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The Harpes may have been brothers (although recent evidence indicates they were cousins), born in Orange County, North Carolina to Scottish parents. Micajah was probably born in 1768, and Wiley in 1770.
Their father (or uncles) were allegedly of Tory allegiance, and fought on the British side during the American Revolutionary War. The father later tried to join the American forces, and was shunned for his previous loyalties. Their family's treatment, and probably other factors, led the "Big" and "Little" Harpe to see themselves as persecuted.
Big Harpe later traveled in the company of two women, Susan and Betsey (or Betty) Roberts, both of whom bore him children. The women were rumored to be sisters. Little Harpe married Sally Rice, daughter of a Baptist minister.
It is difficult to disentangle the actual facts about the Harpe brothers from the later legends about them.
In the Jon Musgrave article of Oct. 23, 1998 in the southern-Illinois newspaper American Weekend, through thorough research he cited the T. Marshall Smith 1855 book Legends of the War of Independence and of the earlier "Settlements in the West" that the Harpes were much older than most mainstream historians and folklorists have acknowledged. Even the renowned Otto A. Rothert, Filson Club historian and authority, overlooked this critical information in his seminal 1924 book on the subject "Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock was omitted. Smith stated he had heard stories from his grandfather, older pioneers, and those who had interviewed two of the Harpe wives. One of his stories was that the Harpe brothers were actually cousins William and Joshua Harper (who would sometime later take the alias Harpe) who had emigrated in 1759 or 1760 at a young age from Scotland. Their fathers were brothers John and William Harper who settled in Orange County, North Carolina between 1761 and 1763. The Harper patriarchs were loyal to the British Crown and were known as Royalists, Kings Men, Loyalists, and Tories and may also have been regulators involved in the North Carolina Regulator War. The anti-British Crown neighbors of the Harpers were known as Whigs, Rebels, and Patriots. Around April or May, 1775, the young Harper cousins left North Carolina and went to Virginia to find overseer jobs on a slave plantation.
Little is known of the Harpes' whereabouts at outbreak of the American Revolution. According to Smith, based on the eyewitness account of Captain James Wood, they joined a Tory rape gang in North Carolina and took part in the kidnapping of three teenage girls, with a fourth girl being rescued by Captain Wood. These gangs took advantage of the war by raping, stealing, and murdering, and burning and destroying the property, especially farms on Patriot colonists. In an interview Smith had with the Patriot soldier, Frank Wood, who was the son of Captain James Wood, Frank revealed that he was the older brother of Susan Wood Harpe, the later kidnapped wife of Micajah "Big" Harpe. Frank Wood claimed to have seen the Harpe brothers serving "loosely" as Tory militia under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British Legion at the Battles of Blackstocks, November 20, 1780, and Cowpens, January 17, 1781. They also appeared in the same supporting role at the Battle of King's Mountain, October 7, 1780, under British commander Major Patrick Ferguson. These battles that the Harpes supposedly participated in resulted in major Patriot victories. Following the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781, the Harpes left North Carolina, dispersed with their Indian allies, the Chickamauga Cherokees, to Tennessee villages west of the Appalachian Mountains. On April 2, 1781 they joined war parties of four hundred Chickamauga Cherokee to attack the Patriot frontier settlement of Bluff Station, at Fort Nashborough (now Nashville, Tennessee), which would again be assaulted by them on either July 20, 1788, or April 9, 1793. A Captain James Leiper was killed in the 1781 attack on the fort and may have been related to the John Leiper who was later involved in the killing of Micajah "Big" Harpe in Kentucky in 1799. On August 19, 1782, the Harpes accompanied a British-backed Chickamauga Cherokee war party to Kentucky in the Battle of Blue Licks, where they helped to defeat an army of Patriot frontiersmen led by Daniel Boone. During the Harpe brothers' early frontier period among the Chickamauga Cherokee, they lived in the village of Nickajack, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, for approximately twelve or thirteen years. During this span of time they kidnapped Maria Davidson and later Susan Wood, and made them their women. In 1794, the Harpes and their women abandoned their Indian habitation, before the main Chickamauga Cherokee village of Nickajack in eastern Tennessee was destroyed in a raid by American settlers. They would later relocate to Powell's Valley, around Knoxville, Tennessee, where they stole food and supplies from local pioneers. The whereabouts of the Harpes were unknown between the summer of 1795 and spring of 1797, but by spring they were dwelling in a cabin on Beaver's Creek, near Knoxville. On June 1, 1797, Wiley Harpe married Sarah Rice, which was recorded in the Knox County, Tennessee marriage records. Sometime during 1797, the Harpes would begin their trail of death in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois.
