthen, director of the Geological Survey of Illinois, states that “the limestone (St. Louis limestone) is quite cherty and the Cave has probably been formed by the action of water percolating through crevices of the rock and by the eroding influences of the atmosphere.” Neither of these explanations is satisfactory. No other has been found. Cave-in-Rock has the appearance of a section of a large cave that was formed by an underground stream in some remote geological age, and later disconnected, by upheavals, from the other parts of the subterranean passage. Some of the other parts may still exist. Sulphur Springs Cave, four miles southwest of Equality, may be one. Bigsby Cave, eight miles north of Cave-in-Rock, may be another. Hardin County is besprinkled with many sinkholes, the outlets of which are unknown. The “Big Sink,” four miles north of the Cave, covers about one hundred acres. Cave-in-Rock may have been an outlet for some of these sinkholes until upheavals made such drainage impossible.
In early days the virgin forests retarded, to a great extent, the water of the heavy rains, and as a result floods were less frequent and less severe. It is probable that when Cave-in-Rock and the country about were covered with trees the place was damper than now, for the water then slowly seeped down from the tree-covered surface. Nevertheless, it was sufficiently dry to serve as a good shelter not only for outlaws, who frequently occupied it, but also for men and women going down the river in flatboats.
Today it is comparatively dry, except during the spring and shortly after a heavy rain. Practically all the water running through the Cave now comes from a narrow crevice in the rear, which drains a small sinkhole in the surface. Through this opening, as already stated, much soil has been deposited in the back part of the Cave during the past fifty years. Nature has made practically no changes in the Cave itself since its discovery by white men, but the landscape has been affected by the removal of the large trees that once shaded its mouth. A decrepit sycamore, an ash or two, a few small maple trees, some scrub cedars, and some Virginia creeper constitute the only vegetation now growing around the opening.
The travelers who visited Cave-in-Rock in flatboat days gave the place more time and thought than did those who appeared after the introduction of steamboats. The New Orleans, or Orleans, which was the first steam-propelled boat to make a trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, passed it in 1811. Not until fully five years thereafter was the practicability of navigating the Ohio by steamboats satisfactorily demonstrated. Local tradition has it that the James Monroe, coming down in 1816, was the first steamboat to land at the Cave. Thomas Nuttall, who appeared on the scene two years later, was, as already stated, one of the last distinguished men who floated down the river in a flatboat and commented on the place. Leisure was an inseparable feature of flatboat travel. With the coming of steamboats the lingering of travelers along the river became a thing of the past. After 1820 comparatively few boats of any kind stopped at the Cave. Boats became more numerous, but whether propelled by steam or oars, they traveled not only faster but through a country rapidly increasing in population, and passengers and crew stopping in this section found better shelter elsewhere. But Cave-in-Rock was ever pointed out as a place that “in days gone by” had been the den of flatboat robbers. Counterfeiters and other outlaws, however, operated in the neighborhood until as late as 1832.
The earliest record of a professional artist making a sketch of the Cave dates back to May, 1819, when Major Stephen H. Long came down the Ohio on the steamer Western Engineer, on his way to his Rocky Mountains exploring expedition. In his notes on “Cave-Inn-Rock or House of Nature” he gives a description of the Cave, and says that Samuel Seymour, the official artist of the expedition, “sketched two views of the entrance.” Edwin James’s account of this expedition contains many of Seymour’s pictures, but none of places east of the Mississippi. Efforts made in Washington to locate his original sketches were without success.
Edmund Flagg, a traveler, journalist, and poet, who lived the greater part of his life in Louisville and St. Louis, spent a short time at the Cave in 1836, while on a steamboat trip gathering material for his book, The Far West. He gives some of the history of the outlaws of “Cave-Inn-Rock” and then describes the Cave and the Island. He says the place furnishes “a scene of natural beauty worthy an Inman’s pencil” and that “if I mistake not an engraving of the spot has been published: a ferocious-looking personage, pistol in hand, crouched at the entrance, eagerly watching a descending boat.”
Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied, writes May 19, 1833: “We embarked on the Paragon steamboat at Shawneetown ... and after passing Cave-in-Rock Island, a long wooded island, we glided past Cave-in-Rock, a cavern which has been drawn by Lesueur.” Lesueur’s drawing was made about 1825. It is an interior view looking out over the river and conveys a good idea of the Cave’s size and form. However, the opening to the small upper cavity and the leaning pole for climbing into it are placed a little too far to the left.
Maximilian was accompanied by his artist, Charles Bodmer, who, during the course of his travels in North America, made eighty-one pictures, all of which were published in 1843 in the Maximilian Atlas. Most of these drawings pertain to the life of the Indians of the Upper Missouri, and stand today as the first and best record of the costumes of these tribes. Among the subjects presented is his Cave-in-Rock picture, one of the two early views of the Cave now available. Bodmer probably drew it from memory. It shows a landscape interesting in itself, but it is an absolutely misleading presentation of the actual scene. From no point or angle does the view appear as drawn by him, or even suggest such a scene. By the ordinary working of nature no such changes could have been brought about in many centuries. The mouth of the Cave is near the lower end of a long bluff of almost uniform height and opposite the lower end of Cave-in-Rock Island. A camera picture of the lower end of this bluff, made in 1917, appears among the illustrations in this book. Bodmer’s view places the opening in a short bluff that is more or less cone-shaped and opposite or above the head of an island. When high water reaches the mouth of the Cave, as is shown by Bodmer, then Cave-in-Rock Island is submerged many feet and its banks cannot possibly be seen. This picture occurs in a number of books, but without any comments on its gross inaccuracy. Some reproducers have taken the liberty of adding a setting sun in the background.
In 1916, J. Bernhard Alberts, of Louisville, made an impressionistic painting of the mouth of the Cave. His painting is true to the scene as it was at the time of his visit. He also drew a pencil sketch showing a general view of the interior with the inner edge of the mouth in the immediate foreground, the artist’s point of view being from just outside the mouth.
Piracy and Rough Life on the River_
It is not clear when Cave-in-Rock first became the headquarters of the criminals who flourished on the Ohio, and preyed upon primitive commerce and travel between Pittsburgh and the Lower Mississippi. Shortly after the Revolution was under way, renegades from eastern communities, corrupt stragglers from the American army, and villains who had had their brutal training in western wilds, began to seek in the Ohio valley refuge from the more orderly and well settled communities. Samuel Mason, who had been an officer in the Continental army, converted the cavern into an inn as early as 1797. While he occupied the Cave, and a few years thereafter, it was known as “Cave-Inn-Rock.” It was ideally located. Every passing boat must reveal itself to those in the Cave who had a long, clear view up and down the river. A lookout could detect boats long before boatmen could perceive the Cave. The bold beauty of the bluff made it pleasant for the boats to run in near the sharply shelving shore, and many travelers were thus simply and easily delivered into the hands of the banditti. As an inn, where drink and rest could be had, it decoyed them; as a scene for shrouded crime it was perfect.
The earliest travelers on the western rivers floated or propelled themselves with paddles and oars in small, clumsy craft. The Indian canoe or pirogue was heavy, but was managed with skill by those accustomed to its use. With the growing stream of settlers and the increasing number of settlements along the Ohio and Mississippi, there arose a necessity for larger craft that would bear heavier burdens. This brought the flatboat era covering the period from 1795 to 1820—that quarter of a century known as the Golden Age of Flatboating. During that era river piracy was at its height. The lighter boats, pirogues, skiffs, and batteaux were to the clumsy rafts and flatboats bearing heavy cargoes what submarines and torpedo boats have been to the heavier ships in later warfare. Inland piracy had its advantage in using the small craft on dark nights for sudden descents and escapes.
In the midst of this period the stately steamboat age began its development. It was inaugurated in 1811 when the first steam-propelled “water-walker” made its laborious and astonishing way from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. By 1820 steamboats had become a dependable factor in traffic, and were, to river travel, what the railroad train was later to become to the slow stagecoach and freight wagon. It was inevitable that under steamboat influence flatboats of all types—arks, broadhorns, Orleans boats, keel-boats, and flat-bottomed barges—would follow the primitive pirogues, skiffs, and batteaux into retirement, except for neighborhood use. River piracy waned with the conditions it preyed upon, but not until about 1830 did it cease utterly.
