The Harpes —Two Outlaws of Pioneer Times

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 22, 2016

On April 22, 1799, the Governor of Kentucky issued a Proclamation offering a reward for the capture of either or both of the Harpe Brothers. Reports of killings in Kentucky were followed by others from southern Illinois, then from east Tennessee, then again from Kentucky. Among their victims was one of their own children. Declaring that Little Harpe’s crying infant would some day be the means of pursuers detecting their presence, Big Harpe slung the baby by the heels against a tree and literally burst its head into pieces.

The Harpe brothers and their 3 female traveling companions. Art by Lawrence Bjorklund for 'The Spawn of Evil', by Paul I. Wellman, Doubleday Books, 1964.

The Harpe brothers and their 3 female traveling companions. Art by Lawrence Bjorklund for ‘The Spawn of Evil’, by Paul I. Wellman, Doubleday Books, 1964.

During the first year of their unrestrained ferocity they had committed at least twenty murders. The whole of Kentucky and Tennessee had become terrorized by the possibility of the appearance of the Harpes at any hour in any locality.

The people of the lower Green River country, like settlers elsewhere, were on the lookout for them. In the early part of August, 1799, two suspicious newcomers were discovered prowling around some of the backwoods settlements in southern Henderson County. These strangers might be the Harpes. No one knew.

The Harpes, aware that they were being hunted—and at times seen and watched—had taken the precaution never to move in the open with their women. The fact that no woman had been seen with them led the watchers to conclude that the suspects were not the widely sought murderers.

One day the Harpes left Henderson County and started toward the hiding place of their women and children—twenty or more miles away. They rode good horses, and were well armed and fairly well dressed.

That evening they arrived at the home of James Tompkins, in what is now Webster County. They represented themselves as Methodist preachers. Their equipment aroused no suspicion, for the country was almost an unbroken wilderness, and preachers, as well as most other pioneers, often traveled well armed.

Tompkins invited them to supper, and Big Harpe, to ward off suspicion, said a long grace at table. After supper they bade their host farewell, saying they had an engagement elsewhere.

Late that night, August 20, they reached the house of Moses Stegall—about five miles east of what later became the town of Dixon. Stegall was absent, but his wife and their only child, a boy of four months, were at home and, a few hours before, had admitted Major William Love, a surveyor, who had come to see Stegall on business.

Mrs. Stegall, expressing an opinion that her husband would return that night, invited him to remain. He had climbed up a ladder outside the house to the loft above and was in bed when the new arrivals entered the cabin. He came down and met the two men. In the conversation that followed the murderers themselves inquired about the Harpes and, among other things, stated that, according to rumor, the two outlaws were then prowling around in the neighborhood.

Mrs. Stegall, having only the one spare bed in the loft, was obliged to assign it to the three men. After Major Love had fallen asleep, one of the Harpes took an axe, which he always carried in his belt and, with a single blow, dashed out the brains of the sleeping man.

The two villains then went down to Mrs. Stegall’s room. She, knowing nothing to the contrary, presumed Major Love was still asleep. Reprimanding her for assigning them to a bed with a man whose snoring kept them awake, they murdered her and her baby. Leaving the three bodies in the house, they set it afire.

The next morning five men returning from a salt lick found the Stegall house a smoldering ruin. Surroundings indicated that the disaster was still unknown in the neighborhood. The men proceeded to the home of Squire Silas McBee to notify him of their discovery. While they were discussing the subject with Squire McBee, Moses Stegall rode up, and for the first time heard what had happened to his family.

Then began the hunt for the Harpes. Mounted and equipped, and provisioned for a few days, Squire McBee’s troop of seven men started on their expedition against the murderers. They found and followed the trail until night. Early the next morning, after traveling only a few miles, they detected the Harpes standing on a distant hillside. Big Harpe was holding his horse; Little Harpe had no horse.

The pursuers at once started for the hill. In the meantime Big Harpe mounted and darted off in one direction, Little Harpe ran in another—and both were out of sight. In their efforts to find traces of the Harpes the pursuers discovered the Harpe camp. They found no one there except Little Harpe’s woman.

When questioned threateningly she said she did not know in what direction little Harpe had fled, but that Big Harpe had just been there, hurriedly placed each of his women on a good horse, and had ridden away with them. She was left under the care of one of the men, and the chase was resumed.

