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Monday, January 13, 2020

Criminals of Early America: Samuel Mason

The mighty Ohio River (looking across to Kentucky from Illinois)
History is full of men (and women) who have wanted to live without law. One could argue that part of the reason explorers like Daniel Boone took to the wilderness was to escape the strictures of civilized life, but there’s a huge difference between those who in their own heart hold moral law in high enough regard but feel the need for “elbow room,” and those who have no regard for morality at all.

And then there are the interesting subjects who fall somewhere in the middle.

Such was the case of Samuel Mason, former captain of the American Revolution, who became a river pirate.

Until the opening of the Wilderness Road to wagon traffic in 1795-96, travel down the Ohio River was regarded as the easiest method of travel into western lands during the Federal era—if the most dangerous because of the threat of attack by natives. But the danger was by no means limited to by that from the Shawnee, because as soon as the native tribes migrated west, others found travelers a too-easy target as settlers poured into the frontier by both land and waterway.

Cave-in-Rock State Park, Illinois
No one really knows enough of Mason’s background to say why he chose a life of crime, but it’s said that he came of a solid, well-connected family in Virginia, served on the western frontier before and during the Revolution (in what would become Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, among other things on a campaign led by George Rogers Clark), and became associated with others who preferred theft to honest work. He’s most known for heading up a gang based out of Cave-in-Rock, a large natural hollow in the limestone rock overlooking the Ohio River from the Illinois side, about halfway between what is now Henderson and Paducah, Kentucky.

Mason was later credited with being shrewd but not bloodthirsty, bragging that he never took a life “unless necessary” (self defense and avenging family members seemed to be included in that). This was in contrast to the notorious Harpes, a pair of men who although called brothers were likely cousins, and who wreaked mayhem all up the Wilderness Road and across Kentucky and Tennessee. (The saga of their murder spree in 1798-99 provides the background for my upcoming release, The Blue Cloak, #5 of Barbour Publishing’s True Colors series.)

Keelboats and flatboats, both popular with settlers
The Harpes are another study entirely, and I’ll share more about them later, but for now suffice it to say that they were so twisted and cruel, not even river pirates wanted them around.

It was around this time—again, no one is really sure—that Mason abandoned Cave-in-Rock and drifted over to the Natchez Trace, a road which connected Nashville, Tennessee, with towns farther south in Mississippi Territory and eventually reached New Orleans. His fate is later tied up with the Harpes in a most bizarre manner, but the man had a wife who apparently did not approve of his activities, and sons who joined him at least occasionally.

Robbery and murder were not the only criminal acts taking place on the frontier. Counterfeiting became big business as well, and a sort of mafia-like “protective” service offered by some.

And how did folk on the frontier deal with such things? Well, more on that later. :-)


  1. I am loving the true color books - just finished The Gray Chamber and am looking forward to reading The Blue Cloak. Most fascinating history!

    1. I'm working on The Gray Chamber now! and thank you!! I hope you enjoy it. Blue Cloak was definitely my hardest--and darkest!--story to date, but there were some amazing spiritual things happening below the surface, IMO. :-)

  2. I love that Barbour has this period and setup for one of their new stories. AND that YOU WROTE IT! Congratulations, Shannon!

    1. Thank you so much, Debra!! It has been quite the ride, for sure! ❤

  3. I’m loving the True Colors series. The Gray Chamber is next on mybTBR pile. Looking forward to The Blue Cloak. Congratulations 🎈

    1. Thank you, Lucy! I'm glad you're enjoying them. I appreciate you stopping by!

  4. I'm looking forward to The Blue Cloak. Congrats on your upcoming release! Loved The Rebel Bride, too! jeaniedannheim (at)ymail (dot) com


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