As young men, the Harpes lived with renegade Creek and Cherokee Indians who committed atrocities against white settlers and against their own tribes. Both Micajah and Wiley usually carried a hunting knife, a tomahawk, a pair of pistols and a long rifle. By 1797 the Harpes were living near Knoxville, Tennessee. However, they were driven from the town after being charged with stealing hogs and horses. They were also accused of murdering a man named Johnson, whose body was found in a river, covered in urine, ripped open and weighted with stones. This became a characteristic of the Harpes' murders. They butchered anyone at the slightest provocation, even babies. R.E. Banta in The Ohio claims that Micajah Harpe even bashed his infant daughter's head against a tree because her constant crying annoyed him. This was the only crime for which he would later confess genuine remorse. From Knoxville they fled north into Kentucky. They entered the state on the Wilderness Road, near the Cumberland Gap. They are believed to have murdered a peddler named Peyton, taking his horse and some of his goods. They then murdered two travelers from Maryland.
In July 1799, John Leiper raised a posse to avenge the murder of Mrs. Stegal, including Moses Stegal, the victim's husband. Leiper reached Harpe first, and managed to shoot Big Harpe. After a scuffle with a tomahawk, Leiper overcame Harpe. When Stegal arrived, he decapitated Harpe and stuck his head in a tree where it rermained for 10 years before someone stole it, at a crossroads still known as "Harpe's Head" or Harpe's Head Road in Webster County, Kentucky. By the end of their reign of terror, the "Bloody Harpes" were responsible for the known murders of no fewer than 40 men, women, and children. Little Harpe eluded the authorities and was not caught. Some time later Little Harpe is believed to have joined up with Samuel Mason, notorious river pirate operating out of nearby Cave-In-Rock on the Illinois side of the Ohio River. Little Harpe was believed to have been captured along with Samuel Mason by Spanish officials after Mason had moved into Spanish Louisiana. Little Harpe, who was using the name John Sutton, escaped along with Samuel Mason who was shot during the escape. Little Harpe later tried to claim the reward for Samuel Mason although it is unclear whether he was killed from the wounds sustained during the escape or whether Harpe later killed him for the reward. He was recognized by officials along with another one of Samuel Mason's pirates and arrested. He was executed by hanging in 1804.
According to Jon Musgrave, the Harpe women, after cohabitation with the brothers, led relatively respectable and normal lives. Upon the death of Micajah "Big" Harpe in Kentucky, Wiley "Little" Harpe went into hiding and their women were apprehended and taken to the Russellville, Kentucky state courthouse and later released. Sally Rice Harpe went back to Knoxville, Tennessee to live in her father's house. For a time, Susan Wood Harpe and Maria Davidson (aka Betsey Roberts Harpe) lived in Russellville. Susan Wood remarried later, and died in Tennessee. According to Ralph Harrelson, a McLeansboro, Illinois historian, records show that on September 27, 1803, Betsey Roberts remarried, moved with her husband to Canada in 1828, had many children, and eventually the couple died in the 1860s. Cave-In-Rock historian, Otto A. Rothert, believed that Susan Wood died in Tennessee and her daughter went to Texas. According to the former sheriff of Hamilton County, Illinois, in 1820, Sally Rice, who had remarried, travelled with her husband and father to their new home in Illinois via the Cave-In-Rock ferry.
After the atrocities committed by the Harpes, many members bearing the family name changed their name in some way, to hide the relationship to their infamous ancestors. The Harpes may have disguised their Tory past from their Patriot neighbors by changing their original name of "Harper," which was a common Loyalist name in Revolutionary War-era North Carolina.
Many accounts of the Harpe brothers derive from James Hall's frontier stories published in Port Folio magazine between 1825 and 1828 and republished in Letters from the West (1828) and The Harpe's Head, (1833).
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