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THE BLOODY HARPES - Adair County history by Mike Watson

One, and probably two, of the most unnecessary and cruel homicides which was committed by them, occurred within Adair County...


By Mike Watson, editor of this series

Judge Rollin T. Hurt, native of Adair County, attorney, businessman, judge, and historian, wrote a series of articles for the Adair County News early in the last century on the early history and people of the county. Several articles dealt with the Harpe Brothers. Several years ago these articles were edited and published as Hurt's History of Adair County, containing the following in the words of Judge Hurt, with footnotes by the editor.

The bloody career of the Harpes, which stretches like a red line across the pages of the early history of southern Kentucky, had Adair County for the scene of its performance, in part. One, and probably two, of the most unnecessary and cruel homicides which was committed by them, occurred within Adair County.1

Other murders were committed by them in [the] nearby counties of Clinton and Cumberland, and their actions in Adair County will not be fully appreciated without a complete history of their other operations, which we will attempt to give, although not connected with the county. Although at least fifteen thousand persons lost their lives at the hands of the Indians in Kentucky between the first advent of the white men into it and the time when the incursions of the red men into it ceased, for pure ferocity and blood thirstiness, the most diabolical deeds of the red men are scarcely comparable with the deeds of the Harpes. The red men were actuated by the accumulated hatred of centuries. This hatred arose from the continual aggression of the whites and a continuous bloody strike between them and the Indians. This hatred was deepened and accentuated by the invasion, from time to time, by the whites of a new territory, which the red men held to be their own, exclusively, from their occupation of it for centuries past, for the purpose of the chase, and they considered it to be sacred to them by all the laws and traditions which were current among them. The deeds of the Harpes were crimes against the memories of their own race.

In the commission of these crimes, they were actuated either by motives of robbery or from sentiments of pure diabolism. There was not a tinge of anything romantic or inspiring about any of their deeds which would go to brighten their dark phase and to assist in making excusable that which was other-wise brutal and inhuman. A century after the career of the Harpes had ended the traditions relating to them were still fresh in the minds of the older persons, so profound an impression had the exceeding cruelties and barbarisms of their deeds made upon the minds and hearts of the generations, upon which they had been committed and the children of that generation.

The writer, when a child, has heard elderly persons, on winter evenings, relate the story of the Harpes and often the recital would so impress his child's mind with its horrors that he would be unable to fall asleep until after the accustomed time, and when sleep would come, it would often times be to dream of Big Harpe and of the sinister face and expression with which tradition clothed him.

There is a tradition to the effect that shortly previous to the first appearance of the Harpes in Kentucky, they were confined in jail in Knoxville, Tennessee upon an accusation of their guilt of [the] crime of murder; in some way they succeeded in escaping the consequences of their crimes, if guilty of the accusation, or at least in escaping from the jail. The Harpes claimed that they were wrongfully accused and unjustly imprisoned, and relied upon this claim as a justification for their after conduct and their hatred to mankind in general and their determination to rob and slay as long as they lived. This seems a poor excuse for their crimes, but the same kind of excuse is offered by silly, sentimental persons in behalf of Jesse James and Frank James and their associates in extenuation of their crimes of murder and robbery.

The date of the first appearance of the Harpes in Kentucky, as well as the dates of the commission of their various crimes and the end of their crimes in this states is involved in some confusion. Some accounts fix the date of their first coming into the state at a period as early as 1794 or 1795, and the end of Big Harpe's life in 1799, but other accounts fix the date of their advent into this state as late as the winter of 1802-1803, and the end of their operations in this state considerably after that time.2

Tradition relates that they were held by the justices of Lincoln County3 for a trial in the court of oyer and terminer for a crime of murder at the beginning of their career in this state, and that their wives were indicted and tried in a court held for Logan County upon the charge of being accomplices of their husbands after the death of Big Harpe; and if the records of these courts are still in existence, an exam-ination of them would disclose the dates desired, but the writer has never had an opportunity to make such an examination or to determine whether the records have been preserved. The exact dates are not necessary, however, to a correct history of their transactions.

