Friday, February 25, 2011

Wiley Harpe, Samuel Mason & Aaron Burr in Natchez

by Mike Chapman

It is fascinating to study the history of my hometown and birthplace, Natchez on the Mississippi.  As paranormal investigators, part of our work is understanding the context and history of the places and sites that are known or suspected to be haunted.  As a result, historical research is almost a field unto itself, and functions as an interesting sideline for many of us.  This post unveils just a few of the basic facts about the history of Natchez around the turn of the nineteenth century.  The history of Natchez is rich throughout all of its periods, and the period surrounding the building of King’s Tavern is certainly no exception.  Exploring this time is indeed fascinating, and begins with an end: the Spanish ceding their claim and rule over the Mississippi Territory, to the Americans.  The claim to the area, which was decided in the Treaty of Madrid in 1795, didn’t take practical effect until August of 1798 when Governor Winthrop Sargent arrived to take control for the Americans.  It wasn’t known as a territory under the Spanish, but became an “organized incorporated territory of the United States" and was so from April 7, 1798 until December 10, 1817, until the final extent of the territory was admitted to the Union as the twentieth State – the State of Mississippi.   

Sargent arrived in Natchez on August 6, 1798, but did not take office immediately due to being very ill.  He took his post on August 16.  He had been appointed governor over the territory by President John Adams on May 7, 1798, and he served until May 25, 1801.  He stayed at Concord, which had been the home of the Spanish Governor Gayoso.

This period then, is a period of great flux with the changing of flags over Natchez from the Spanish to the American, while across the river in Louisiana, due to the Louisiana Purchase, the flag changed from that of France to America.  I think we today so easily forget just how frontier and “on the edge” Natchez was, and made up of all kinds of citizenry and travelers.  The Revolutionary War had only ended in 1783, and this raw frontier had many refugees and unsavory characters around it from that upheaval.  It had French, Spanish, Americans, and Indians, as well as immigrants from Germany, Ireland and all over, plus the early slave population.  Enter into that mix we have some of the times’ most notorious bandits and murderers – Samuel Mason and his gang, as well as Wiley “Little” Harpe, who banded together with Mason during this time.  It was during all of this change and backdrop, that Mason and Harpe would meet their grisly and headless end, under the governorship of one William C.C. Claiborne.  Lastly, to close out this period, is the Aaron Burr controversy after his duel with Alexander Hamilton (in which he kills Hamilton), and Burr’s alleged treason.

Timeline: Period of the turn of the 19th Century

1798:  Spanish rule in Natchez ends; Governor Sargent arrives at assumes his post for the Americans in the newly declared “Mississippi Territory” on August 16, 1798.  He was appointed on May 7, 1798 and serves until May 25, 1801.  Washington, MS, is declared as the territorial capitol.

1798:  King’s Tavern was built (by NAPS estimation).

1799:  August 21, Wednesday; Micajah and Wiley Harpe viciously murder the wife and baby of Moses Stegall, as well as a surveyor staying with them – Major William Love, five miles outside of Dixon, Kentucky.  They murder Major Love during the night for snoring, and kill the Stegalls the next morning and set fire to the cabin to try and cover their crime.  They then flee eastward.  A posse, including Moses Stegall, sets out after them. A few days later, the posse stumbles upon the Harpe party, which consisted of several women and children. In the confusion, Wiley Harpe escapes, but Micajah is shot and wounded, then beheaded alive by Moses Stegall.  His head is taken back near Dixon and hung in a tree.  Wiley flees to Natchez.

1801:  May; Governor William C.C. Claiborne assumes command of the Mississippi Territory and serves through the year of 1803.

1801:  September 14; first printed record of robber Samuel Mason’s activities on the Natchez Trace, recorded in The Kentucky Gazette on this date.

1802:  Springtime – Smallpox epidemic breaks out in the territory; Claiborne’s aggressive actions result in the first recorded mass vaccination in the territory and saves Natchez from the disease.

1802:  April 27; Claiborne writes three letters to different commanders of posts scattered around the territory, promising a “generous reward” for the capture of Samuel Mason and Wiley Harpe.  Controversy surrounds the actual amount of this reward, often said to be two-thousand dollars.  More likely it was five hundred by Claiborne, and four hundred by the U.S. Government itself, for a total of nine hundred dollars.

1802:  April; it is reported that about this time Wiley Harpe, going under the assumed name John Setton or Sutton, joins the Mason gang; which is headed by Samuel Mason.  They are robbing people up and down the Mississippi River and on the Natchez Trace. Harpe also uses the names John Taylor and Wells to conceal his true identity.  It is believed by many that even Samuel Mason did not know that this man who joined his gang was Wiley Harpe.

1803:  Napoleon Bonaparte by Treaty of Paris sells Louisiana Territory to United States.

1803:  January; Mason gang including Samuel Mason and Wiley Harpe posing as John Setton are arrested at Little Prairie and tried in New Madrid – both in Spanish held territory.  The presiding magistrate finds that they have committed no crimes in Spanish held territory and orders that they be transferred to New Orleans to stand trial under the Americans for alleged crimes in American territory.  The entire party is to be transported by boat down the river to New Orleans under the charge of a Captain McCoy, and begin the trip in February.

1803: March 26: Mason and Wiley Harpe make a daring escape from the boat near Point Coupee, about 100 miles south of Natchez.

1803:  June 6: mason’s gang is spotted near Coles Creek just northeast of Natchez.

1804:  February; Wiley Harpe and an accomplice named James May murder Samuel Mason and behead him.  After they seal the head in a ball of blue clay to keep it from decomposing (so it can be recognized), they set out to get the reward money that Claiborne issued.

1804:  January; Wiley Harpe (Little Harpe) attempting to pass himself off as a John Sutton, is recognized and taken prisoner at the courthouse along with James May while trying to cash in on the reward for turning in Samuel Mason’s head, and are executed by hanging on February 8, 1804, just outside of Natchez.  Wiley’s head is then cut off and stuck on a pole on the Trace, as is May’s.  The actual place of execution is Gallows Field, in the community of Greenville (at the time said to be about 300 people living there), but no longer exists.

1806:  June; Cowles Mead becomes the third acting Governor of the Mississippi Territory, appointed by President Thomas Jefferson; serves from June 1806 to January 1807.

1807:  February; trial of Aaron Burr in Washington, MS.  He was found not guilty of any crime or misdemeanor by the Grand Jury and released.

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