Research Publications

Harpe Brothers - Cave-in-rock, IL

3. Cave-in-Rock, Illinois

         The rendezvous was evidently set at the notorious Cave-in-Rock in southern Illinois. Wide but not deep, the cave, set in a wall of gray rock running along the Ohio River, could look deceptively peaceful, but in the day before the radio, television, and the internet, hapless travelers along the river were unaware of its danger. It was the hangout of Samuel Mason and his gang of river pirates.

         A former Revolutionary War hero and friend of George Rogers Clark, Mason had gathered a band of cutthroats and robbers. They preyed upon flatboats traveling along the Ohio. Generally serving two to four families, these boats conveyed settlers toward virgin territory. Generally these vessels included clothing, utensils, livestock--items that could be sold down river, especially in New Orleans. Often using an apparently stranded woman and child as decoys, the bandits would lure the boats to the river side, then slaughter the travelers, then take the boat down river to be sold along with its cargo.

         Here the brothers rejoined their female accomplices and probably took part in some of the raids Mason planned. But all did not go well with this evidently fragile alliance. The Harpes took a male prisoner, captured during one of the flatboat raids, to the top of the high cliff overlooking the cave, tied him naked to the back of a horse, and drove the blindfolded animal over the edge of the precipice to the dismay of Mason and his cohorts. Because of this grotesque shenanigan--or possible others--Mason expelled the brothers and their women from the cave.