In society, as in nature, everything develops with opportunity and disappears according to necessity. In the primitive age of river craft many travelers were captured or killed by Indians bent on revenge or pillage. These marauders were sometimes led by white renegades. Later, pioneers floating down the Ohio or Mississippi on flatboats came in contact with comparatively few savages, but were exposed to a far more daring and dangerous enemy in the form of river pirates—white men, many of them descendants of supposedly civilized European families. These disappeared as the population increased. Then ensued the reign of the more diplomatic river pirates—the professional gamblers who, for a half century, used cards and other gaming devices as instruments with which to rob those who ventured into their society.
Such were the types of craft and men operating upon and infesting the rivers in the early days. The country through which these boats moved was not the country we see today. Changes in the shapes and channels of the rivers have been numerous, only the rock-defined reaches preserving their original contours. Appearances in detail have greatly changed. The wonderful unbroken forests are gone. Where they once stood are now fields and farms or cut-over forests; every few miles there is a town. The river channels once mysterious and uncertain are now carefully charted.
Early voyageurs going down the river had, of course, no guides and there were no known marks to indicate their approach to any of the features of the river as it wound through the wild, uninhabited country. The boatmen who came afterwards carrying maps rudely scratched, found them unsatisfactory because of inaccuracies or lack of detail. Not until a handbook was made available, after some years of careful compilation of river features, could the uninitiated navigate the large rivers with any degree of safety.
The numerous charts in The Navigator show the curves, islands, sandbars, eddies, and channels, and mark the location of towns and many other places of significance. The accompanying text contains instructions of value to the boatman, and historical data of interest. It is curious, however, that no section of either the Mississippi or Ohio is designated as one where outlaws were likely to be encountered—not even Cave-in-Rock nor the mouth of Cache River, which were long considered the most dangerous resorts on the Ohio. In every edition of The Navigator about a page is devoted to a description of the Cave and instructions to boatmen passing it, but there is no reference to its grim history. Zadok Cramer was evidently a practical man, with no eye to the speculative. It was not until 1814 that he added a few lines bearing on the Cave’s “economic” history:
“This cavern sometimes serves as a temporary abode for those wanting shelter, in case of shipwreck, or other accident, which happen on the river near it. Families have been known to reside here tolerably comfortable from the northern blasts of winter. The mouth of this cave was formerly sheltered, and nearly hid by some trees growing in front of it, but the rude axe has leveled them to the earth and the cavern is exposed to the open view of the passenger. Emigrants from the states, twenty-seven years ago used to land here and wagon their goods across the Illinois country, it not being more than one hundred and twenty miles from this place to Kaskaskia on the Mississippi.”
The Cave, of course, had more than criminal uses. How on one occasion it served as a “temporary abode for those wanting shelter” is recorded in The American Pioneer, published in 1842. In this magazine Dr. Samuel P. Hildreth, under the title of “History of a Voyage from Marietta to New Orleans in 1805,” gives an interesting account of the schooner Nonpareil and her voyage south, based on data furnished him by members of her crew. The boat was built at Marietta and started down the river April 21, 1805. She was a sea-going vessel intended to run on the lakes near New Orleans. The captain doubtless steered his course by a copy of The Navigator. We quote from Hildreth’s account of what the crew found in 1805 at the well-known lair of outlaws:
“As the Nonpareil approached near the mouth of this dreaded cave, a little after twilight, they were startled at seeing the bright blaze of a fire at its entrance. Knowing of its former fame as the den of a band of robbers, they could not entirely suppress the suspicion it awoke in their minds of its being again occupied for the same purpose. Nevertheless, as they had previously determined not to pass this noted spot without making it a visit, they anchored the schooner a little distance from the shore and landed in the skiff. Being well armed with pistols they marched boldly up to the cavern where, instead of being greeted with the rough language and scowling visages of a band of robbers, they found the cave occupied by smiling females and sportive children. A part of the women were busily occupied with their spinning wheels, while others prepared the evening meal. Their suspicions were not, however, fully removed by all these appearances of domestic peace, still thinking that the men must be secreted in some hidden corner of the cave ready to fall on them unawares. On a little further conversation they found the present occupants of the dreaded cave consisted of four young emigrant families from Kentucky going to settle in Illinois. The females were yet in the bloom of life. Their husbands had bought or taken up lands a few miles back from the river, and after moving their families and household goods to this spot had returned to their former residences to bring out their cattle, in the meantime leaving their wives and children in the occupancy of the cave till their return.