A few miles farther on, Big Harpe and his two women were seen on a ridge a short distance ahead. Realizing his danger he put spurs to his horse and dashed off alone, leaving his women behind. They made no attempt to follow him, but calmly awaited their captors, two of whom took them in charge.

The other men continued the chase. Each fired a shot at the fleeing outlaw, who again and again brandished his tomahawk in savage defiance. The wild ride continued through dense woods and over narrow trails for a few miles until the fugitive, slackening his pace, was overtaken. He had been mortally wounded by one of the shots. As he lay stretched upon the ground, he asked for water. A shoe was pulled off his foot and water was brought. Moses Stegall now stepped forward.

While reciting to Big Harpe how brutally he had murdered his wife and child, Stegall drew a knife, declaring he would cut off his enemy’s head. Then he pointed a gun at Harpe’s face.

The dying outlaw, conscious of the threat, jerked his head from side to side, hoping to dodge the threatened bullet. “Very well,” said Stegall, “I will not shoot you in the head, for I want to save it as a trophy.” Then, aiming at his heart, he shot him in the left side. And Big Harpe died without another struggle or groan.

With the knife he had so coldly exhibited, Stegall cut off the outlaw’s head. He placed it in one end of a bag, in the other end of which was a corresponding weight of provisions. The bag was slung across a horse, and the captors and their three captured women started on their return–some thirty-five miles–leaving the headless corpse to the wolves of Muhlenberg County.

The head was taken to the cross roads near where the Harpes had committed their last crime. It was there placed in the fork of a tree as a warning to others. The spot ever since has been known as Harpe’s Head, and the old road, now a modern highway, still bears the name of Harpe’s Head Road.


Adapted from: Rothert, Otto A. (July 1927). “The Harpes, Two Outlaws of Pioneer Times”, Filson Club Historical Quarterly , Vol. 1, No. 4

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Was I what you would call a pioneer? No, there were then old settlers

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 21, 2016

I sought and received the forgiveness of my sins in August 1861, at a camp meeting at Bird’s Chapel, in Dade County, Georgia. My conversion was so definite – I may say, so sweet and so satisfactory -followed by so great peace – which I could never be made to doubt that I was reconciled to God. My consecration was so full as not to leave a hoof behind.

I immediately erected a family altar, and while it has been a rule of my life to keep up family worship, we have neglected it at times, to our great spiritual loss. Soon after my conversion or even before, I felt impressed that I should preach the Gospel and asked the church after a few years, for license to preach; and in October, 1870, the Quarterly Conference gave me the license.

Timidly, I undertook work as a local preacher. I always wanted to join the Conference and be a traveling preacher and spend my whole time in the work. But I did not join the traveling connection. I have done what I could as a local preacher.

In May 1876, Bishop Wightman ordained me as a local deacon at Russellville, AR. I have done some little supply work, and feel now that I should have joined the Conference, yet I may not be entirely to blame for not doing so. And now the day is far spent and I am in the evening of my life, and the results of my work are with the Great Head of the church. Amen.

Well, (again looking back) the war was now over, the South subdued and our entire Southland almost all devastated, the people poor and discouraged. I am at Lavergne, Tennessee, on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, sixteen miles from Nashville, in a great country – with only $500.00, which we have saved in the last year. I have been at work for the United States government at pretty good wages; have traded, run the blockade from Nashville, and sold to Negroes such little things as I could get out of Nashville undetected. My wife and my two girl babies compose my family.

My brother, George, who lived in Arkansas, was with us. He persuaded us to return with him to Arkansas. So about the 15th of July 1865, we hired a man to take us to Nashville – gave him $5.00 for the trip. At Nashville we got aboard a steamboat, and went down the Cumberland River to Smithland, thence down the Tennessee River into the Ohio, thence down the Ohio to Cairo, Illinois. We there took the big boat, “Ben Stickney,” and ran down the Mississippi to Napoleon, where we took the Glide No. 3, for Little Rock, Arkansas. At Little Rock we purchased a wagon and team and moved overland to Polk County, arriving at my father’s farm on August 1st.

Our people were all poor now and in a hard shape financially. So we had to begin at the bottom with only a few dollars in cash, and our living to buy. I did not like Arkansas, and thought I would go back to Tennessee, but George always influenced me, and we stayed. So we are here yet.

