Sam Mason: Frontier Hero Turned Outlaw
by Joe Roxby
He was “a man of gigantic stature and of more than ordinary talents.”
- Henry Howe
The story of a hero-gone-bad always makes for entertaining reading. In the wild and bloody days of the Border Wars there was probably no more dramatic or compelling tale of this type than the true-life story of Sam Mason. Like other valiant men turned outlaws such as Benedict Arnold or Tom Horn, his biography makes for a good morality lesson and a fascinating story. His life was certainly something of a paradox. The titles associated with his name during the Wheeling period of his life were; militia captain, magistrate, road builder, tavern keeper, stalwart companion of George Rogers Clark, and hero of the first siege of Fort Henry. There was nothing in his early days at Fort Henry to indicate he would become one of the most feared and bloodthirsty brown water pirates of the lower Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. To the contrary, if we were to examine only the time he spent in Wheeling most would wonder if we were studying the same person.
Best evidence indicated that Sam Mason was born in Virginia in 1750. He was said to be of large stature with reddish hair and he had a protruding “Wolf’s tooth” in his smile. He was related to the famous Mason family of Virginia and possessed more education than was common on the frontier at that time. He most likely came to Wheeling in the first large wave of newcomers in 1774. The first official mention of him in the area was from the famous “Council of War” held in Washington, Pennsylvania in January of 1777. This meeting was held in response to the events at Lexington and Concord and to see to the defense of the area between the Ohio and Mongahela Rivers. To aid in that task, a resolution was passed to ask the state government of Virginia for 1000 rifles and ammunition for defense of the frontier. Nine militia companies were organized, and Mason was picked to be the captain of one of them. He must have been something of a natural leader, for it should be remembered that in those days militiamen elected their own officers. A few months later, when the government of the newly formed Ohio County was organized, he, Ebenexer Zane and Conrad Wheat were picked as road contractors to build the first county road which was to run six miles from Fort Henry to Shepherd’s Fort. This stretch of road still exists pretty much in its original course as U.S. Route 40. It is probably the oldest stretch of the old National Road west of the mountains, running from present-day downtown Wheeling, West Virginia, to Monument Place in Elm Grove.
During the spring and summer of 1777 the Indian raids burst upon the settlers of the Ohio Valley in full fury. Letters written in Mason’s own hand show that he and his company of Virginia Rangers were busy nearly the entire summer scouting the area, and giving chase to the raiders. For Mason to take on such an enterprise indicated great personal courage. It was only three years earlier at the battle of Point Pleasant that any militia had stood before an Indian assault without being backed by red-coated British regular soldiers. Even at Point Pleasant the militia had 1000 of their brethren around them. Mason gave chase in the woods usually with less than 25 men.
Conditions in the newly formed Ohio County deteriorated to the point that Col. David Shepherd suspended the civil government and declared marital law. That August Col. Shepherd had received word from Gen. Hand at Fort Pitt that a large-scale attack on the area was imminent. All nine militia companies were mustered and stationed at Fort Henry. When the anticipated raid failed to materialize, seven of those companies were dismissed. The only two that stayed on were Mason’s company, which was to garrison the fort, and Ogle’s company, which was sent on a scouting expedition up the river. Indian scouts had been reconnoitering the fort for several days after the bulk of the militia went home. They were counting noses and waiting for the right time to strike Unknown to the Indians, Ogle’s company and returned after dark on the evening of August 31.