“Having brought, with their spinning wheels and looms, an abundance of flax, the women spent the weary days of their husbands’ absence in the useful employment of spinning. A large fire in the mouth of the cave gave cheerfulness to the gloomy spot and enabled them, at night, to proceed with their labors, while its bright rays were reflected upon the looms, beds, and household utensils which lay piled up along the side of the cave. By day the sun afforded them light, the mouth of the cave being capacious and elevated, while the roof sheltered them from the rain. They were in daily expectation of the arrival of their husbands, when they would move out on to their farms in company.
“A little conversation soon dissipated all suspicions of harm from the minds of their visitors ... and, borrowing from them a torch, they explored the hidden recesses of the cave. At this time no vestige of its former occupants remained but a few scattered barrel staves, and the traces of their fires against the blackened sides of the rock. The walls, even at that early day, were thickly scored with the names of former visitors, to which they hastily added their own, and thousands have no doubt been added since. Bidding a warm farewell to this singular and solitary community, they entered their boat, greatly wondering at the courage and confidence of these lonely females. Their surprise, however, in a manner subsided when they reflected that they were the daughters of Kentucky and from the land of Daniel Boone.”
The Nonpareil experienced no trouble with river pirates, but was wrecked during a storm on the Mississippi and never reached her proposed destination. So, in one form or another, every flatboat and other early river craft suffered more or less trouble. History records many robberies and other misfortunes, but its pages also show that, notwithstanding the numerous trials and tribulations, early river life, rough as it was, was more of a romance than a tragedy. Going down the Ohio and Mississippi proved, in many instances, “easy sailing” compared to the flatboatman’s overland trip north over the Natchez Trace and other wilderness roads infested with highwaymen.
The usual plan of the river robbers was to station one or two of their men and women at some prominent place on shore to hail a passing boat. These decoys pleaded to be taken aboard, claiming they were alone in the wilderness and wished to go to some settlement further down the river, or that they desired to purchase certain necessities which they lacked. If the boat was thus enticed ashore, the crew saw their cargo unloaded, and plundered, or beheld their craft continue its course down the river in the hands of the enemy, themselves held as hostages or murdered.
Boat wreckers were another common source of great danger. Under one pretext or another they managed to get aboard the boat and scuttle it near a place where their confederates were prepared to make an attack. Or, like Colonel Fluger, they waited until they found a boat tied along the bank and then bored holes in the bottom or dug out the caulking. When the ill-fated boat began to sink, the fellow-wreckers rushed to the rescue and appropriated the goods for their own use, killing part or all the crew if necessary.
Then, as now, a number of dangerous channels existed in the Ohio and Mississippi. They were designated as such in The Navigator. Near the head of some of them lived reliable settlers who made it a business to pilot boats through for pay. Pirates frequently succeeded in passing themselves off as trustworthy local pilots. Boats turned over to such men for safe steering were usually grounded and immediately thereafter delivered into the hands of outlaws in waiting.
One of the dangerous channels, against which voyageurs were warned by The Navigator, ran from the head of Walker’s Bar (a bar beginning about two miles below Cave-in-Rock) down to Tower Rock, and from there extended to the foot of Hurricane Island, a total distance of about eight miles. The author of the river guide, after devoting considerable space to directions for navigating this channel and avoiding the Hurricane Bars, adds a suggestion: “Just below the Cave, on the right bank, there is a person who is sometimes employed to pilot boats through this serpentine channel, and it is better for a stranger to pay a dollar or two for this purpose, than run the risk of grounding on either one or the other of these bars in low water. When the water is high there is no occasion for a director.”