Eagle Mountain in Polk County, AR; part of the Ouachita National Forest.

View of Eagle Mountain in Polk County, AR.


I got hold of a few hogs, a pony, a cow, a bull-tongue plow, a sprouting hoe – and went to work. I would turn the pony out on the grass with a bell on. We would hunt him in the mornings. We had no bedsteads except scaffolds pinned to the wall. We lived three miles from Shady Grove Church and schoolhouse. There we went to church, where the Rev. W. Wakely baptized me and received me into the M.E. Church, South.

I worked hard and saved as much as possible. We lived a rather hard but happy life. We were 150 miles from a railroad and market. That first fall I went to Center Point and bought two bales of cotton, and took it to Little Rock. Sold it for 36 cents a pound. Bought a few supplies – a barrel of salt for $6.50, a pair of cotton cards at $2.00, some little Oznaburge at 60 cents a yard, a little coffee at 60 cents a pound. I was gone three weeks on the trip.

I began to get acquainted, and secured a little school to teach at a little log cabin where the village of Silver Center now is. Wade Hilton had a little water mill just down on the creek. Sometimes we could get some corn ground and when the creek was low, he could not grind. The next nearest mill was on Big Fork, ten miles away. We would go down there and stay all night. Maybe we would get a peck of meal and maybe not. We would grit the corn and make hominy, but we would scrape about some way to keep from starving.

There was not a steam mill in the whole county, a county that was sixty miles long and fifty miles wide. There were not more than three hundred voters in the whole county. How is that for neighbors?

Game was plentiful. Anybody could kill a deer if he could shoot. I could not see them until they had left me. Cattle could be bought cheaply. We would dry the beef and it would answer for meat and bread. Acorns were plentiful and the hogs would thrive on them. We did not feed the cattle. They would live through the winter on the range.

Was I what you would call a pioneer? No, there were then old settlers. I could name a few of them, but there is not need. I write these little details down to impress on you boys some of the troubles and trials through which the older generation has gone in order that you may be a little happier and a little better.

An Autobiographical Sketch of My Life, by John Thornton Miller
Miller lived from 1839-1923
online at

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I guess I will just have to talk Sarah into being willin’

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 20, 2016

In this excerpt from her 1979 autobiography “What My Heart Wants to Tell,” Kentuckian Verna Mae Slone (1914-2009) relates the story of how her father Isom ‘Kitteneye’ Slone proposed to her mother, Sarah Owens Slone.

Kitteneye finished his breakfast real fast, then, pushing his chair from the table, he hurried for the door.

“Wait, son, I want to talk to you,” his mother said.

“I am in sort of a hurry.  Be back in a minute,” he answered. He sure did not want her to ask him [where he was going] now, for he had never told her a lie in his life and he did not want to talk before the whole family.

Verna Mae Slone in 2008.

Verna Mae Slone in 2008.

As he went toward the barn, he thought, “I will just go on now.” He was still wearing his best clothes and the piece of paper was in his pocket.  So he caught his mule and put the saddle on it.  No one had come outside.  He turned the mule and started up the road.

When he got to Vince Owens’ house he stopped and got off his mule, tied the bridle to a fence post, and went in.

He knocked at the door and a voice from within told him to “Come in, if your nose is clean.”  He pushed the door open.  Sarah and her mother were sitting before the fireplace.  The young girl’s lap was full of wool, with a full basket by her side.  They were carding the wool, which would later be spun into yarn.

When Sarah saw who had entered the room, she put her hand up to her mouth, then dumping all the wool into the basket, she got up and made a fast retreat for the kitchen.

“Well, well,” laughed Cindy, “you sure have plagued Sarah.  She thought it was one of the young’uns a’ foolin’ us.  She never dreamt it was someone a’ comin’ in.  she would never a’ said that to you.  Well, git a chair and sit a spell,” she finished.  Kitteneye sat down in the chair, now vacated by Sarah.

“Where is ye old man, Cindy?” he asked.  He did not really want to know, but good manners demanded that he ask.

“He took a turn of corn to the mill,” she answered, still working away with her wool and wooden cards.

“Yeah, I fergit it was mill day.”