Some of the dates connected with their lives will be hereafter stated which will indicate that they first came to Kentucky probably about the year 1795 or 1796. Suffice it to say that the Harpes were found by citizens of Lincoln County encamped beside the Wilderness Road, a short distance from Stanford. To those inquiring, they represented that they were immigrants from the state of North Carolina. They remained in the camp for several days, which they spent in drunkenness and other debaucheries. The company consisted of two men and three women. The men were supposed and reputed to have been brothers, but one was much greater in stature than the ordinary man, and the other was less. The larger man was Micajah Harpe. He was lean, but a powerful, athletic man, over six feet in height and above two hundred pounds in weight. He did not wear a hat or covering of any kind. His hair was thick and matted, and of a fiery red. His bearing was bold and defiant, and his countenance was fierce and sinister. His gaze transfixed the beholder with its sharpness, fixedness and steadiness. He was armed with a belt, which encircled his waist. In the traditions of the countryside, he has always borne the sobriquet of Big Harpe.

The smaller man was very active and muscular, his bearing was as equally defiant and bold as his brother and his countenance as evil appearing. He was armed in a manner similar to his larger associate. His name was Wiley Harpe, but tradition has fixed upon him the name of Little Harpe.

Big Harpe was reputed to have been possessed of the one ennobling quality of physical courage in high degree, but Little Harpe was reputed to have been even lacking of that quality and to have been as cruel as his larger brother, but treacherous and cowardly also. The clothing of both men and women was old and poor and created the impression upon those who saw them that they had, for a long time past, at least, been residing in the open and very far from the haunts of civilized men. Two of the women were large and course and were the wives of Big Harpe. The other woman had a handsome form and pretty face and bore the traces of some degree of good breeding, and of having enjoyed, in the past, the culture and training of respectable society. She was the wife of Little Harpe.

When first seen near Stanford, the costumes of the women were wretched in the extreme, and their faces were sunburned and weather-beaten. The previous histories of the women are entirely unknown. Even their Christian names were never known in this state, or have been forgotten. It is true that a writer of about a half century ago gives the name of the wife of Little Harpe as Mariah Davidson, and one of the wives of Big Harpe as Susan Wood, but the same writer gave the names of Big Harpe and Little Harpe as that of William and Joshua, respectively, and gives no account whatever of the third woman that accompanied them. It is evident that this writer is indulging in romance rather than undertaking to give a true and faithful history, since many of the circumstances which he relates were never known or heard of by the older people, or their descendants, who were inhabitants of this state at the time of the career of the Harpes. When the Harpes were first found encamped in Lincoln county, each of the party was mounted upon a fairly good horse.

After remaining in their camp near Stanford for several days, the Harpes departed in the direction of the headwaters of the Green River. On the day following their departure, the dead body of a young man was discovered in the forest near the Wilderness Road where it passed through the hills of the Rock-castle. The young man had been killed by a rifle shot through his body and then robbed. His name was Langford or Lankford, and he was passing, as an emigrant from Virginia to Kentucky, along the Wilderness Road, which was then the usual highway of emigrants from Virginia to the Bluegrass counties in central Kentucky. Suspicion, at once, fell upon the Harpes as the probable perpetrators of the crime.

At that time, there resided in Stanford a certain Captain Joseph Ballenger, who, from his reputation for reckless determination and courage, had earned the name of "Devil" Joe Ballenger. Ballenger asso-ciated the three or four kindred spirits with himself and they went in pursuit of the Harpes for the purpose affecting their capture.

After the departure of the Harpes from the camp near Stanford, a heavy snow had fallen and the pursuers had great difficulty in following the trail, but finally found them encamped near the banks of the Green River, where Liberty, the county seat of Casey County, is now situated. At the first, the Harpes made a show of resistance, but Ballenger warned them that if they did not instantly submit, they would be shot to death and they, thereupon, sullenly capitulated. An examination of their effects resulted in the discovery in their possession of several fine linen shirts, one of which had been perforated by a rifle bullet and bore the traces of blood. Each shirt corresponded with the wound in the body of the murdered man. A number of gold coins were also found in their possession, which were similar to ones which the young man was said to have had in his possession, previous to his death. The circumstances of the shirts and coins and other facts were considered as proving conclusively the guilt of the Harpes, and the justices of the peace, before whom their preliminary hearing was had, ordered them to be committed to the jail at Stanford to await the action of the court of oyer and terminer. This court, at that time, sat at or near Danville, and in a short time the Harpes were committed to jail at that place for the purpose of causing them to undergo a trial upon the charge of having murdered the young man, Langford or Lankford.

