The Harpes were considered as devils on the paths in early America. They camped at night, replenishing their strength, before resuming their quest each morning. When regulators were close on their tail they slept during the day and moved at night.
“Their victims lay face up in rivers, gutted, their eyes wide and staring, their innards replaced with stones,” Jim Ridley wrote in 2013. “Or they lay hacked and strewn in the Cumberland wilderness, left to entropy’s appetite. They were killed for the gold they carried; they were killed despite the kindness they gave. The killers drew no distinction between men and women, boys and girls, children and infants, not even their own.
Moses Stegall joined a posse seeking the Harpes the morning after his wife and child were viciously murdered. They were bent on finding the Harpes and making them pay for their misdeeds. The posse found two additional victims of the Harpes as they rode, swelling the number of deaths at their hands to 30. It could have been more or less.
Eventually they came upon the Harpes’ camp, abandoned except for Wiley Harpes’ wife Sally who explained the others had recently left. They rapidly followed their trail and came upom them after two miles.
They called for Big Harpe to throw down his weapons and dismount but he quickly spurred his horse into a gallop in order to escape. The Harpes never obliged attempts at arresting them. Members of the posse shot at the fleeting forms with most of the bullets whizzing by until one hit Big Harpe in the leg. It didn’t seem to slow the fugitive as he rode on, continuing his quest to escape, paying little attention to his injury.
John Leiper missed on his shot but grabbed a loaded gun from posse member Tompkins and spurred his horse ahead after Harpe. Micajah hadn’t seen the weapon exchange and knew Leiper couldn’t have taken time to reload. He slowed and began turning his horse to get a good shot. Leiper had closed the distance between the two and was able to fire as Harpe was turning his horse, the bullet striking him in the spine.
Big Harpe’s body contorted uncontrollably causing his reins and rifle to fall from his grasp. He was losing a lot of blood as the posse caught up with him, pulling him from his mount.
“Water,” Harpe said under his breath, pleading for a drink before Leiper pulled off one of his shoes, filled it with water and held it to his mouth to drink. Paralysis had already settled in Big Harpe’s hands.
“Harpe, why did you kill that woman and baby,” Leiper inquired.
“They wouldn’t let a man sleep and I put ‘em outta their misery,” he replied sarcastically. “They’re burned up in the fire but ye needn’t worry none. They’ll be able to finda ‘nother wife.”
Leiper was infuriated. He searched for a weapon before grabbing Harpes’ own butcher knife and proceeded to start cutting off his head. Micajah Harpe was mortally wounded and seemed resigned to dying.
“You’re doin’ a mighty sorry job of that,” Harpe admonished Leiper, causing him to become more efficient as he completed his task.
Harpe’s head was put in a saddlebag and later wedged in a crook in a tree where the road from Henderson forks with one going to Marion and Eddyville and the other to Madisonville and Russellville. The area became known as and still referred to at times as Harpe’s Head.
Wiley Harpe escaped while the posse dealt with Micajah. No one seemed to know about his activities for several years when he resurfaced at Cave-in-Rock in southern Illinois, where he joined Captain Mason’s band of river pirates. He and a pirate named May did in Mason, cut off his head and turned it in for reward money.
Wiley Harpe and May were arrested and escaped but a posse recaptured them soon thereafter. Following a quick trial they were found guilty and hanged. Their heads were cut off and placed atop stakes along the Natchez Trail to warn would-be felons of the perils of wrong-doing.
Increased interest has led to research into the Harpes family and revealed that Micajah and Wiley were not brothers at all but cousins. They were the sons of brothers John and William Harpe who immigrated to North Carolina from Scotland in the early 1760’s.
Micajah and Wiley Harpes left their homes together in the spring of 1775 to work as overseers of slaves in Virginia. Just as their fathers were Tories, loyal to the British, the younger Harpes were also favorable toward the British and soon became members of gangs that terrorized those seeking independence for America. Later it became necessary for them to take flight to evade prosecution. It led them to Cherokee country and to their eventual murderous killing spree.
Their wrong-doing resulted in their heads being used to mark pioneer trails in early America. – Copyright Jadon Gibson 2017
Editor’s note; Jadon Gibson is a widely read Appalachian writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read periodically at bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single issue!
A Voice for God – a voice for good
My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me.
My wife and I traveled south on Broadway in Knoxville on a cold morning just a few days ago.
At one point near the main part of the old city we saw numerous indigent individuals along the sidewalk. They weren’t there waiting for a bus or ride. It is their station in life. The tendency is to look away or at least look as though we’re not judging anyone. One glance finds a fellow lying on the sidewalk. He had a small fire in close proximity for warmth. From a distance they are all much alike.
It is a dangerous way to live as many are assaulted for their meager possessions or for meanness. Yet they didn’t choose their station in life. Their life’s direction in most cases was determined years ago with life decisions that were made. Crime is no stranger to individuals in such areas.
My brother Larry and I worked at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington while attending the University of Kentucky in the early 1960’s. As I remember it was more than a hospital. It was a prison as well with many of the inmates there on narcotic convictions. In addition, at that time at least, they accepted a good number of volunteers who were admitted to find relief from their drug habit. The volunteer enrollment was always much greater in the cold of winter because the benefit was a warm cell and regular meals.
What am I getting to this week with this discourse. There’s a real lesson to be learned by young people here. Our station in life is largely determined by actions that are taken earlier. The indigent, hungry individuals in the cold were mostly like other youngsters when they were ten, 15, 16, 18 or other ages. Bad decisions lead these individuals on a less desirable path.
Likewise there is a lesson here for parents too. Parents don’t want or expect their youngsters to end in this manner. It would break their hearts if they knew their child would end up in such a setting. Periodic discussions about life choices with one’s children is important and it may prevent heartache later.
My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. My parents were always concerned with what we were doing and what our aims were.
It’s important for your youngsters to learn about Jesus from a young age before they are led down some wrong paths. You need to lead them. If Jesus walked among us today he would be a shining example for our youth. He is still with us today and can and will be that inspiration if called on.
My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me and He will be to you and your children. May your youngsters live a life of service to humanity and be a pride to you