“Isom,” she asked in a very concerned voice, “what fer are ye all dressed up in your Sunday go to meetin’ clothes and it be a weekday?”

“Well,” he said, “that’s why I stopped.  I wanted to tell ye I am git’n married today.”

“Kitteneye, are ye goin’ to marry Jane Hughes?” she exclaimed.

“Yeah, I went to town and got my license yesterday.  I am on my way to her house now.”

“But son, do you like her a whole lot?” she asked.  They had always been real good friends and Cindy knew she could speak freely with him.

“Well,” he mused, “I ‘spect it is more for [his and Jane’s illegitimate son] Cleveland’s sake, and I am twenty-four years old.  Most everybody else has been married a long time, agin they are that old.  You know she lays Cleveland to me.” He blushed when he said this.

“Yeah, I jest about know he is your’n.  If ever a child daddied itself, he shore does.  He is jest the spittin’ image of ye.  But I shore hate to see ye marry her.”

They sat there for a while, both lost in their own thoughts.  Finally, Cindy began to laugh.

Two log cabins on a hillside with a family sitting on the front porch. A dirt and stone foundation for the cabins is cut into the hill.

Two Knott County, KY log cabins on a hillside with a family sitting on the front porch. A dirt and stone foundation for the cabins is cut into the hill. Circa 1900-1904.

“Anyway, I thought I had been raisin’ ye a good girl.  I have teased Sarah about you and told her that I fergit her that time, and went off and left her at ye maw’s house.  You shore had made mind up to keep her then.”

“Well, it’s not altogether been a joke with me, but I just got mixed up with Jane, and anyway there’s Cleveland.  Sarah would not want to be bothered with him.”

“Well, Kitteneye, I told ye I was raisin’ ye a good girl.  If ye want to wait a few more months, I believe everything will work itself out.  Lay them license there in the fire.”

“Alright,” he said, and taking the paper from his pocket, he slowly placed it in the fire and watched as it curled, then caught, and soon became ashes.

“A long trip to town and two dollars all went for nothing’,” he laughed, “but less ways I won’t haf’n to tell Maw after all.”

Then he turned to Cindy and said, “Well, ye are willin’, the preacher is, and I am.  I guess I will just have to talk Sarah into being willin’.”

Sarah, who had been eavesdropping during all this talk, whispered to herself, “That’s not goin’ to be as hard a job as you suspect, Kitteneye.”

And it must not have been too much trouble.  In the year 1887, and on the twenty-eighth day of July, John L. Slone, an Old Regular Baptist minister, pronounced them man and wife.  And they loved each other until they were separated by death.

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The Jack Tales. Not just beanstalks.

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 19, 2016

ONE TIME away back years ago there was a boy named Jack. He and his folks lived off in the mountains somewhere and they were awful poor, just didn’t have a thing. Jack had two brothers, Will and Tom, and they are in some of the Jack Tales, but this one I’m fixin’ to tell you now, there’s mostly just Jack in it.

Jack was awful lazy sometimes, just wouldn’t do ary lick of work. His mother and his daddy kept tryin’ to get him to help, but they couldn’t do a thing with him when he took a lazy spell.

Well, Jack decided one time he’d pull out from there and try his luck in some other section of the country. So his mother fixed him up a little snack of dinner, and he put on his old raggedy coat and lit out. …

–from Jack in the Giants’ New Ground!

Remember “Jack and the Beanstalk”? There’s more where that came from! Jack Tales are part of a cycle of folk stories that revolve around a central character named —wait for it!— Jack. The tales originated in Europe, with American Jack Tales being most closely related to those of the British Isles. Richard Chase first documented the existence of the Jack Tale cycle in America (to non-Appalachian folk!) when he published ‘The Jack Tales’ in 1943. Chase compiled his collection of stories from oral interviews taken from members of the Council Harmon family of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, and also from three families in Wise County, Virginia.

courtesy Richard Chase Collection, Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee University

courtesy Richard Chase Collection, Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee University

Jack is a kind of trickster-hero, one who is successful through his cleverness. Certainly he is not the admirable prince of fairy tales, but rather a quick witted and not always too scrupulous farm boy. In these tales as told in Appalachia Jack is an ordinary poor boy who achieves success in only one of two ways: either by his wits, or by sheer luck — and the latter predominates. Quite a contradiction to the “American fairy tale” mythos that honesty and hard work are the means to success!