Before the trial was had, however, in some way, which now has been forgotten, the Harpes succeeded in breaking the jail and in making good their escape and were never apprehended or brought to trial for the murder. The jail at the time was being guarded by armed men, and the Harpes not only succeeded in breaking out of the jail, but secured the firearms of the parties who were engaged in guarding the jail, and, thus, supplied their mean of resistance. They fled in the direction of the Rolling Fork of Salt River, the banks and valleys along which were then heavily clothed with thick and almost impenetrable cane brakes. Joseph Ballenger and some others pursued them, and overtook them upon the banks of the Rolling Fork, but the exact place is now forgotten.

When the Harpes were discovered, they sprang up and threatened the pursuers with presented guns, causing them to retreat. Probably the pursuers were not prepared for a desperate contest with them. They repaired to the home of Henry Skaggs,4 who was a man of great courage and determination and who was one of the Long Hunters who came into Kentucky with Colonel James Knox in the year 1770. Skaggs was the owner of several dogs, which they secured and, returning to the place where the Harpes had been discovered, pursued them for some distance with the dogs, but when night came on the cane was so thick that they gave up the pursuit and went to their homes for the night.

The next morning Skaggs went to a place where men were engaged in rolling logs, and when he had told of the occurrence, a negro man who was present gave the information that the Harpes had broken jail and doubtless were the men whom Skaggs and others had pursed the evening previous. Major James Blaine5 was present and proposed that they should quit the log rolling and pursue the murderers with dogs and capture them, but the consensus of opinion was that the cane brakes were so thick that their efforts to capture them would be futile.

The Harpes proceeded on their way and passed through [then] Adair County, they met John Trabue, the young son of Colonel Daniel Trabue, upon the road and who had with him a small sack filled with meal or flour. The young man had been sent by his parents upon an errand to the house of a neighbor. He was never afterwards seen alive. The Harpes doubtless desired the contents of his sack and to conceal the robbery, or else for pure fiendishness, they killed the boy and cast his body into a hole in the ground which was beside the road or trail.6 Some years afterward, the skeleton of the boy was discovered in the hole. The hole, commonly called a sink hole, into which the body was thrown, is situated about three miles west of Columbia and immediately beside the original road from Columbia to Glasgow. It is near the division line which separates the farms of J. W. Flowers and N. Y. Mercer, but within the field of Flowers. Flowers resides upon the same farm which Cyrus Walker, the noted lawyer, once lived, and N. Y. Mercer resides upon the farm known as the Old Robbin Fletcher farm.

Prior to the location of [the] Columbia and Glasgow road in the year 1802, a trail or path occupied much of the same location and it was, doubtless, the trail which the Harpes were traveling upon when they met and slew the helpless youth. The trail in question came from the valley of Big Creek and intersected a trail, which led from Butler's Fork of Russell, in the neighborhood of Bliss, and was made by buffaloes and cattle of the early settlers in passing from the cane brakes upon Butler's Fork to those upon the Russell and Pettit's Fork of Russell. Only a few yards from the hole in which the body of young Trabue was thrown, about the year 1794, Colonel William Casey shot and killed the last unfriendly Indian ever known to have been in Adair County.

The traces of the old original Columbia and Glasgow road may yet be seen where it passed immedi-ately by the hole. This road ran in a very direct course from Columbia to the county line in the direction of Glasgow, and why it was abandoned will always remain one of the mysteries of the past. For many years the travel, which would naturally pass over it from Columbia to Big Creek, has been directed to the road which was originally designated as the road from Columbia to the headwaters of East Fork of the Little Barren River. This road ran from Columbia to Bliss and thence to Gradyville, where one may leave it and regain the original road to Glasgow by proceeding down Big Creek to where it originally crossed the stream.

