Beware of Micajah and Wiley Harpes, part 2

Jadon Gibson

Rev. William Lambuth wanted to warn everyone about Micajah and Wiley Harpes after they robbed him in 1797 but such information wasn’t easy to communicate in that era. Most news came by the spoken word. Newspapers, leaflets, posted warnings and such were rare and slow in arriving.

It was less than 50 years after Dr. Thomas Walker documented the discovery of Cumberland Gap and less than a quarter century after Daniel Boone and his band of thirty men blazed the trail from Sycamore Shoals (Elizabethton, TN) to the Kentucky River.

That opened the floodgate, bringing pioneers along the Wilderness Road. They were harassed by Indians and by individuals like the Harpes who came westward to escape from the law and/or to evade prosecution. They eked out a living at the expense of the pioneers.

A cavalcade of horsemen discovered a body along the Wilderness Road near the young settlement of Barbourville in 1797, after noticing a flock of buzzards circling above. The dead man, a peddler along the early trails, was found with his grip nearby, void of its contents. He had been tomahawked and covered with brush in order to avoid early detection.

The Harpes were staying on the move to lessen the likelihood of being caught. They were aware of the basic tenets in thievery and mischief. As nightfall descended they came upon Hughes Tavern along the Holston River, not far from Knoxville. It had a reputation as a “rough groggery.”

Men went to bed and rose with the chickens in that era and Hughes locked his door behind his last patron, a man named Johnson.

The Harpes came upon Johnson soon after he left Hughes Tavern. Two or three days later his disemboweled body was found floating near the surface of the Holston River. Rocks had been placed therein but enough spilled out, and the body had enough buoyancy that allowed it to be seen from the shore. By this time the Harpes were long-gone.

The tavern-keeper and two others were arrested for the murder but were released due to lack of evidence. Hughes reopened his “groggery” but a vigilante group of citizen “regulators” called on him and gave him a lashing with a leather whip. They then destroyed his building and admonished him to “leave the territory and not return.”

A few days later two men were found dead on the Nashville road. One had been caught off-guard, shot in the back and killed. The other struggled before being tomahawked, covered with debris and left along the trail.

Initially some of the deaths were blamed on Indians but as word spread about the Harpes, it was they who put fear in the hearts and minds of the settlers as much as the red men. There was a constant alarm out about the Harpes who were laying low during daylight hours and traveling north into Kentucky at night to avoid being seen.


Posses and bands of regulators were thick on the horsepaths and wagonroads in the weeks that followed and the Harpes laid low. They camped near the Wilderness Road not far from the small settlements of Little Rock Castle and Crab Orchard.

It was a desolate area where Indians hid out for years. Travelers wouldn’t traverse through that area alone, waiting for others with the same destination. The age-old adage, “there is safety in numbers,” evolved from such areas. Another, “don’t turn your back on a stranger,” was also applicable especially to Micajah and Wiley Harpe. If you were alone they would distract you long enough for one of them to waylay you from behind with a tomahawk or hunting knife.

The Harpes’ provisions ran low so they called on an inn, also including a tavern, kept by John Pharris. When a young traveler by the name of Stephen Langford paid for his lodging and breakfast Big Harpe (Micajah) heard the jingle of his money and decided the young man would be their next mark if given the opportunity. Wary travelers on the borderland would generally hide their funds, only keeping a meager amount in a leather pouch. Young folks often are slow at learning important life lessons like ‘a fool and his money are soon parted.’

It was over a week before Langford’s body was found covered by brush at the bottom of a ravine, away from the wagon road. It was found after regulators noticed a flock of buzzards circling above.

Captain Joseph Ballenger and his Stanford, Kentucky, posse stumbled upon a drunken party one night and immediately thought they were the Harpes. Information in a leaflet received in prior days warned about the unsavory characters. They claimed to be Shelbys but Captain Ballenger knew otherwise and took them to the crude jail in Stanford to be held for trial.

Word quickly spread that the Harpes had been apprehended and were being held in the Stanford jail. Many pioneers chanced by the stockade, or type of crude holding cell in the days that followed. They hoped to get a glimpse of the “devil men” Micajah Harpe and Wiley Harpe.

Like public hangings when hundreds, later thousands, of residents showed up to see the bad men they often heard of but seldom saw.

Editor’s note: Big Micajah Harpe offers to fistfight, and beat, any two men at the same time if his group will then be set free. Copyright 2017 Jadon Gibson

*Gibson is a widely read Appalachian writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings, from the Mountains, are both nostalgic and historical in nature and can be read periodically at bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single posting! Copyright 2017 Jadon Gibson

My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me.

Job offers from the U. S. Department of Labor, the Kresge Corporation and an insurance company had me somewhat perplexed when I graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1962.

I decided to join the insurance firm as the earnings potential was great and I would be working with college students roughly my own age and instructors. In at least one earlier issue of A Voice from God I mentioned my sales were a little less than I hoped. It was because I always looked younger than my age.

A good amount of my time was spent studying the success of others and reading motivational material. At first I wasn’t producing as much as I strived to accomplish. It affected my confidence level but the motivational reading boosted me up enough that I remained positive and continued improving.

I also changed my hair style to make me look older. Prior to this time I wore my hair a little long and combed in such a way that my receding hairline wouldn’t show. I got a conventional cut that included a part on my right side. In my business interviews I always sat to the left of my prospect and wife. By parting on my right side and combing my hair back it made me look older than I was.

My sales continued improving but certainly not enough to suit me but after my first son was born in May of 1965 I saw noticeable improvement. Beginning September 13, 1965 (I believe that was on a Monday) I added the Frank Bettger sales method and my selling multiplied greatly. I became, at age 25, one of the company and industry leaders and achieved all company and industry awards. My prayers for success were being answered.

I was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Missouri Life Underwriters Association and made Legislative Chairman. My confidence and self-esteem was jolted out of the clear blue when one of the members approached and whispered something that alarmed and offended me. People are sometimes cruel. I was crushed.

I prayed somberly for God to give me understanding. I was slow finding peace, resigned from the Board and focused on selling at a high level.

I was able to get through this with God’s help. My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. You can call on Him with problems in your life and He will hear if you hold Him in your heart and thank Him for His graces. Thank you Lord for all You do for me!

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