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Frontier Justice - the Harpe Brothers

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  • John Rice (1760 - 1834)
    Stephen Langford (b. - 1798)
    From continued on the Wilderness Road to a tavern kept by John Farris, in what is now Rockcastle County, near Crab Orchard. Along the way, they were joined by Stephen Langford, from Virginia, who was o...
  • Col. James Garrard, 2nd Governor of Kentucky (1748 - 1822)
    2nd Governor of Kentucky. In office June 7, 1796 – September 5, 1804. DAR Ancestor #: A044132 *Service: VIRGINIA *Rank: COLONEL*Birth: 1-14-1749 STAFFORD CO VIRGINIA*Death: 1-19-1822 MT LEBANON BOURBON...
  • Lovey Harpe (1799 - d.)
  • Moses Doss (c.1750 - c.1797)
    Killed by the Harpe brothers during their killing spree for concerning himself at the well being of the Harpes "wives", or for making advances toward the women. Moses Doss in Raccoon John Smith: Fronti...

Frontier Justice - The Harpe Brothers

Our objective is to illustrate the world of the Harpe Brothers, called Americas first serial killers. Please add your family profile to the project and contribute to the project overview.

Their Story

Micajah "Big" Harpe, born Joshua Harper (before 1768 (probably, c. 1748) died August 1799) and Wiley "Little" Harpe, born William Harper (before 1770 (probably, c. 1750) died February 8, 1804), were serial killers, murderers, highwaymen, and river pirates, who operated in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Mississippi, in the late eighteenth century. The Harpes' crimes appear to have been motivated more by blood lust than financial gain. They are most likely the United States' first known serial killers, reckoned from the colonial era forward. The Harpe Brothers are credited with having killed thirty-nine people, and may have killed as many as fifty.

Micajah Harpe died in August 1799, in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, his head cut off by members of the posse organized by John Leiper, which included the avenging husband and father Moses Stegall. Wiley Harpe successfully escaped the confrontation and rejoined the Mason Gang pirates at Cave-in-The-Rock. In January 1804, Wiley Harpe and Peter Alston were recognized as outlaws and arrested. They escaped, were captured, tried in U.S. federal court, found guilty of piracy, and hanged in Old Greenville, Jefferson County, Mississippi Territory in early 1804. Their heads were cut off and placed high on stakes along the Natchez Trace as a warning to other outlaws.

In the aftermath of this murderous duo, families with the name Harpe, also Harper, changed their names to avoid associations with them or with Loyalist leanings. It is unconfirmed, but rumored, that Wyatt Earps family was one.


From Murderpedia - Harpe Brothers

The Harper patriarchs were loyal to the British Crown and were known as Royalists, Kings Men, Loyalists, and Tories and may also have been regulators involved in the North Carolina Regulator War. The anti-British Crown neighbors of the Harpers were known as Whigs, Rebels, and Patriots. Around April or May, 1775, the young Harper cousins left North Carolina and went to Virginia to find overseer jobs on a slave plantation.
On August 19, 1782, the Harpes accompanied a British-backed, Chickamauga Cherokee war party to Kentucky in the Battle of Blue Licks, where they helped to defeat an army of Patriot frontiersmen. During the Harpe brothers early frontier period among the Chickamauga Cherokee, they lived in the village of Nickajack, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, for approximately twelve to thirteen years.
During this span of time, they kidnapped Maria Davidson and later Susan Wood, and made them their women. In 1794, the Harpes and their women abandoned their Indian habitation, before the main Chickamauga Cherokee village of Nickajack in eastern Tennessee was destroyed in a raid by American settlers (see Nickajack). They would later relocate to Powell's Valley, around Knoxville, Tennessee, where they stole food and supplies from local pioneers.
Sometime during 1797, the Harpes would begin their trail of death in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois.

profiles - listed chronologically

Harpe Family

  • Micajah "Big" Harpe, born Joshua Harper
  • Wiley "Little" Harpe, born William Harper alias of "John Setton" or "John Sutton."
  • (perhaps) their fathers, the brothers John and William Harper "They were the sons of a North Carolina Tory who had moved to Knox County about 1795."
  • During the Harpe brothers' early frontier period, among the Chickamauga Cherokee, they lived in the village of Nickajack, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, for approximately twelve or thirteen years. During this time, they kidnapped Maria Davidson (AKA Betsy Roberts) and later Susan Wood and made them their women.
  • On June 1, 1797, Wiley Harpe married Sarah Rice, which was recorded in the Knox County, Tennessee marriage records Sally Rice was the daughter of Baptist minister Preacher John Rice. In 1820, Sally Rice, who had remarried, traveled with her husband and father to their new home in Illinois via the Cave-In-Rock Ferry.
  • On September 5, 1797, in Blount County, Tennessee, Micajah Harpe married Susannah Roberts (Susan Wood) daughter of Capt. John Wood. Her older brother was the Patriot soldier Francis "Frank" Wood. Her daughter was Lovey Harpe, said to have moved to Texas. Susan Wood remarried later, and died in Tennessee.
  • Maria Davidson AKA Betsey Roberts, daughter of Capt. John Davidson, was claimed as Susan's sister; she shared Micajah's bed and the household chores. Betsey Roberts later married John Huffstutler and they lived as tenants on Colonel Butlers Plantation. They moved to Hamilton County, Illinois in 1828, and had many children; the couple eventually died in the 1860s.