“In April 1939, while I was recording folklore for the Library of Congress, I was fortunate enough to get a number of these Jack Tales from Sam Harmon in Tennessee,” says Herbert Halpert, who wrote the appendix to ‘The Jack Tales.’ “Just the previous month I had been collecting folksongs in Wise County, Virginia, and nearby Letcher County, Kentucky, and never thought to ask for tales.”

“About a year later, Mr. Chase worked in the same area and with some of the same informants from whom I had recorded songs – and got tales from them. Mr. Chase deserves considerable credit for tracing the folktales in one family tradition. The discovery of the interrelationship of the Ward-Harmon-Gentry families is a fine achievement.”


Related post: “Indian tales told by firelight”
“Now I’ve got my Tailypo!”

One Response

  • Craig Buchanan says:

    This brought back some memories. I worked for Mr. Chase while I was in high school and he was in his later years. He was quite a character! He truly loved Appalachian history and culture. I have an autographed copy of this book somewhere. I think I’ll go find it and read through it again.

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That’s old Hide-an’-Taller, the best gun ever seen

Posted by Dave Tabler | April 18, 2016

I was beginning to get a bit worried about Good ‘Lige, since I hadn’t seen him for some three weeks. It was with a feeling of relief when I knocked at his door last Sunday to hear his cheery voice call to me to enter.

He was sitting before the fire, reading his copy of the weekly newspaper, and he had a pot of ginger stew simmering in the coals on the hearth where a couple of hickory logs were blazing.

“Sit and help yourself,” he urged hospitably, nodding toward some cups and saucers on a nearby table.

While we were talking, I glanced about the room at the magazine cover-pages with which he had papered the walls. Over the fireplace, resting on a pair of deer’s antlers, lay a gun that caught and held my attention. It appeared to be a muzzle-loading, double-barreled weapon, with one barrel directly over the other. I arose and took the gun down to examine it more closely.

1932 hunting scene, SW Virgina“That’s old Hide-an’-Taller,” explained Good ‘Lige, “the best gun ever seen in the Apern country. I got her thut’y-forty years ago from one of the Eversoles when he was scoutin’ in that French-Eversole war they had down in Kaintucky.”

“Hide-and-Tallow?” I queried bewilderedly.

“Yeah, we used to have shootin’ matches for beeves,” said Good ‘Lige, lighting the cigar I gave him. “Beeves wa’nt worth much then, an’ the first choice was allus the hide and taller, because they was worth the most. I allers won with that rifle-gun there.

“She’s a double-barr’l,” he continued, taking the gun and caressing it. “Ye see the top barr’l is for a single ball an’ the bottom barr’l is for shot. She shore has been a meat-gun. If it wa’nt so muddy out thar’ I’d show ye how she shoots. I reckon she’s got the longest range ever seen—around her anyhow.”

From Tales of the Tall Timbers, a weekly column in The Dickensonian [Clintwood, VA] written by Herbert M. Sutherland, the paper’s owner/editor.

As editor of Dickenson County’s local county weekly, Herbert M. Sutherland was looked on by the mountaineers as almost one of their own. He was the boy they had seen around town in his teens; the boy who had fought in France in 1918 and come home honorably discharged. After being hospitalized at Walter Reed Hospital for a period of time in Washington, DC, he enrolled in the School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York, where he received a B.A. in Literature in 1921. He worked for the New York Globe, and after it ceased publication he worked for the New York Times.

In 1924 his health failed and he returned to Dickenson County to recuperate. There he spent his time hunting, fishing and writing. During the 1930’s, Sutherland became interested in local politics, and was elected four times to the Virginia Assembly.

In 1939 he acquired the Dickenson County Weekly and named it The Dickensonian. His weekly column “Tales of the Tall Timbers” was read and enjoyed all over the country, and by servicemen all over the world during the 1940’s and 1950’s. This column included stories, using fictitious names, told to him by area friends and associates, whom he fondly referred to as ‘The Liars Club.’ His tall tales were published after his death in 1967 in a volume called “Tales from the Devil’s Apron.”


Sources: American Folk Tales and Songs by Richard Chase, Joshua Tolford, Courier Dover Publications 1971

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