Samuel Mason

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Samuel Ross Mason also, spelled Meason (November 8, 1739–1803) was a Virginia militia captain, on the American western frontier, during the American Revolutionary War. After the war, he became the leader of the Mason Gang, a criminal gang of river pirates and highwaymen on the lower Ohio River and the Mississippi River in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was associated with outlaws around Red Banks, Cave-in-Rock, Stack Island, and the Natchez Trace.

Early life

Mason was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in what is now Charles Town, West Virginia, formerly a part of Virginia. According to Lyman Draper, in the 1750s Mason got his earliest start in crime as a teenager, by stealing the horses of Colonel John L. Hite, in Frederick County, Virginia, being wounded and caught by his pursuers. He moved from Charles Town to what is now Ohio County, West Virginia, also at that time a part of Virginia, in 1773.

American Revolutionary War service

During the American Revolution, Samuel Mason was a captain, of the Ohio County Militia, Virginia State Forces. According to Ohio County court minutes, dated January 7, 1777, Mason was recommended to Patrick Henry, the Governor of Virginia, to serve as captain of the militia. On January 28, he was present and cited as a captain from Ohio county at a “council of war” held at Catfish Camp. Catfish Camp was located at or near present-day Washington, Pennsylvania. On June 8, 1777, Mason wrote a letter from Fort Henry, Virginia, now present-day Wheeling, West Virginia, to brigadier general Edward Hand, at Fort Pitt, now present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The letter he wrote was signed Samuel Meason. On September 1, 1777, Captain Mason was wounded but survived an ambush by Native Americans, near Fort Henry. Most of the men in his Virginia Militia company perished during the attack. From August 11-September 14, 1779 Samuel Mason while at Fort Henry accompanied Colonel Daniel Brodhead and his 8th Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army combined with militia troops from Fort Pitt to destroy ten tribal villages of the pro-British Seneca tribe in northeastern Pennsylvania during the Sullivan Expedition in retaliation for the devastating Iroquois attacks in the Cobleskill, Wyoming Valley and Cherry Valley massacres of 1778. According to court martial records in Ohio County, Virginia, Captain Mason was still on duty as an officer in the Ohio County, Virginia Militia at Fort Henry until 1781. He appeared at the court martials and was present as a witness for military proceedings against other soldiers. Samuel Mason appeared twice at the Ohio County courthouse in Wheeling on November 7, 1780 and May 7, 1781.

Honest pursuits

In his book, The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock, Otto A. Rothert stated that Samuel Mason moved again, in 1779, to a part of Virginia, east of Wheeling that is now in present-day Washington County, Pennsylvania, where he was elected justice of the peace and later selected as an associate judge, leaving for an area that was then a part of Virginia and now the present-day State of Kentucky, in 1784. Mason’s surname was spelled interchangeably as Meason in many of the early frontier records. This is explained in two family histories of the Mason/Meason family, Pioneer Period and Pioneer People of Fairfield County, Ohio by C. M. L. Wiseman, dated 1901, and Torrence and Allied Families by Robert M. Torrence, dated 1938.

Criminal career

In the early 1790s, Samuel Mason moved his family to the Red Banks on the Ohio River, now Henderson, Kentucky, where he began his full-time criminal activities. He later settled downriver on Diamond Island and engaged in river piracy. By 1797, Mason moved the base of his operations further downriver to Cave-in-Rock on the Illinois side of the river in the Northwest Territory. The Mason Gang of river pirates openly based themselves at the prominent Ohio River landmark known as Cave-in-Rock, a huge shelter cave. Samuel Mason had a brief association with the first known serial killers in America, Micajah and Wiley Harpe, as well as Peter Alston, and possibly John Duff, the counterfeiter. Mason and his gang stayed at Cave-In-Rock until the summer of 1799, when they were expelled by the “Exterminators”, a group of regulators under the leadership of Captain Young of Mercer County, Kentucky. Samuel Mason moved his operations down the Mississippi River and settled his family in the territory of Spanish Louisiana, now the present-day state of Missouri, and became a highwayman along the Natchez Trace in Mississippi Territory, now the present-day state of Mississippi. It was on the Natchez Trace that Mason received his most infamous nickname. He would leave a message after each crime (often in the blood of his murdered victims) proudly stating, “Done by Mason of the Woods”. In April 1802, Mississippi Territorial Governor William C. C. Claiborne was informed that Mason and Wiley Harpe had attempted to board the boat of a Colonel Joshua Baker between Yazoo, now Yazoo, Mississippi, and Walnut Hills, now Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Arrest, escape, and death

According to Spanish colonial court records, Spanish government officials arrested Samuel Mason and his men, early in 1803, at the Little Prairie settlement, now Caruthersville, in southeastern Missouri. Mason and his gang, including his family members, were taken to the Spanish colonial government in New Madrid, Spanish Upper Louisiana Territory, along the Mississippi River, where a three-day hearing was held to determine whether Mason was truly involved in river piracy, as he had been formally accused of this crime. Although he claimed he was simply a farmer, who had been maligned by his enemies, the peculiar presence of $7,000 in currency and twenty human scalps found in his baggage was the damning evidence that convinced the Spanish he indeed was a river pirate. Mason and his family were taken, under armed guard, to New Orleans, the capital of Spanish Lower Louisiana Territory, where the Spanish colonial governor ordered them handed over to the American authorities in the Mississippi Territory, as all crimes they had been convicted of appeared to have taken place in American territory or against American river boats.

While being transported up the Mississippi River, Samuel Mason and gang members John Sutton or Setton, one of the many aliases used by Wiley Harpe, and James May, alias of Peter Alston, overpowered their guards and escaped, with Mason being shot in the head during the escape. One of the 1803 accounts {Rothert. p. 247} claimed Captain Robert McCoy, the commandant of New Madrid, was killed by Mason during their escape. McCoy actually died in 1840, and was neither crippled or killed, by Mason. American territorial governor William C. C. Claiborne, immediately issued a reward for their recapture, prompting Wiley Harpe and Peter Alston to bring Mason’s head, in an attempt to claim the reward money. Whether they killed Mason or whether he died from his wound suffered in the escape attempt has never been established. Setton and May were recognized and identified as wanted criminals, Wiley Harpe and Peter Alston, were arrested, tried in U.S. federal court, found guilty of piracy, and hanged in Old Greenville, Jefferson County, Mississippi Territory in early 1804.

Similarities of Samuel Mason and the Mason Gang to other criminal gangs

From the 1790s-1833, James Ford led a double life while living in Ford’s Ferry, Kentucky, as the justice of the peace and the gang leader of a group of highwaymen and river pirates on the Ohio River. From 1863-1864, Henry Plummer was the elected sheriff of the gold rush town, Bannack, Montana, in the Idaho Territory. He was later, accused of being the leader of an outlaw gang, the Innocents, who stole gold shipments from Bannick, and was hanged by Bannick vigilantes.