The outlaws at Cave-in-Rock turned to their advantage the suggestion published in The Navigator. About ten miles above the Cave, near Battery Rock, or on what has long since been called the Jonathan Brown Old Place, the robbers stationed a man who offered to pilot, for a small sum, single boats or small fleets through this “serpentine channel.” He explained that the person referred to by The Navigator as living “just below the Cave” was out on a visit and would not return for a week or more. In the event the first man failed, another, standing ready a few miles further down at Ford’s Ferry, offered his services. The pilot who succeeded in being employed grounded the boat in front of the Cave if, by the time he reached the place, he judged the cargo was worth the risk and the crew could be overpowered. If more time was required, he guided the boat to the head of Hurricane Island. There it was either wrecked or taken safely through the channel, the procedure depending on whether or not he judged a profitable robbery possible. Boatmen who declined to take a pilot aboard at Battery Rock or Ford’s Ferry were likely, if the water was comparatively low, to inquire for a director “just below the Cave.” The man procured there, whether a member of the Cave band or not, invariably guided the boat safely through. Thus by helping to maintain one reputable and reliable place near the Cave for procuring the services of a pilot, the robbers experienced little trouble in trapping the boats they selected for that purpose.
Although most of the prospective victims were given little consideration until after they had come within ten or twenty miles of the Cave, in a number of instances the river pirates began setting a trap for a boat long before it arrived at Shawneetown.
The fact that the victims were piloted to the Cave by certain members of a band, or enticed into the place by some other means for the sole purpose of robbery, is recorded by many early writers; none of them, however, gives any details. All authors who touch on the Cave’s history publish statements based on what other men and women heard other people had experienced while in the hands of the outlaws. Only one instance has been found in which the victim himself (Dr. Charles H. Webb) recited to an author the details of how he was decoyed to the Cave and how he escaped from the men then occupying the place. The old flatboat robbers and flatboat wreckers left no first-hand accounts of the methods they employed.
The year 1788 roughly marks the beginning of the big inflow of settlers into the region west of the Alleghenies, also the beginning of counterfeiting and other outlawry at Cave-in-Rock. Many travelers and home-seekers followed the trails and went into the interior afoot, on horseback, or in wagons; others took the river to some river point and either settled there, or proceeded overland to an inland section. Thus, by “long lines of wagons” and “great fleets of boats” the middle West became settled. In the meantime many a small party traveled alone over the trails or drifted down the river in a single boat or in a small fleet, into the new and sparsely populated country, and became easy prey for highway robbers or river pirates who were likely to appear at any time and in any disguise.
The earliest connection of the Cave with the name of any outlaw who became famous was in 1797, when Samuel Mason, of Revolutionary fame and hideous fate, seems to have occupied it as a main trap for his carefully worked out scheme of river piracy on a large scale. He erected a great rude sign on the river bank near the mouth of the Cave, proclaiming to every passerby that his “Liquor Vault and House for Entertainment” was open to the public. Many captains and their crews and many flatboat passengers were lured to it. After Mason and his family left for the South, most of the succeeding bands, during their necessarily short stay, operated a gambling and drinking place on the same principle.
It was a common practice among outlaws frequently to change not only their headquarters but their names. While at Cave-in-Rock Mason was also known as “Wilson.” Thomas Ashe, who wrote about it, probably did not know that the Wilson he described was Samuel Mason. Among the various men who appeared after the departure of Samuel Mason, alias “Wilson,” was one Jim Wilson. Whether Jim Wilson was his real name is not known. However, between Samuel Mason as “Wilson” and a later man known as “Jim Wilson” there has been more or less confusion for almost a century, especially in tradition. In 1897 William Courtney Watts wrote a historical romance, Chronicles of a Kentucky Settlement, in which he presents James Ford, of Ford’s Ferry notoriety, as “James Wilson.” James Ford was in no way connected with Mason or with Wilson, but his presentation under the fictitious name of “James Wilson” had added to the already existing confusion.
