In 1802, there was a crisis in Mississippi Territory. Bad men were on the prowl.
The 28-year-old governor, William C.C. Claiborne, took action. He wanted the outlaws terrorizing travelers along the Natchez Trace brought to justice, even if it meant killing them.
Along Bayou Pierre north of Port Gibson on the edge of Choctaw Territory lived Daniel Burnet, a colonel in the territory militia, who was the owner of more than 1,000 acres of wilderness. He lived in a small cabin on the trace where travelers heading north or south along the wilderness trail (later known as the Natchez Trace), could get out of the weather and sleep for the night on Burnet's floor. Burnet also provided transport across Bayou Pierre on his flatboat ferry.
"I have information," Claiborne wrote Burnet, "that a set of pirates and robbers, who alternately infest the river and the road, have their rendezvous in the cane-brakes near Walnut Hills (Vicksburg)." Claiborne reported the outlaw gang was led by Samuel Mason, and included members of his family as well as other outlaws.
Mason was a "desperate villain from Kentucky." The governor believed one member of Mason's gang was Wiley Harpe, a man as fiendish as Mason. A big man then in his early 60s, Mason had once been a decent human being. He had fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War and had served as a judge and justice of the peace.
While he was known as a killer, his primary occupation was robbery. For years, he and his armed gang boarded flatboats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, ejected the crews, and exchanged the stolen goods for cash in Natchez or New Orleans. In recent months Mason had relocated. Now he was targeting the flatboatmen traveling northward on the trace, their pockets filled with cash after being paid at journey's end.
Wiley Harpe, on the other hand, who was known as "Little Harpe," and his big brother, Micajah Harpe, known as "Big Harpe," appeared to have been natural born killers. They began their life of crime in North Carolina as Tories (American supporters of the British during the revolution), who joined a gang that targeted Patriots, raped women, committed arson, stole property and killed indiscriminately.
Later, the Harpe brothers lived with pro-British Indian tribes and committed more atrocities against men, women and children by attacking Patriot settlements. After the war, their outrages continued in Tennessee and Kentucky. They kidnapped women. They ambushed strangers along lonely trails.
According to one account, Big Harpe, infuriated over the cries of his infant daughter, picked her up and bashed her head against a tree, killing the child instantly. The brothers were known to kill men, gut them, place stones in their opened abdomens and sink them in a river.
In 1799, a posse caught Big Harpe in Kentucky after he and Little Harpe murdered a woman, her child and a man. Little Harpe escaped. Big Harpe was shot by a member of a posse and finished off with a tomahawk. The slain woman's widower cut off Big Harpe's head and placed it on a pole on a crossroads in Webster County. To this day, the place is known as Harpe's Head Road.
By the time of Big Harpe's death, he and his little brother had killed an estimated three dozen-plus men, women and children.
Little Harpe slipped out of Kentucky and joined up with Mason, who was headquartered at Cave-in-Rock, a limestone cave along the Ohio in Illinois, across the river from Kentucky. The cave is a famous tourist attraction today, but during the 1790s, it was a place to be avoided. Because efforts were being made to apprehend Mason, the gang headed down the Mississippi in 1801 to Walnut Hills (Vicksburg). By then, Mason and Little Harpe, who had taken on the alias John Sutton (or Setton), were two of the most feared men in America.
At this time, the lands west of the Mississippi River, and New Orleans, belonged to the Spanish. Often times Mason and his gang set up camp on the west side of the river in Spanish territory after committing crimes on the east side in American territory.
THEFT & MURDER
On April 27, 1802, from his desk at the territorial capital of Washington, six miles east of Natchez, Gov. Claiborne wrote Col. Burnet at Port Gibson that the Mason gang had attempted to force their way onto the flatboat of Col. Joshua Baker on the Mississippi between the mouth of the Yazoo and Walnut Hills. The guns of Baker and his men thwarted the attack.
The gang members "must be arrested," the governor wrote, "the honor of our country, the interest of society, and the feelings of humanity proclaim that it is time to stop their career. The crimes of Harpe are many and great, and in point of baseness, Mason is nearly as celebrated.
"While these sons of Rapine and Murder are permitted to rove at large, we may expect daily to hear of outrages upon the lives and properties of our fellow citizens."
