Before the American Revolution, there were thirteen British colonies. After the war, there were thirteen American (loosely confederated) states with much work remaining within the states and at the national level. Much of this work fell upon the shoulders of the new Congress.
Initially, the new states reflected the original colonies, which means that in terms of size, they were much larger than they are today. Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia extended from the Atlantic seacoast all the way to the Mississippi River. In the approximate center of these states, adding Pennsylvania and New York, is the Appalachian mountain system that extends from Canada southwestward 1,500 miles with a terminus (then) in western Georgia with a width of from 100 to 350 miles. It was a rough country. There are fourteen separate valleys in the chain and three distinct watersheds. Challenging terrain, deep rivers, dangerous predators, and hostile Indians created a significant barrier to westward movement and settlement. In the mid-1780s, the American West began at the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains.
We know a lot about the people who settled this region, but not everything. History only exists where there are written records that chronicle the story of human events. In the absence of written records, we have only archeological inquiry, myth, and supposition. There are a few facts that document the activities of Harpe Brothers but most of what we know about them developed from myth and legend.
We know that Micajah Harpe (born as Joshua Harper) lived between 1765-1799 and that Wiley Harpe (born as William Harper) lived between 1769-1804. They are known to us now as “Big Harpe” and “Little Harpe.” They were ruthless killers, highwaymen, and river pirates that operated in the areas of present-day Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi.
Historians believe that the Harpe brothers were born in Orange County, North Carolina of Scottish parents, but they may also have been immigrants from Scotland. They may have been brothers or cousins, their fathers being brothers John and William Harper, who settled in Orange County between 1761-63. John and William were Calvinists and loyal to the British Crown. Before the American Revolution, John and William Harper are likely to have served as Tory militia during the War of the Regulation (1765-71).
According to one story, John and William initially sought to join the patriot forces at the beginning of the American Revolution but were refused owing to their earlier association with and loyalty to British loyalists. Some historians postulate that when American patriots shunned these men, they transferred their anger to their offspring, and this may explain the criminal behavior of Micajah and Wiley. Great theory, I suppose … but in my view, more on the order of balderdash. Some folks are simply no damn good.
In the spring of 1775, the Harpe brothers left North Carolina to work as slaver overseers in Virginia. The occupation seems contrary to what we know of Calvinists and Scottish immigrants, people who generally held no truck with slavery in any form. Harpe traveled in the company of two women named Susan and either Betsey or Betty Roberts. Possibly, these women were sisters, both of whom bore Big Harpe children. Little Harpe married Sarah (called Sally) Rice, the daughter of a Baptist minister.
We aren’t sure of the location of Big and Little Harpe when war broke out between the colonies and Great Britain, but according to Captain James Wood of the Continental Army, these young men joined up with a Tory rape gang in North Carolina … which is to say that the loyalist criminals took advantage of war time conditions to commit violent crimes against American patriots: murder, rape, theft, arson, and rustling. Captain Wood’s account tells us that the Harpe gang kidnapped four teenaged girls, one of whom was rescued by Wood’s militia.
Some historians also believe that the Harpe’s were in the employ of the British Army, paid as “military associates” serving out of uniform and responsible for their own weapons. The British Army (back then) expected these associates to survive by forgery, robbery, and looting the battlefields.
Captain Wood’s son was Frank Wood, a patriot soldier on the western frontier, the older brother of Susan Wood, who was later kidnapped and ended up as the common law wife of Big Harpe. Frank claimed to have seen the Harpe boys serving as Tory men under Major Patrick Ferguson, British Army, at the Battle of King’s Mountain in October 1780. Frank Wood took aim at Big Harpe and fired but missed.
Beginning in November 1780, the Harpe brothers served under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion at the Battles of the Blackstocks and Cowpens. After the British defeat at Yorktown, the Harpe’s left North Carolina and joined with Indian war parties, notably, the renegade Chickamauga Cherokee in the western Appalachian Mountains (near present-day Tennessee). On 2 April 1781, the Harpe brothers participated in an attack of the settlement at Bluff Station near Fort Nashborough. In August 1782, they joined the British-backed war party into Kentucky where, at the Battle of Blue Licks, a frontier force led by Daniel Boone was defeated.
