Friday, June 8, 2012

Are you afraid of the Harpe brothers?

        In what was likely a narcissistic tone, Wiley Harp posed this question to James and Robert Brasel in the summer of 1799 while the group of travelers had settled into camp on that steamy mid-July Tennessee night. The Brasel brothers both replied that they had – they were who “was going through the county killing and stealing.” When asked what they would do should they meet such men, both brothers replied that they would likely kill them. Perhaps Robert Brasel’s gut started talking to him or maybe something gave the Harpe’s away but either way ignorance quickly corrected itself and he tried to escape the camp – and made it. Unfortunately, he turned in time to see his brother James’ last moments as one of the Harpe’s slit his throat from ear to ear.

         Micajah and Wiley Harpe, known as Big and Little Harpe respectively, have been part of Southern gothic folklore for the better part of 200 years. While indeed a true story, much has been elaborated over time such as the numbers of victims varying widely and the murders growing more horrific. The Harpe’s have found their way into written “histories” as early as the mid 19th century and been included in many more. As the name Harpe became synonymous with evil, the Harpe’s began popping up in plays, movies and novels. Micajah Harpe was even the name of a comic-book villain in the 1970s. Despite the wide recognition, no one has ever treated the Harpe story to proper historical analysis. While I won’t be doing that here (I am in real life, though), I do want to give you an idea of who they were in reality, a little context and perhaps a little bit of why they matter to the developing American identity of the late 18th century/ early 19th century west.

Photo by Ron Jenkins,
         By most accounts, the Harpe’s began murdering throughout the Tennessee and Kentucky backcountries sometime in 1798, likely winter. They killed seemingly indiscriminately - no account gives any reason for the murder other than the victim was simply “there”. Wrong place at the wrong time, much like the murderous trio in Cormac McCarthy’s “Outer Dark”, only set much earlier. According to the various pseudo-histories and fictional stories the victim count is all over the place. However, primary material places the count still in the unbelievable region – as high as 30. These sad souls ranged from infants (one said to be Micajah Harpe’s own) to the elderly, from dirt poor to the very wealthy. The fact that most of the murders took place along the a road and that they typically looted whomever was killed leads most to consider them “highwaymen” as would become famous along the Natchez trace. Their career consisted of at least one jail-break and ended with a posse hunting down Big Harpe, cutting off his head and placing it in a tree for all to see in what is now Muhlenberg County, KY.

Murdered, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
          Other than the inordinate body count of the Harpe’s exploits, little seems to set them apart from other villains and “rascals” that plagued flatboaters on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers or later, the masked bandits robbing stagecoaches and shooting up western taverns. What sets the Harpe’s apart is everyone else’s reaction to them and their attempts at explaining why they did the things they did. The explanations are intriguing: They were Tories during the War. They were half-African. They were living with the Chickamauga Indians. Some even claimed that while living with the Chickamauga they participated in the 1781 attack on the French Lick station (Nashville) and the 1793 attack on Buchanon’s station (a few miles east of Nashville).

         To an extent, these explanations are expected. It’s easy to blame the unknown on the known. In this case, the Harpe’s atrocities were blamed on their involvement, or relation to, the only other people whites of the late 18th century believed capable of such things, Indians and slaves. Both peopled groups were seen as less than human and far less civilized than whites and, to the whites, with less civility came savagery and barbarity. However, savagery in and of itself was not so much the issue for most whites but the savagery by white delivered on whites. White savagery had been demonstrated amply throughout the 18th century: The Gnadenhutten massacre, the Paxton Boys, and the horrors committed by Frederick Stump to only name a few. This raises some important question with which I will leave you (can’t give any too much too soon). Had the Harpe brothers started killing 30 years earlier, would it have been noticed? Were connections with Indians given blame due to the ever increasing anti-Indian sentiment of the early 19th century? Are the Harpe’s an example of an 18th century product in the midst of an evolving 19th century backcountry? Not to downplay the horrible nature of what happened, but as is true with most history, there’s always more to the story.

Copyright 2012 David Britton

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