Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Historic Research: Harpe's & King's Tavern

I (Mike) have uncovered extensive history of the Harpe Brothers, Micaja ("Big" Harpe) and Wiley ("Little" Harpe) from several sources that pretty much say the same thing.  My sources include a historical writer from North Carolina by the name of Jonathan Daniels (who also served as President Roosevelt & Truman's Press Secretary) who cites first hand accounts of a mail rider on the Trace named John Swaney that was interviewed before Swaney's death. Swaney was one of the regular riders who carried mail and other small items from Nashville to Natchez and back again and knew people all up and down the Trace, even some of the outlaws, such as Sam Mason.  Also, I found an excellent article on them written by Harold Utley, President of the Hopkins County Historical Society in Kentucky; a paper by Jon Musgrave, an Illinois Historian; as well as several other sources.

Here is just a small part of what I've learned as fact.  By far, the area of the Harpes' activity was in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia (they were born in North Carolina, and fled there because their father was a Tory who supported and fought for the British) and not Mississippi and certainly not Natchez.  The infant that Big Harpe murdered by slamming its head against something is believed to have been done in a cave, perhaps Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or more likely Cave-In-Rock (actually a rocky over-hang) just across the river in Illinois where they fled on one occasion to escape one of many posses they fled from (see photo of Cave-In-Rock above).  "Big Harpe said when he was dying that the only thing he was sorry for was that he had there smashed out the brains of one of the Harpe infants on the wall of the cave." [The Devil's Backbone, Jonathan Daniels, p. 122].  It is historical fact that Micaja died slowly, and was confessing some of his crimes to the posse who had tracked him down in what is now Muhlenburg County, Kentucky.  That is the occasion where he uttered the above statement.  The posse that killed Micaja was made up of Moses Stegall, John Leiper, Matthew Christian, Neville Lindsey, Silas McBee, William Grissom and James Thompkins.  Stegall was the husband and father of a woman and child that Micaja had just murdered, along with a Major William Love, whom Micaja murdered because Love was snoring in his sleep (remember hearing that story!) in a loft he was sharing with the Harpe's.  The Harpe's were simply traveling through the area and stopped at the Stegall house (husband Moses was away).  Mrs. Stegall had graciously let them stay in for the night, which was customary for that time.  Major Love was there doing work for the Stegall's, who also had a child.  Macaja killing Love is what triggered this last murdering spree, supposedly killing Mrs. Stegall and the child to hide the evidence because he also set fire to the house.  This typical murdering rampage by Macaja would lead to his death.  The posse tracked them to their camp in Muhlenburg County and tried to capture them.  Wiley escaped, but Big Harpe was shot.  Micaja, who lay slowly dying of a wound to his spine (a shot fired by Leiper), was begging for water and talking.  Leiper gave him some water out of a shoe.  The fact that anyone would accommodate Micaja at all actually infuriated Moses Stegall, so he pulled Micaja's own knife and began slowly cutting his head off.  He cut so slow, it is reported in several of the historical accounts that Micaja had time to say, "You are a god-damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned."  Stegall left the corpse there to rot, but took the severed head back to Hopkins County (Kentucky) where he impaled it on a lance and placed it in the fork of a tree.  The head remained there for many years, and the location is known today as "Harpe's Head."  The camp and exact site where Micaja was killed is a known location to this day.  The hill is called "Harpe's Hill" and the cave itself (which is in the south slope of the hill) is called "Harpe's house." 

Association to King's Tavern:
I have found no evidence whatsoever that directly puts either of the Harpe's, Micajah or Wiley, at King's Tavern (which was a long shot anyway).  I did find where Wiley ("Little" Harpe) did flee to Natchez for a time, but that he found it "too rough."  (That's hard to imagine - but that's is what is said.)  I found quite a bit that puts Wiley here in and around Natchez, but no evidence anywhere that I have found to date, puts Micaja in Natchez.  Of course, when Wiley came to Natchez it is more than likely that he visited King's Tavern, as it was the trail- head for the Trace.  I found strong evidence of Wiley being on the Trace (with his association and outlawing with Sam Mason), but again, never found anything that put Micaja there.  Wiley's adventures on the trace occurred after Micaja's beheading. Incidentally, Wiley ("Little" Harpe) was caught and executed in Greenville, Mississippi, and was hung.  He and another man named James May killed Sam Mason for a $2000 bounty put on Mason by Governor William C.C. Claiborne, but were caught and identified.  Wiley Harpe was trying to pass himself off as John Setton.  (They claimed they caught Mason and killed him in Mason's swampy hiding place near Lake Concordia, and they had put his head in a lump of blue clay for preservation so it could be identified as Mason, and they could collect the reward.)  Obviously, Wiley was in and around Natchez at this time, and was seen here.  They took the head to Greenville because that is where the Circuit Court was at that time, and the location of the judge who would have to rule that it was Mason and they could collect the bounty.  However, they were busted out by two men named John Bowman and a Captain Stump who had run-ins before and knew what Wiley looked like.  In fact, the clinching evidence was provided by Bowman, who told the Court that, "If he's Little Harpe, he'll have a scar under the left nipple of his breast, because I cut him there in a difficulty we had, one night in Knoxville."  Harpe's shirt was removed, and the scar was there.  [Daniels says in his book that one version of this story actually places this scene at Natchez!]  What is fact:  May and Wiley Harpe were executed by hanging on February 8, 1804 in a place called "Gallow's Field" in old Greenville, Mississippi.  After he was hung, Wiley's head too was displayed on a lance to warn travelers on the road to Natchez. 

All of the printed information I found and sources are in the N.A.P.S. King's Tavern Case File - in a folder labeled "Harpes" and will be cited in our final report.  By the way, it is thought that the Harpes were brothers, but one source said they may have been cousins.

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