  • Francis "Frank" Wood (brother of the kidnapped Susan) claimed to have seen the Harpe brothers, serving "loosely" as Tory militia, at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780, under British commander Major Patrick Ferguson.
  • Later, the Harpes served under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's British Legion, at the Battles of Blackstocks in November 1780 and Cowpens in January 1781.
  • Mason Gang pirates at Cave-in-The-Rock including and Samuel Mason


The Harpe Brothers are credited with having killed thirty-nine people, and may have killed as many as fifty

  • In 1797, the Harpes were living near Knoxville, Tennessee. They were driven from the town after being charged with stealing hogs and horses. They were also accused of murdering a man named Johnson.
  • From Knoxville, the Harpes fled north into Kentucky. They entered the state on the Wilderness Road near the Cumberland Gap. They are believed to have murdered a peddler named Peyton, taking his horse and some of his goods.
  • In December, they murdered two travelers from Maryland, named Paca and Bates
  • Next, a man named John [SIC] Stephen Langford who was traveling from Virginia to Kentucky, turned up dead and a local innkeeper, John Esom Farris, Jr., pointed the authorities to the Harpes.
  • Johnny Trabue, son of Revolutionary War veteran Col. Daniel Trabue
  • On April 22, 1799, Col. James Garrard, 2nd Governor of Kentucky placed a three-hundred dollar reward on each of the Harpes' heads. Fleeing northward, the Harpes killed two men named Edmonton and Stump. Frederick Stump, Jr. was hunting on his farm when the Harpes slit his throat and stole his rifle.
  • The Harpes then returned to eastern Tennessee, where they continued their vicious murder spree. They killed a farmer named Bradbury, a man named Hardin, and a boy named Coffey in July 1798.
  • William Ballard
  • James Brassel
  • John Tully
  • John Graves and his teenage son were found dead with their heads axed in south central Kentucky.
  • In August 1799, a few miles northeast of Russellville, Kentucky, Big Harpe bashed his infant daughter's head against a tree because her constant crying annoyed him
  • August 1799, a man named Trowbridge was found disemboweled in Highland Creek
  • Moses Doss was killed perhaps for making eyes at the Harpe women
  • When the Harpes were given shelter at the Stegall home in Webster County, the pair killed an overnight guest named Maj. William Carter Love for snoring
  • Mrs. Moses Stegall's four-month old baby boy James, whose throat was slit when he cried
  • When Mrs. Mary Stegall screamed at the sight of her infant being killed, she was also murdered. source
  • between 1799 and 1803, Wiley "Little" Harpe, following the death of his brother Micajah "Big" Harpe, joined Peter Alston, son of the counterfeiter Philip Alston, and the Samuel Mason Gang, committing highway robbery and murder against helpless and unsuspecting travelers, reported as crimes committed by "Mason of the Woods"

Frontier Justices

literary references

  • The Harpes Head, a Legend of Kentucky (1833) by Judge James Hall (born August 19, 1793 died July 5, 1868
  • The outlaws of Cave-in-Rock; historical accounts of the famous highwaymen and river pirates who operated in pioneer days upon the Ohio Mississippi rivers and over the old Natchez trace (1924) by Otto A Rothert (born 1871 died 1956.



  • Hall, John. Letters from the West; containing sketches of scenery, manners, and customs; and anecdotes connected with the first settlements of the western sections of the United States.. London, Henry Colburn,, 1828.
  • Hall, James. The Harpe's Head: A Legend Of Kentucky. Philadelphia:, Key & Biddle, 1833.
  • Rothert, Otto A.. The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock (Shawnee Classics). Glendale, California: The Arthur H Clark Company, 1924.
  • Gordon, Maj. Maurice Kirby. History of Hopkins County, Kentucky, published by the Hopkins County Genealogical Society.
  • Wallace Edwards Killer Brothers: A Biography of the Harpe Brothers Americas First Serial Killers ISBN-13: 978-1482771817, ISBN-10: