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Captain Samuel Mason

One of the most interesting characters out of our local history was Captain Sam Mason. Samuel Ross Mason was born in Norfolk, Virginia to a well-respected family on November 8, 1739. He was raised in what is now Charles Town, West Virginia. When he was a teenager, Sam stole some horses from Colonel John Hite in Frederick County, Virginia. He was chased down and caught. During the pursuit he was slightly wounded. He made restitution to Col. Hite, but he had earned a reputation for dishonesty.

In 1767, Sam married Rosanna Dorsey with whom he would eventually have ten children (Six sons and four daughters). Sam was handicapped by his bad reputation, so he moved his family to Ohio County, Virginia around 1773 where he settled near Shepherds Fort in the region now known as Elm Grove. At some point, Sam opened a tavern in Fulton to the north of Wheeling a few hundred feet east of where Generations Pub is currently located. During this time, Sam was respected as an upstanding citizen, so the first Court of Ohio County which met during January of 1777 recommended him to Governor Patrick Henry for a commission as a Captain of the Militia.

When General Hand at Fort Pitt received word from Reverend David Zeisberger that an Indian attack on Fort Henry was imminent, he ordered Captain Mason’s militia company to Fort Henry along with four other companies of militia. On September 1, 1777, a slave reported that he had seen an Indian. Mason’s company was already mounting up for the morning patrol, so they went to check it out. Before long, they also spotted an Indian who took off on the run when he realized that he had been seen. Mason and his men followed in hot pursuit and rode right into an ambush. Several of Mason’s men were killed or wounded. Sam was wounded twice, but managed to make it to Wheeling Creek where he was able to hide among the roots of a sycamore tree. Against the odds, Mason recovered from his wounds.

After the attack, Sam continued to operate the tavern in Wheeling, but business was slow because the Indians had destroyed everything in Wheeling. During 1778, some things came up missing from Fort Henry. The chief suspect was Sam Mason because he already had earned a reputation around town as a shady character. Having been accused of stealing supplies from Fort Henry, Mason moved his family to Pennsylvania where he bought a 500 acre farm in Washington County not far from Catfish Camp. In July, 1779, General Broadhead organized an expedition to destroy some Munsee Indian towns on the Allegany River. That expedition was commanded by Captain Samuel Mason. Mason’s success against the Indians made him popular back home. In July, 1781, he was elected justice of the peace and just a few months later, he was named as an associate judge.

By 1782, Mason appeared to have become successful. Records show that he paid taxes on his 500 acre farm , two horses, four cows, six sheep, and four slaves. However, he was actually deeply in debt. The old habits returned and Mason was again accused of being a thief. To escape from his financial problems, Mason moved his family to Red Banks, Kentucky in 1784. Red Banks was located at the site of the present town of Henderson, Kentucky.

In those days, Red Banks was a lawless place populated by men who had come there to escape the law. At Red Banks, Mason expanded his criminal activities to include counterfeiting and selling fake land certificates along with river piracy.. In 1785, Mason’s Pennsylvania farm was sold at a sheriff's sale to pay off his debt, but the sale only brought in half of what he owed. By 1789, the Pennsylvania court had learned of his location, so it sent a man named David Bradford to Kentucky to attempt to collect the remaining debt or to arrest Mason and return him to Pennsylvania. Mason learned about the agent, so he moved his family ten miles farther downriver to a place called Diamond Island. By then, he had several partners in crime including Micajah and Wiley Harpe who were known as Big Harpe and Little Harpe respectively. Along with some other companions, the three men preyed on the boats transporting cargo up and down the Ohio River. Sometimes, members of the gang would pose as local river pilots who offered to help the boatmen navigate safely through the shallow shoals in that part of the river. Sometimes, Mason’s attractive daughter in law would pretend to be stranded on Diamond Island and the boatmen would be robbed and killed when they went to rescue her. This continued until the law abiding locals decided to put an end to criminal activities in the area and formed a group called the “Regulators” which began pursuing the river pirates

To escape the Regulators, Mason moved his base of operations downriver to a place on the Mississippi to Illinois to a place known as “Cave in Rock” around 1797. Today, the Cave in Rock area is a state park.Mason resumed his counterfeiting operation and opened an inn along with a tavern and brothel at Cave in Rock. According to Joe Roxby, the sign on the establishment read, “Wilson’s Liquor Vault and House of Entertainment.” It quickly became a popular stopping place for the men who were transporting goods up and down the Mississippi river. Mason’s daughter in law was one of the prostitutes. While the prostitutes were keeping the boatmen busy and getting them drunk, Mason’s gang members were examining their cargo. Sometimes, the boatmen never left Cave in Rock alive. Other times, they were taken downriver and killed. The Harpe brothers were very brutal and there are several stories of them torturing and murdering boatmen for entertainment. They often disposed of the bodies of murdered boatmen by slitting them open and filling them with rocks to weight them down before dumping them into the river. The gang members then floated the stolen boats downriver to New Orleans where they sold the cargo.

Eventually, the Regulators began to put pressure on Mason’s operation at Cave in Rock and sought to arrest him, so he left the area accompanied by Little Harpe (Wiley) who was going by the alias of John Setton. They moved to Nachez Trace Mississippi in 1799 where they resumed their criminal activities as pirates and highwaymen. In April, 1802 Mississippi Governor William C. C. Claiborne was informed that Samuel Mason and Wiley Harpe had attempted to board the boat of Colonel Joshua Baker between Yazoo and Walnut Hills, now Vicksburg, Mississippi. The governor responded by ordering Colonel Daniel Burnet, with 15-20 volunteers to track down Mason and his men. The governor offered a reward of $2,000 for the capture of Mason and Harpe dead or alive. The group raided Mason’s home, but he was long gone.

However, In January, 1803, Mason, four of his sons, and several other men were discovered by Spanish officials at the Little Prairie settlement (now Caruthersville), in southeastern Missouri. They were able to arrest Mason and his companions. While the men were being put aboard a boat to be transported to New Orleans for trial, Mason and Wiley Harpe, who was still using the alias of John Sutton, overpowered their guards and escaped. During the escape, Mason was wounded.

Some accounts say that he was wounded in the leg and others that he was wounded in the head. After the escape, the Governor raised the bounty on Mason to $2500.00. (equal to over $100,000.00) in today’s currency) A few days after the escape. Two men calling themselves May and Sutton appeared at the courthouse in Greenville Mississippi bearing what they claimed was the head of Sam Mason. Numerous people examined the head and confirmed that it was Mason. As the Judge was preparing the death certificate and the affidavit to the governor to claim the reward, someone recognized Wiley Harpe who was immediately arrested and hanged for murder. Some historians claim that Mason died from his wounds and others claim that Little Harpe killed him for the reward. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. Dead is still dead!