On the morning of September 1, 1777 the first siege of Fort Henry began. It was here that Captain Sam Mason would show his mettle. At first light, a black slave named Louden and an Irish bondservant named John Boyd, were sent out to retrieve some horses near the crest of Wheeling Hill (near the present day site of the McColloch’s Leap monument). The servant was killed and the slave escaped back to the fort. A second and larger party, sent out from the fort to retrieve the body, was also ambushed in that same area about an hour later. About eight o’clock, though a thick morning river fog lay over the area, from the south wall of Fort Henry, someone spotted Indian activity in a cornfield, a couple of hundred yards south of the fort near the mouth of Wheeling Creek. To those in the fort these Indians were undoubtedly the same ones who had just sprung the double ambush at the top of Wheeling Hill. Col. David Shepherd ordered Mason and 14 of his men to go out of the fort and kill or disperse them. The group slipped out of the fort and gathered at the bottom of the hill. They quickly fanned out and formed a skirmish line and then proceeded slowly to the south. A thick morning mist hung over the area like a funeral pall and must have seemed like an ill omen. As Mason and his men moved south and approached the mouth of the creek, the Indians moved off to the east. Mason’s company wheeled left and followed them for about another 300 yards, when suddenly he and his sergeant saw two warriors materialize out of the fog. At a distance measured in mere feet, all four men fired almost simultaneously. As the smoke cleared, Mason was the only one left standing. Now seriously wounded, Mason found himself in the middle of nearly 200 howling Indians who had been waiting in ambush. In the course of the panic stricken rout and massacre that followed, the survivors ran for the fort. In his flight from the ambush, a dying man handed Mason a loaded rifle. He turned and shot an Indian bearing down upon him at point-blank range andwas wounded a second time. Unable to get to the fort he spent the rest of the day very quietly hiding in pile of brush. At one point during the battle, two Indians sat so close to him he could almost touch them. After the siege, Mason was hailed as a hero for his part in the fort’s defense. In that day, a man who had actually put his lead into an Indian was hailed a man among men. Significantly, the Indians suffered only three fatalities in that fight, and Sam Mason’s fast shooting was responsible for two of them.
Mason continued to serve the Patriot cause in the western theater of the American Revolution. He added to his laurels as a hero and patriot in 1778. In the early summer of that year he joined George Rogers Clark’s expedition when it stopped in Wheeling. For those not familiar with that expedition, through a daring series of swift raids, Clark and his scant force of 178 men invaded the Illinois country and wrested control of it from the British. Mason joined such stalwarts as Sam McColloch, Jonathan and Ebenezer Zane, and Sam Brady in Brodhead’s campaign of 1779. This expedition took them against the Indians living on the upper Allegheny River. The campaign was of limited success, but at least it slowed down local Indian raiding by taking the war to the enemy.
During his Wheeling years, Mason kept a tavern in the Fulton area. Based on certain documentary and physical evidence, it is this author’s belief that his tavern was located approximately 200 yards west of the present-day Generations Club, in a ravine near the base of Wheeling Hill on US Route 40. That area was referred to as “Mason’s Bottom.” Mason’s stature in the community seemed to grow as he was later listed in Boyd Crumrine’s excellent History of Washington County as a magistrate in Washington County, Pennsylvania in 1781.
There is no mention from any source of Sam Mason being at the second siege of Fort Henry in 1782. It is about this time that dark rumors become associated with his name. A contemporary, George Edgington, would later write that Mason, “…settled on Wheeling Creek with a bad name from the start – [a] horse thief. He had two sons, one John and two sons-in-law, all of a feather.” Curiously, there is no mention of any particular triggering event in Mason’s life that would account for his sudden change in behavior. By the mid-1780’s Mason had left the Wheeling area for good. During the next few years Mason and his sons-in-law became land swindlers, working around the Marietta, Ohio area, and then drifting south. They would sell phony land titles to newly arrived settlers. His travels took him to Evansville, Indiana, and eventually to the infamous Cave-in- Rock in Illinois.
Cave-in-Rock is located in Hardin County, Illinois on the north bank of the Ohio River. It was at Cave-in-Rock that Mason’s criminal career began to hit its stride. His next criminal enterprise was that of a counterfeiter or “coiner” as they were known in those days. As his greed grew, he was no longer content with crimes of theft by deception. Mason took up his old trade as innkeeper, but with a decidedly deadlier twist. He outfitted the cave with a liquor supply and converted it into a tavern. A sign hung outside the establishment billing it as “Wilson’s Liquor Vault and House of Entertainment.” The “entertainment” was supplied by his daughter-in-law, some female slaves, and female consorts of his outlaw band. Perhaps better than Mason would have hoped, the combination of riverside bar and bordello proved irresistible to the rambunctious and lusty riverboat men. For the guests who stopped to sample Mason’s hospitality, it was a one-way ride. Those who went in never came out alive. It was standard practice for the freebooters to murder the entire crew and commandeer the boat and cargo. The boats were then crewed with Mason’s henchmen, floated down the river to New Orleans, and the purloined property was disposed of. The crusty old man who robs river travelers, as portrayed by Walter Brennan in the 1960 movie How the West Was Won, is loosely based on Sam Mason
As a surprise to no one except Sam Mason, not all of his confederates and the gold made it back to the Cave-in-Rock hideout. Certainly giving credence to the old maxim “there is no honor among thieves,” some of his outlaw crews disappeared without a trace. Most probably they took their ill-gotten gains and had a wild spree in Natchez or New Orleans. Each of those cities featured a section occupied by prostitutes, card sharpers, swindlers, and the inevitable enforcers that are spawned by those dark trades devoted to sin. The New Orleans section was known as “the swamp.” Its counterpart in Natchez was known as “Natchez under the hill.” Both of these sections had several pleasure palaces that catered to the high rollers, and offered every vintage that one might desire from the vineyards of vice. These were places that honest people did not venture more than once. Even the outlaws that haunted these locations usually made short and violent work of each other.
For the local banditry on the lower Ohio, Mason’s tavern offered a sort of one-stop- shopping vice emporium. Though not quite so elaborate as the down river establishments, at Cave-in-Rock they could still soak up as much of the demon rum as they wished, gamble, dally with the girls, and fence their stolen property. They might even trade their stolen goods for counterfeit coins or paper money, to further enhance their profit margins.
For all the violence and bloodshed that occurred at Cave-in-Rock it is rather ironic that Mason became acquainted with a pair of killers that offended even his sensibilities. Two brothers by the last name of Harpe joined Mason’s gang in 1799. The older of the two was named Micajah, better know as Big Harpe, and the younger sibling was named Wiley, usually known as Little Harpe. This lethal tandem may have been two of the most dangerous psychotic killers ever to set foot on American soil. Robbery was an occasional motive for them, but usually they killed just for the sheer, ghoulish pleasure of it. They were equal opportunity killers as well, killing men and women, black and white, young and old. They are credited with 39 victims that can be directly attributed to them, but the true number is unknown and undoubtedly much higher.
The incident that led to the parting of the ways between the outlaws began after a boat robbery. The Harpes singled out a man for torture. He was taken away from the other river robbers to a high bluff overlooking the cave. There the unfortunate was bound naked, to a horse. The horse was blindfolded and then driven over the cliff to the rocks below where the other outlaws were gathered. The thud of a man and a horse landing among them no doubt took the outlaws gathered on the rocks below by surprise. The Harpes came down from the bluff to rejoin the group, roaring with laughter, thinking this great fun and quite the practical joke. They were greeted by Mason and his gang, hard-eyed and unsmiling, with rifles in hand. The Harpes were told in no uncertain terms that they had worn out their welcome and must decamp immediately! The incredibly bloodthirsty brothers had managed to offend the sensibilities of a gang of murder-hardened river pirates!
Despite what might seem like many obvious similarities, it was probably inevitable that Mason and his murderous lieutenants should clash. Just as with animals in the wild, in any such human wolf pack there is bound to be tension between the leader and members of the pack wanting to challenge his supremacy. Helping to add to the tension was the fact that during the war Mason had been a Patriot and the Harpes were Tories. Feelings on that subject still ran high on the frontier. Even their motives were different; Mason killed for profit, whereas the Harpes were basically thrill killers. Hereafter whenever they would meet it would be as enemies. Approximately six months later Big Harpe met a fitting end at the hands of a posse in Kentucky. Little Harpe escaped the trap and vanished, but would make a most timely reappearance.
It was sometime during this period that Sam Mason had a chance meeting with another legend, Lewis Wetzel. In addition to robbing southbound flatboats, Mason also robbed the northbound land traffic along the Natchez Trace. They were of particular interest to Mason, as they had sold cargos in New Orleans and were returning with gold. The story is that Mason and his gang stepped out on the trail to rob Wetzel, but when Mason recognized him, he let him pass. The two had undoubtedly known each other from Mason’s days at Fort Henry. By this time Wetzel was no longer the teenager Mason had remembered but a living legend at his zenith. Given the name “Deathwind” by his Indian enemies, Mason understood that Wetzel was not a man to be trifled with. To attempt to waylay Wetzel and fail would be to acquire an enemy whose vengeance would be know no season. Sadly unknown to most, it must have been as dramatic a good guy- bad guy confrontation as Wild Bill Hickcock and John Wesley Hardin, or any such others of the later American West.
In the absence of any really effective law enforcement, honest men formed into bands of regulators. Some were the same hard-eyed men that made up the militia of the Indian Wars. These regulators were a bit short on legal niceties but were quick with a rifle and rope. They began to make the climate of the lower Ohio unhealthy for outlaw types.
By 1800 Mason must have decided that the game at Cave-in-Rock was played out. He moved his area of operation from the lower Ohio to the Mississippi, generally headquartering out of Natchez. About this time Mason lost his ties to the last good influence in his life when his wife left him. Those who knew her stated she had a reputation for being an upright and honest woman. Sam soon took up with another “Mrs. Mason” who was free and easy with her favors.
The woodcraft Mason acquired in his Indian fighting days served him well in eluding the law. Demonstrating that skill and a grim sense of humor, Mason once caught a posse sent out to catch him swimming in the river. While they were at gunpoint, he teased them and said that he would be paying less for arms and ammunition as he collected their gear. He sent them home unarmed, unharmed and unclothed for their trouble. In 1802 he and his sons were captured. They were shipped on a boat for trial, with most likely a hanging to follow. Like later Wild West outlaw Billy the Kid, Mason made a dramatic, last minute escape at the end of March 1803. He continued his robberies and became such a menace that rewards totaling $2000.00 “dead or alive” were placed on his head. Though that may not sound like much by today’s standards, $2000.00 represented nearly four years salary for a skilled workman of the period. It would not only attract anyone brave or desperate enough to tangle with a killer of his repute, but would also get the attention of any would-be Judas in his gang.
The reward had the desired effect. Fate had set a grim trap for Mason and his end came in a drama worthy of Hollywood. Two seemingly minor criminals were being held under arrest in Natchez. They offered, if released, to bring in Sam Mason. Desperate to be rid of his menace, the authorities agreed. Sometime in October of 1803 the outlaws returned, with Mason’s head rolled in a ball of clay. The most credible story that comes down about the event is that the two men had offered to join Mason’s band. Mason, hunted, desperate, and in dire need of more men, took them in. At an opportune moment his new confederates tomahawked and beheaded him. The head was positively identified as Mason’s, and the two men were briefly hailed as heros. The local government did not have enough cash on hand to pay the reward so the men had to wait for a few days. While they were waiting, suspicion about the two began to grow. That suspicion was confirmed when a passing boatman identified the mysterious red headed stranger as none other than Wiley Harpe! Harpe and his companion, later identified as Mason confederate James May, were tried and hanged in February of 1804.
The number of Mason’s victims must have been considerable. Studying the matter strictly by the scorecard, it is doubtful any outlaw gang of the American Wild West ever approached these numbers. Wheeling’s Fort Henry era produced several heros of equal or greater valor but has never produced another badman of Mason’s stature. John James Audubon would write of Mason in 1815: “The name of Mason is still familiar to many of the navigators on the lower Ohio and Mississippi. By dint of industry in bad deeds, he became a notorious horse stealer, forming a line of worthless associates from the eastern part of Virginia ( a state greatly celebrated for its fine breed of horses) to New Orleans, and had a settlement on Wolf Island, not far from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi, from which he issued to stop flatboats and rifle them…His depredations were the talk of the whole western country.” (1)
As a tribute to him it is worth noting that Sam Mason’s criminal career lasted 21 years. His run lasted some five to six years longer than that of the James-Younger gang, the most successful of the Wild West era. Adding another left handed compliment, American Wild West historian Paul Wellman would later refer to Sam Mason as “the first real genius of outlawry on the frontier.” His remains were never recovered and left unburied. Like his contemporary Benedict Arnold, little is remembered of his valiant service in the American Revolution. Sadly, had he not turned outlaw, his name would have been enshrined with the Wetzels, McCollochs and Zanes as one of the outstanding patriots and Indian fighters of his era.
1) Wellman, Paul I,. Spawn of Evil, Garden City, New York, 1964
Other Works Consulted
The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock by Otto Rothert and The Outlaw Years by Robert Coates
Reprinted by permission of Precision Shooting Magazine