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Tom Chaney, R752: Bloody trails in a dark land
Of Writers and Their Books No. R752:, Bloody trails in a dark land. About the Harpes, including their horrific murder of the son of Daniel Trabue in Adair County, KY. First appeared 4 March 2007.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column 7:When Inmates run the asylum
By Tom Chaney
Bloody trails in a dark land
Whatever the source for the description of Kentucky as "the dark and bloody land," the appellation was richly deserved during the last decade of the 18th and early years of the 19th centuries
A cave in the northern banks of the Ohio River became the focal point for murder, robbery, and kidnapping between 1799 and the hanging of Henry C. Shouse June 9, 1834.
Big Harpe, Little Harpe, Ford, Billie Potts, father and son, and many others -- their names struck fear in the hearts of the westward migrants.
These and many others preyed on the flatboat river traffic hauling goods to be sold in New Orleans. They haunted the Natchez Trace which was the main road of return from the lower Mississippi to its branching in Nashville. Roads led from there to Louisville, Lexington, Maysville, and Cincinnati.
Local legends grew up from Cumberland Gap to Paducah and south along the Mississippi River.
In 1924 Otto A. Rothert, secretary of the Filson Club of Louisville published his attempt to gather the legends and sift them for the truth of this era of outlawry -- The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock was the result. But the title is deceptive. The subtitle says it more precisely: "Historical Accounts of the Famous Highwaymen and River Pirates who operated in Pioneer Days upon the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and over the Old Natchez Trace."
The publisher issued 1000 copies. Eighteen years later 86 remained unsold. However, it is a valuable contribution to the study of regional history. In 1996 the Southern Illinois University Press issued a reprint of the title with a new foreword by Robert A. Clark.
I found the book intriguing in part because of my interest in two stories by Robert Penn Warren which use the outlawry of the area.
In his long narrative poem, "The Ballad of Billie Potts," Warren shifts the Potts' home from the Illinois side of the Ohio to the land between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. I had not been aware of the factual story behind his poem.
Evidently the tale of the outlaw Little Billie returning much changed to his parents' home, forgetting the essential nature of those parents, flashing his money, and meeting death at the hand of mother and father is generally based in fact.
The other instance occurs in Warren's romantic novel World Enough and Time based on the Beauchamp/Sharpe murder. At the close of that novel Jerry Beaumont and his wife escape jail in Frankfort and are hidden in an outlaw community in western Kentucky in the land between the rivers echoing the outlaw communities which centered around Cave-In-Rock.
Rothert published his book while Warren was a student at Vanderbilt University. Whether Warren knew of the book before he wrote World Enough and Time and "The Ballad of Billie Potts" is an interesting question, but not necessarily to the point. The tales of outlawry in the region would have been told in his youth in Todd County.
The Harps are another story. I had been aware of their association with Cave-in-Rock, but had not known of just how they got there. 'Tis a bloody tale.
Micajah, known as Big Harpe, and Wiley, known as Little Harpe, were the sons of a Revolutionary War Tory. Accompanied by two women -- both of whom claimed to be married to Big Harpe -- they left North Carolina for middle Tennessee where they roamed for about two years. During 1797 they left central Tennessee for Knoxville.
They robbed and killed their victims -- sometimes just killing them, evidently for the pleasure of it. At one point after leaving the Knoxville area they murdered the young son of Daniel Trabue in what is now Adair County, Kentucky, just because the youth was there.
In and out of various jails both men and their now three women -- and a child apiece -- headed west along the south bank of the Green River. At one point, to avoid detection, Big Harpe killed the child of one of his wives in the same manner as the murder of the Trabue youngster. Grabbing the child by the heels, he smashed its head against the trunk of a tree. On a number of occasions, they gutted their victims, filled their bodies with stones, and sunk them in whatever river was handy.
Making their way through Logan County to the Henderson (Red Banks) vicinity they continued their depredations until Big Harpe was killed and his head lodged in a tree as a warning. Little Harpe continued to operate along the Mississippi River and the Natchez Trace under several names until he, too, met a violent end.
Rothert has pursued the stories of the outlaws making every effort to sift the probable from the improbable of the legends. He documents his trail, commenting on the reliability of sources as he goes.
The book deserved a larger readership at its first publication in 1924. 'Twould be hoped that Clark's reprint will find a larger audience to document the "dark and bloody land" that was Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee, and Mississippi in the early times of settlement.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney
This story was posted on 2012-03-04 19:09:52
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