After James Ford’s death, which occurred in 1833—and many years before Watts applied the name of “James Wilson” to him—a writer published a sketch of the career of one Jim Wilson at the Cave. This sketch is here recapitulated, not as a story that can be verified in all its details by history, but as a semi-historical tale which may convey a better idea of the methods, life, and fate of the Cave’s outlaws than formal history. Only one who will make a study of the Cave’s past—from the available authenticated records down to some of its absurd traditions—will recognize this story as a picture in which facts fairly divide the scene with fiction, and painted in colors that bring joy to the hearts of readers of dime novels. When and by whom it was written or first published has not been ascertained. It apparently was not written before 1836, for the author, in his introduction, attempts a description of the Cave as it appeared that year. The writer evidently had read Thomas Ashe’s account published in 1808, and was also familiar with some of the Cave’s printed history and oral traditions. The story was probably first published in an old magazine or newspaper. In 1893 it appeared, anonymously and without credit, in the Crittenden Press, of Marion, Kentucky. From that weekly it was copied by many newspapers in the lower Ohio Valley, and is now preserved, under various titles, in many a scrap book.
This old story is interesting because it was written when stories of the Cave were still fresh. Inaccuracies and confusions of names and dates may have crept in, but it remains the first concise and inherently reasonable account of how the Cave was first occupied as a den by river criminals. In the presentation of the usual method of the Cave’s renegades, it matters very little whether the first of those desperate captains of crime bore the name of Wilson, Mason, or Harpe. In this case it seems clearly the story of Samuel Mason about 1797. The names they assumed might vary with every flatboat or raft that passed. An alias is ever the shield of the criminal. The story describes not only a method actually employed by the Cave’s outlaws for many years, but also a method by which the career of more than one of these river pirates was, as we shall see later, so tragically terminated. The story runs, as follows:
“About the year 1809, one Jim Wilson, a flatboatman, while passing down the Ohio, was overtaken by a terrific storm. He steered his boat under the shelter of a cliff. On landing he observed the opening of the cave. He was attracted by the commodious rooms with dry ceilings and sanded floors, and resolved that on his return to Pittsburgh he would bring his family hither.
“In the following spring Wilson’s boat again landed at the foot of the cliff. This time he was not alone, but with him came his wife, five children, two slaves, and William Hall, the great counterfeiter. His boat was loaded with provisions, stores, liquors, and arms, which he had stolen from the government warehouse at Fort Pitt on the night before his departure. The great cave was soon transformed into a dwelling and tavern large enough to accommodate several travelers.
“Wilson’s object for landing and establishing himself in so remote and romantic headquarters will be seen hereafter. A sign was planted at the water’s edge bearing these words: ‘Wilson’s Liquor Vault and House for Entertainment.’ This novel sign had a magnetic effect upon the boatmen who were almost daily passing en route to southern markets, with flatboats loaded with produce. The boat crews were generally jovial fellows, fond of rum, rest, and merriment, and hardly a boat passed without stopping. Many were the guests at Wilson’s Tavern; thieves and gamblers stopped off here and in a few months the place became infamous for its licentiousness and blasphemy.
“Wilson had been for many years a deep-dyed criminal and only came here that he might vary his crimes, and have a wider field for operation. Out of his guests he soon formed a band of the most noted robbers, murderers, and counterfeiters that, for two years, had no parallel in modern history. Their headquarters were at the Cave, but they had many stations along the Ohio above and below, which were maintained for the purpose of preventing suspicion being cast upon the genial landlord at the Cave. The principal station was at Hurricane Island, where forty-five men were stationed all the time.
“Each boat that landed at the Cave was captured and such of the crew as would not join Wilson’s Gang were allowed to drift on to Hurricane Island where they were again captured and the remainder of the crew foully murdered and their bodies cast into the Ohio. With new pilots and crews the boats and cargoes were taken to New Orleans, and converted into cash which was conveyed to the Cave through the wilderness of Kentucky and Tennessee.
“Many boats loaded with valuable cargoes left port on the upper Ohio and its tributaries, under the guidance of experienced and trustworthy officers. The officers and crews never returned. No returns for sales were ever received. It soon became a mystery that so many honorable men never came back to pay over the proceeds, and to tell the perils of their voyage. It was many months before any serious suspicions were created. After that it was found that the cargoes were disposed of by entirely different crews from those entrusted with them. There was but limited postal or other communication in those days—letters of special importance were carried by messengers who often fell into the hands of Wilson’s men. Thereby they kept posted and, by changing the communication to suit their purposes, and forwarding them by different carriers, often thwarted the attempt of justice, and kept their whereabouts enveloped in mystery for many months. ‘But it is a long lane that hath no turn.’ It was finally ascertained that no tidings could be had of any boat after it had passed certain points on the Ohio near Wilson’s Tavern.