During the brother’s affiliation with rampaging Cherokees, they lived in the village of Nickajack, near present day Chattanooga —for a period of about thirteen years. It was during this period that they kidnapped Maria Davidson and Susan Wood. The Harpe fortunately abandoned the village in 1794, before it was attacked and destroyed by American militia. They moved to a place along Beaver Creek in Powell’s Valley (near present-day Knoxville), from which they began stealing food and supplies from local pioneers.
Sometime in 1797, Big Harpe and his brother initiated a series of crimes though Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois. In this year, local settlers armed themselves and drove the Harpe’s out of Powell Valley. They were accused of the murder of a man named Johnson whose body was discovered laying at the bottom of a shallow creek. Johnson’s chest had been ripped open and filled with rocks. Local settlers also found stolen hogs and horses at their cabin. Myths soon developed about the ruthlessness of the Harpe brothers, stories even accused them of murdering children. The brothers fled to Kentucky on the Wilderness Road, where they were said to have robbed and murdered a peddler named Peyton.
In December 1797, the Harpe’s murdered two travelers moving west from Maryland and soon after, a man named John Langford who was killed in a local inn. Local authorities arrested the Harpe’s and confined them in the jail at Danville (replica shown right) pending trial, but they escaped and fled. One man, who had joined the posse in their pursuit later returned to his home to find his son murdered and his body mutilated. The Harpe’s were blamed for this depredation as a revenge killing because the boy’s father joined the posse.
In April 1799, Kentucky governor James Garrard placed a $300 reward on each of the brothers for their capture. The Harpe’s fled north, killing two more men. Entering southern Illinois near the Saline River, the brothers came upon a camp of three men, murdered them and took their property. They soon after joined the gang of Sam Mason, a river pirate and highwayman who operated along the lower Ohio River and Mississippi.
Along with their wives and children, the Harpe’s remained with Mason’s gang and joined him in attacking cargo-laden barges moving along the river. The Mason gang were known for ruthlessness, but even they were appalled at the viciousness exhibited by the Harpe’s. They seemed to exult in their cruelty, acting more like depraved savages than white men. Ultimately, Mason forced the Harpe’s to leave his outlaw camp.
Moving back to Tennessee, the Harpe’s were accused of murdering a farmer named Bradbury, a traveler named Hardin, and a young boy known as Coffey. Several more bodies were discovered, including those of William Ballard, James Brassel, John Tulley, and John Graves along with his teenage son. Most of these men were found with their throats cut and their bodies disemboweled. The remains of one entire family was discovered in a cold camp along a stream in Logan County; they had been axed to death.
In August 1799, north of Russellville, Kentucky, Big Harpe murdered his own infant daughter because her constant crying annoyed him; it was the only crime to which he confessed and exhibited remorse over. Later that month, a man named Trowbridge was found disemboweled near Highland Creek. Offered shelter during a storm in Webster County, the Harpe’s murdered their hosts: Major William Love, his wife, their daughter, and a house guest.
The governor of Kentucky, having issued warrants for the arrest of Micajah and Wiley Harpe, described them as follows:
MICAJAH HARP alias ROBERTS is about six feet high-of robust make and is about 30 or 32 years of age. He has an ill-looking, downcast countenance, and his hair is black and short, but comes very much down his forehead. He is built very straight and is FULL FLESHED in the face. When he went away, he had on a striped nankeen coat, dark blue woolen stockings, leggings of drab cloth and trousers of the same as the coat.
WILEY HARP alias ROBERTS is very meagre in his face, has short black hair but not quite so curly as his brother’s; he looks older, though really younger, and has likewise a downcast countenance. He had on a coat of the same stuff as his brother’s, and had a surtout coat over, the close-bodied one. His stockings are dark woolen ones, and his leggings are of drab cloth.
Note that the pictures presented here are an artist’s rendition of the Harpe Brothers based on official physical descriptions of the men issued by the State of Kentucky.
Accused of 37 murders and suspected of a dozen more, the Harpe’s fled with an angry posse hot on their trail. On 24 August 1799, while preparing to commit yet another murder, a posse organized by John Leiper called for the Harpe’s to surrender. During the Harpe’s attempt to escape, Leiper shot Micajah in the leg, pulled him from his horse, and whacked him with a tomahawk. As he lay dying, Big Harpe confessed to 20 murders. When he was finished with his confession, posse member Moses Stegall, whose wife had been raped and murdered by Big Harpe, along with their infant daughter, calmly and slowly cut off Micajah’s head. Moses placed the outlaw’s head on a stake and planted it along the road. The highway is still known as Harpe’s Head Road in Webster County, Kentucky. Wiley, however, made good his escape and rejoined the Mason Gang at Cave-in-Rock.