Colonel Daniel Trabue, the father of the victim of the Harpes, was a very prominent citizen of Adair County. He was a soldier of the Revolution and for many years a member of the Adair County Court, and was a sheriff of the county.7 The Trabue family was a very prominent one in the county for several years before its formation and for many years thereafter. The brothers of the family married three sisters of the Haskins family at Camp Knox, in Green County. Chasteen H. Trabue, a noted divine in the early history of the county, and the grandfather of the present lawyer, E. H. Trabue, of Louisville, was a member of this family.8 The mother of the distinguished lawyers, George Alfred Caldwell, Isaac Caldwell and ---- Caldwell, was a daughter of the same Trabue family.9

The Harpes, after the murder of young Trabue, went across Adair County to the westward, and when in a remote part of the county at that time, and among the hills at the headwaters of the East Fork of Little Barren River, they killed a calf, out of the skins of which they made moccasins for themselves and left their old moccasins upon the ground. When the Harpes arrived near the South Fork of Little Barren River, in what is now Metcalfe County, and some miles above the site of the town of Edmonton, they murdered a man whose name was Dooley. This occurred at a place which was afterward a part of Adair County, at the time mentioned, though, Green or Taylor County, as Henry Skaggs, who is mentioned above, was a citizen of Green County and therein died when a very old man.

However, the Harpes were in [present] Russell County, probably in the year 1799, upon their second adventure into the state. Upon their second coming into the state, they entered from Tennessee through the Stockton Valley in Clinton County. The reason for their being in Russell County, at the time mentioned, may be found in the fact that in the year 1801 a brother-in-law of Big Harpe resided in that county. It is not now known when the kinsman of the Harpes took up his residence in Russell, but is important that he [might have been or] was residing there at the time the Harpes were there in 1799, and they were doubtless seeking shelter with him.

1 As will be later revealed, the Harpe's were Micajah and Wiley Harpe. Micajah was known as "Big" Harpe and Wiley as "Little" Harpe. Between them they possessed three wives and children, perhaps several.

2 The Harpe Brothers had likely been in the state between one and three years prior to the killing of Daniel Trabue's son in then Green County in April of 1799. An excellent source of this crime may be found in Westward into Kentucky: The Narrative of Daniel Trabue, edited by Chester Raymond Young; and an examination of the Harpe's career as a whole can be found in the volume entitled The Outlaws of Cave-In Rock by Otto Rothert.

3 Judge Hurt appears to be referring to the detention of Big and Little Harpe at Stanford, prior to their and their three wives detention in the Danville jail, then Mercer County, on the charge of murder. Consult Rothert's book for more detailed data.

4 "Henry Skaggs was a leader of the famed Long Hunters...By 1789 he had settled down on the North Fork of Pitman Creek in Nelson (present Taylor) County."--Westward into Kentucky, p196.

5 "James Blane, a justice of the peace, was elected the next month (May 1799) as the representative of Green County to the lower house of the legislature..."--Westward into Kentucky, p196.

6 "John, the second son of Daniel Trabue, was twelve years old when murdered...The lad had been sent on an errand to a grist mill and, returning home with a sack of flour and a bag of seed beans, was taken on the trail. His body was cut into pieces and thrown into a sinkhole, where the remains were found sometime before April 25."--Westward into Kentucky, p196.

7 Daniel Trabue was sheriff from 1808 to 1810 and from 1833 to 1835. He was also a long-time justice of the peace in Adair County.

8 Chastain Haskins Trabue was a nephew of Daniel, being son of Daniel's brother, Stephen.--Westward into Kentucky, p29.

9 Ann Trabue, born 24 November 1783, died 16 February 1846, married William Caldwell, long-time circuit and county clerk of Adair County, on 20 September 1808.--Columbia City Cemetery, Trabue plot.

This story was posted on 2019-02-01 08:06:10
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