Claiborne instructed Burnet to find 15 to 20 good men, proceed to Walnut Hills, searching along the way every trail, hilltop and hollow for the gang: “Use all the means in your power to arrest them under a strong guard."
The governor also alerted Lt. Rennick with the 3rd U.S. Regiment at Walnut Hills and the commander of U.S. troops on the Natchez Trace at Bear Creek, Tennessee, to be on the lookout for the gang. Any reports of mischief "being done or attempted" in the wilderness should be aggressively investigated, Claiborne ordered.
ESCAPE ON THE RIVER
Neither Burnet's men nor the U.S. military caught the gang, Instead, Mason and his men were apprehended by Spanish authorities at New Madrid (Missouri) on the west bank of the Mississippi. Mason had in his possession $7,000 in stolen bank notes. The superior officer there soon placed the gang on a sloop for transport to New Orleans, where his superiors could decide their fate.
However, the Spanish governor determined that since the crimes for which they were arrested occurred on American soil they should be tried in an American court. Heading south by boat, a storm kicked up along the Mississippi near present day New Roads in Pointe Coupee Parish. As everyone sought cover, one of Mason's men seized a gun and shot the Spanish captain. The gang escaped.
Later, Mason learned from one of their victims along the trace that there was a $2,000 reward on his head. Evil men are prone to evil thoughts. Soon two of Mason's own men began to plot against their leader.
John Swaney, a post rider who delivered mail from Nashville to Natchez, told the Gallatin Examiner (Tennessee) that Mason often stopped the post riders to get the latest news circulating about the gang. Mason never robbed or threatened him, and even explained that he had no desire to harm any trace traveler but certainly intended to take their money. Every penny.
Not long after the gang made their escape from the Spanish sloop, there was a stir of excitement in the Jefferson County seat of Old Greenville, the biggest town on the trace between Natchez and Port Gibson. The village was located on Mud Island Creek six miles northwest of present day Fayette and 25 miles north of Natchez. Greenville was named after Major-General Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War hero revered by George Washington.
On September 6, 1802, Gov. Claiborne notified U.S. Postmaster General Gideon Granger: "I have been requested by a number of respectable citizens ... to solicit you to establish a post office at the Town of Greenville … a flourishing little village … situated in the neighbourhood of a compact, populous and wealthy settlement ... and the place of holding the Superior Court for Jefferson District."
In 1808, Frotescue Cuming traveled through Greenville and later wrote about it in his journal, which was published in a book called, Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country. He said the town consisted of one wide street a mile and one-half long running northwest by southeast and intersected by two small streets. Cuming counted 40 houses and saw a small church, the jail, pillory, post office, two taverns and a pharmacy.
Excitement covered Greenville in 1803 when two strangers rode into town carrying a sack. Inside it was a man's head. The men identified themselves as John Sutton and James May. They identified the head as that of the outlaw Sam Mason.
Sutton and May came to claim the $2,000 reward. Folks from miles away came to Greenville to take a look at the grisly sight. Others agreed that the head belonged to Mason.
But then there was a twist. A man robbed two months earlier on the trace recognized the reward seekers as members of Mason’s gang. The man testified that the misfits murdered one in his group. He said Sutton and May were the killers. The two were arrested on the spot. Soon they were tried, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.
On the day of the execution in 1804, John Bowman of Knoxville, Tenn., having just arrived in town, did a double take when he laid eyes on John Sutton.
"You're Little Harpe," Bowman claimed. Sutton denied it.
However, according to Swaney, the post rider, an eyewitness to the events, Bowman “persisted and said if you are Harpe, you have a scar under your left nipple where I cut you in a difficulty we had at Knoxville."
Bowman ripped open Sutton’s shirt. The crowd gasped as they beheld the scar just as Bowman had described it.
According to Mississippi historian Dunbar Rowland, the location of the hangings on the outskirts of Greenville was known as "Gallows Field" and still identifiable in the early 1900s.
In the aftermath of executions, stories abounded that upon learning of the reward, the two had split Mason's head with a tomahawk as he slept beside a campfire. Afterward they set out to claim the reward.
The hangings made old Greenville famous before the little village faded away. Around that time, Fayette was named the new county seat in 1825.