“A meeting of the Pittsburgh shippers was called and it was determined to ferret out the mystery. This would be a shrewd piece of detective work which would be attended by many dangers. A large reward was offered for information as to the exact location of the robber band. John Waller, a determined and ambitious man of Maysville, Kentucky, resolved to secure the reward or perish in the attempt. He was furnished with a cargo contributed by various shippers along the Ohio, and with five trusted companions he set out early in the spring of 1810. They floated with the current many days. At last one evening they came in sight of the Cave, and were attracted by the novel sign and also the presence of several females on the bank, who made gestures for them to land. They held a hasty consultation and resolved to land; a few sweeps of the steering oar brought them to the foot of the cliff.”
That which follows this clear description of ordinary circumstances is evidently a mixture of fact and fiction that represents the imaginative style of the day. It is quite plain that the author himself had not personally visited the Cave, but had relied upon the fictions of Thomas Ashe or the reflections from Ashe’s account that had gained circulation and belief. He accepts the mythical “upper cave” and has the Cave divided off into rooms and a “council chamber,” no relics of which have ever been reported by any matter-of-fact observer from that time to this. The leader, “Jim Wilson,” he converts into a semi-savage with matted and tangled hair and beard, who is yet a shrewd trader and an orator of no mean power for his day. On the occasion of the initiation of new recruits Jim Wilson delivers a romantic and argumentative speech that is equal to the best fiction of the times.
The story narrates graphically how Waller and his men were overawed and compelled, under fear, to agree to join the robber band; how they were received into it with melodramatic ceremonies and then were oath-bound, but not fully trusted; how they made their escape—the savage and astute robbers being, of course, fooled for the exigencies of the event; how the Waller force combined with its waiting reinforcements, returned, captured Jim Wilson and then went to Hurricane Island and destroyed that part of the band; and how eventually “Jim Wilson’s head was severed, his body buried ... the head identified and delivered to the proper authorities at Pittsburgh ... and the captors received the merited reward.” This last point is plainly an echo of Mason’s fate.
This story of the activities of the early renegades of civilization, and of the river pirates who occupied the Cave bears upon its face the stamp of truth that fits neatly into practically all traditions from about 1795 to about 1820.
Before Mason became famous, however, greater scoundrels than he were to attract public attention, and hold it for some years. The story of the Harpes—“Big” and “Little” Harpe—is one that may freeze the blood as read now in the light of old records and personal accounts that seem to bring the reader into the very presence of these two brutes. In the security of law and order in these days the facts seem remote, but when the sparse settlement of the West in 1799 is realized, and the further fact that wilderness hospitality opened doors to all travelers and admitted these monsters freely with good people, it is possible then to conceive the horror their deeds and presence aroused.
The Harpes were believed to be brothers. They were natives of North Carolina. Micajah, known as Big Harpe, was born about 1768, and Wiley, known as Little Harpe, was born about 1770. Their father was said to have been a Tory who fought under the British flag at King’s Mountain and took part in a number of other battles against the colonists. Before the close of the Revolution and immediately thereafter many of the Tories living in the south Atlantic colonies fled toward the Mississippi.
It is more than likely that Mason had committed a number of crimes along the Natchez Trace before he appeared in New Madrid in March, 1800. Many pioneers traveling over this route encountered highwaymen, but none of them succeeded in identifying the men by whom they had been robbed. The first record of a case with which Mason is definitely connected is that of a party of boatmen riding from Natchez to their homes in Kentucky. An account of this incident is told in Old Times in Tennessee, by Josephus C. Guild, who received his information from John L. Swaney. Swaney told Guild that more than fifty years before, while carrying the mail over the old Natchez Trace, he frequently met Samuel Mason and talked with him.
At that point in the march of events fate took relentless grip on Samuel Mason and Little Harpe, alias Setton, for their crimes. The way of atonement was as swift as its end was to be terrible. It might be quickly summarized, but there is the better way of pursuing the astonishing and dramatic story through the faded records and old scraps of publications of those times, thus getting into actual touch with the persons and with the primitive conditions under which this strange duel of two master criminals was fought out.