Four years later, Spanish authorities arrested the Mason gang, including Wiley Harpe, who was at the time using an alias. He was not immediately recognized as the man wanted for serial murder. Spanish officials transported the gang to New Orleans and held them in custody while investigating members of the Mason gang. Harpe and others denied any involvement with piracy, but their personal effects told a different story. Mason was in possession of over $7,000 in cash and twenty-two human scalps. Since the crimes for which they were accused took place in the United States, a Spanish magistrate ordered the gang turned over to American authorities. While being transferred to US authorities, the men escaped with Mason being mortally wounded.
Wiley Harpe, then calling himself John Sutton, traveling with Peter Alston, alias James May, attempted to claim Mason’s bounty by cutting off his head and turning it over to US law enforcement authorities. However, one of the lawmen recognized Harpe and Alston as wanted outlaws and arrested them. Harpe and Alston attempted an escape, but they were quickly recaptured, tried, and sentenced to hang. Both men met this fate in January 1804, and after they were dead, local authorities had them decapitated, placed their heads on stakes along the Natchez Trace, which served as notices of warning to other outlaws.
Freed from forced cohabitation, Sally Rice, Susan Wood, and Maria Davidson-Roberts subsequently led respectable lives, married decent men, and had several children. Susan Wood’s daughter later migrated to Texas.
Micajah and Wiley Harpe(r) were vicious killers whose depredations closely resembled those committed by hostile Cherokee against white settlers in the western territories. The extent to which their association with hostile Cherokee shaped this behavior cannot be known but there are some historians (the non-politically correct ones) who have made this connection. Still, the Harpe Brothers were not the only outlaws operating in the early western territories, and it is believed that such savage behavior was common. All such killers were dangerous psychopaths; the Harpe Brothers were America’s first serial killers and there can be no doubt that western settlers were far better off, and safer, by the deaths of Micajah (Joshua) and Wiley (William) Harper. May they burn in hell.
- Coates, R. M. The Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace.
- Hall, J. The Harpe’s Head: A Legend of Kentucky. New York: Key & Biddle, 1833
- Musgrave, J. Frontier Serial Killers: The Harpe’s, Two Outlaws in Pioneer Times. Filson Club History Quarterly, January 1927
- Ward, H. M. Between the Lines: Banditti of the American Revolution. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2002.
 An uprising in the Carolinas in which citizens took up arms against colonial officials, who they viewed as corrupt. The rebellion brought no changes to the power structure, but it may have served as one (of several) triggers to the American Revolution. Other historians argue that the issue was unlikely to have carried over to 1776, even though in the aftermath of the conflict, the government raised taxes on the settlers.
 Ferguson was a Scottish officer and an early advocate of light infantry. He was the designer of the Ferguson Rifle. He is probably best known (in America) as an aggressive loyalist who treated patriots harshly. Ferguson was killed in the Battle of Kings Mountain.
 Tarleton was a 26-year-old officer with exceptional horsemanship skills who later proved useful to his commander as an intelligence officer and a raider. On the field of battle, Tarleton was a no-nonsense commander who, contrary to the way in which his character was portrayed in the Mel Gibson film, The Patriot, he committed no atrocities in the Revolutionary War. His report on the war is a worthy read, titled A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America originally printed in London, c. 1826, reprinted in 2010.
 Several additional attacks occurred in July 1788 and April 1793.
 This method of disposing of bodies was unique to the Harpe men.
 During the Revolutionary War, Mason (1739-1803) served as a militia captain on the side of the patriots. After the war, he turned to lawlessness and was loosely affiliated with other criminal elements operating near Red Banks, Cave-in-Rock, Stark Island, and within the Natchez Trace. Mason and members of his gang, including Wiley Harpe, were arrested by Spanish authorities, who intended to turn them over to American authorities. During this transfer, the gang overpowered their guards. Mason was killed during the escape attempt.
 Peter was the son of the counterfeiter Philip Alston (1740-1799).