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Samuel Mason

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Title: Samuel Mason  
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Subject: Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, Piracy, Joseph Baker (pirate), Charles Gibbs, Ching Shih
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Samuel Mason

Samuel Mason or Meason (1739–1803) was a Revolutionary War, Virginia militia captain on the American western frontier, who following the war, became the leader of a gang of river pirates and highwaymen on the lower Ohio River and the Mississippi River in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was associated with outlaws around Red Banks, Cave-in-Rock, Stack Island, and the Natchez Trace.

Early life, Revolutionary War service, and honest pursuits

Mason was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in, what is now, Charles Town, West Virginia formerly, a part of Virginia. Samuel Mason was thought to have been "born bad." According to Lyman Draper, in the 1750s, Mason got his earliest start in crime, as a teenager, by stealing the horses of Colonel John Hite, in Frederick County, Virginia, being wounded and caught by his pursuers.[1] He moved from Charles Town to what is now Ohio County, West Virginia also, at that time, a part of Virginia, in 1773. During the American Revolution, Samuel Mason was a captain of the Ohio County Militia, Virginia State Forces. According to Ohio County court minutes dated 7 January 1777, Mason was recommended to the governor of Virginia to serve as captain of the militia.[2] On 28 January, he was present and cited as a captain from Ohio county at a "council of war" held at Catfish Camp.[3] Catfish Camp was located at or near present Washington, Pennsylvania. On 8 June 1777, Mason wrote a letter from Fort Henry, now Wheeling, West Virginia, to brigadier general Edward Hand, at Fort Pitt. The letter was signed Samuel Meason.[4] On 1 September 1777, he was wounded but survived an ambush by Native Americans near Fort Henry. Most of the men in his company perished during the attack.[5] He moved again in 1779, this time to what is now Washington County, Pennsylvania, where he was elected justice of the peace and later selected as associate judge, leaving for Kentucky in 1784. Mason's surname was spelled interchangeably as Meason in many of the early records. This is explained in at least two family histories of the Mason/Meason family. One is Pioneer Period and Pioneer People of Fairfield County, Ohio by C. M. L. Wiseman, dated 1901, and the other, Torrence and Allied Families by Robert M. Torrence, dated 1938.

Criminal activities

Samuel Mason moved his family in the early 1790s, to the Red Banks, on the Ohio River, now Henderson, Kentucky, where he began his criminal activities. He later, settled downriver on Diamond Island and engaged in river piracy. By 1797, Mason moved the base of his operations further downriver to Cave-in-Rock, on the Illinois side of the river. The Mason gang of pirates openly, based themselves at Cave-in-Rock, where they had a brief association with serial killers Micajah Harpe and Wiley Harpe, until the summer of 1799, when they were expelled by the "Exterminators" under the leadership of Capt. Young of Mercer County, Kentucky. Mason moved his operations downriver and settled his family in Spanish Louisiana and became a highwayman on the Natchez Trace in Mississippi. In April 1802 Mississippi Governor William C. C. Claiborne was informed Mason and Wiley Harpe had attempted to board a boat of a Colonel Joshua Baker between Yazoo and Walnut Hills, which is now Vicksburg, Mississippi.[6]

Arrest and death

According to Spanish colonial court records, Spanish officials arrested Mason and his men early in 1803 at the Little Prairie settlement, now Caruthersville, in southeastern Missouri. Mason and his family members were taken to the colonial government in New Madrid, where a three-day hearing was held to determine whether Mason was a pirate. Although Mason claimed he was simply a farmer who had been maligned by his enemies, the presence of $7,000 in currency and 20 human scalps in his baggage convinced the Spanish he indeed was a pirate. Mason and his family were taken under guard to New Orleans, where the Spanish governor ordered them handed over to the American governor in the Mississippi Territory, as all their crimes appeared to have taken place in American territory or against American boats.

While being transported upriver, Mason and gang member John Sutton (aka Wiley Harpe) overpowered their guards and escaped, with Mason being shot in the head during the escape. Although one 1803 account {Rothert .p. 247} claimed Captain Robert McCoy was killed by Mason in the escape attempt, McCoy, the Commandant of New Madrid, actually died in 1840 – nor was he crippled by Mason.[7] The American governor immediately issued a reward for their recapture, prompting Sutton and another man to bring Mason's head in an attempt to claim the reward (whether they killed Mason or whether he died from his wound suffered in the escape attempt has never been established). They were recognized as two of the pirates, arrested, tried in federal court, found guilty of piracy, and hanged in Old Greenville, Jefferson County, Mississippi in early 1804.[8]

Fictional representation and historical inaccuracies

Mort Mills portrayed this historical river pirate leader in The Wonderful World of Disney's live-action miniseries Davy Crockett.


  1. ^ Rothert's 1924 "The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock...".p. 164 1924
  2. ^ Boyd Crumrine, Virginia Court Records in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Records of the District of West Augusta and Ohio and Yahogania Counties, Virginia, 1775–1780, Consolidated Edition, p. 366, dated 1981.
  3. ^ History of the Upper Ohio Valley, Vol. 1., Brant & Fuller, p. 73, dated 1891.
  4. ^ Samuel Hazard, Pennsylvania Archives, Selected and Arranged from Original Documents in the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Conformably to Acts of the General Assembly, February 15, 1851, & March 7, 1852, Vol. V., p. 445, dated 1853.
  5. ^ History of the Upper Ohio Valley, Vol. 1., Brant & Fuller, pps. 80–82, dated 1891.
  6. ^ D. Roland's 1907 "Mississippi, comprising Sketchs of Towns, Events...".p. 176 1907
  7. ^ Houck's "History of Missouri from the Earliest explorations..." 1908 Volume 2 .p.140. According to Conrad's "Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri" 1901 .p. 557 a Creek named Tewanaye who killed a David Trotter in New Madrid in 1802 had been found guilty of murder in New Orleans and in a return trip near Natchez in a galley Tewanaye had tried to escape and crippled McCoy; Tewanaye was executed in New Madrid January 3, 1803.
  8. ^ Wagner, Mark and Mary R. McCorvie, "Going to See the Varmint: Piracy in Myth and Reality on the Ohio River, 1785–1830", In X Marks The Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen, pp. 219–247. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.

Further reading

  • Aspbury, Herbert. The French Quarter: The Informal of the New Orleans Underworld
  • Coates, Robert M. The Outlaw Years: the History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace
  • Magee, M. Juliette. Cavern of crime. Livingston Ledger, 1973.
  • Rothert, Otto A. The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock, Otto A. Rothert, Cleveland 1924; rpt. 1996 ISBN 0-8093-2034-7
  • Seineke, Kathrine Wagner. The George Rogers Clark adventure in the Illinois: and selected documents of the American Revolution at the frontier posts Polyanthos, 1981.
  • Thrapp, Dan L. Encyclopedia of frontier biography, Volume 4, Arthur H. Clark Co., 1988
  • Wagner, Mark and Mary McCorvie. "Going to See the Varmint: Piracy in Myth and Reality on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, 1785–1830," X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, Univ. Press of Florida, 2006.
  • Wellman, Paul I. Spawn of Evil

External links

  • Bell Anthology – Samuel Mason
  • Sam Mason survives Indian attack, This Day in History, History.Com
  • Mason and Harpe
  • Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock, Southern Illinois History Page
  • by Mark Wagner, Book Review, Southern Illinois University, CarbondaleX Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy,Samuel Mason,
  • Samuel Mason and Little Harpe, Mississippi Local History Network
  • Outlaws, Rascals & Ruffians,! Mississippi Local History Network
  • Samuel Mason at Cave-in-Rock
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