Samuel Mason: The Cave-In-Rock Pirate Who Prowled the Region's Waterways

Jun 18, 2015

Highway 91 goes north from Marion, Kentucky to the Ohio River, where there's a small ferry crossing to Cave-In-Rock, Illinois. That limestone cave, now a feature of a small state park along the banks of the river, was said to have harbored vicious river pirates at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, including the infamous Harpe Brothers. Dr. Mark Wagner, interim director and staff archeologist of Southern Illinois Carbondale's Center for Archeological Investigations, says that historical record only places one particular pirate there and his name was Samuel Mason. Kate Lochte speaks with Dr. Wagner on Sounds Good to learn more about the fearsome figure who prowled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

The 1962 film How the West Was Won featured Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man going down the Ohio River. Along the way, they stopped in at Cave-In-Rock where Stewart meets a group of pirates. Their trick was to lure people in the cave then robbing and killing their victims. Walter Brennan's character, Alabama Colonel Hawkins, was based on a real pirate in the Lower Ohio River Valley: Samuel Mason.

There are a lot of stories about pirates at Cave-In-Rock, says Dr. Mark Wagner, but the only one we can verify through historical records is Samuel Mason, who was there briefly in 1797. Mason was a Revolutionary War officer from Pennsylvania. He fought in the back country against the Indians, but was always a "bad guy," Dr. Wagner says. In the 1770s he got into trouble in Knoxville, Tennessee and was eventually run out for robbing people. In Henderson, Kentucky - then known as Red Banks - the Commonwealth sent a constable to regulate his activities, but Mason and his gang ended up killing him. Eventually, a group of regulators ran him out of town. After this, he and his family and gang went to Cave-In-Rock for about six months.

Though it's an isolated area today, Dr. Wagner says the Ohio River at the time was like an interstate highway with thousands of boats. Outlaws wouldn't want to be in a permanent location because everyone stopped at Cave-In-Rock. After a few incidents, word would get out to law enforcement and they'd be easy to find. So he moved through the woods creating camps and attacking flat boats.

Mason's gang eventually drifted down into the Mississippi River Valley in Arkansas, where he was captured. At the time, territory west of the Mississippi River was held by the Spanish. When they inquired as to whether or not he was a pirate, Mason claimed that he was a farmer just trying to settle his family in Arkansas. When digging through his baggage, they found $7,000 dollars in bank notes, in which Mason responded asking if it was illegal to have counterfeit American bank notes. The Spanish responded that it wasn't, but then found approximately 20 human scalps among Mason's belongings, after which they sent him to New Orleans for a trial.

When his family arrived in New Orleans, the Louisiana Purchase was underway and the Spanish governor said he didn't have time for the trial, so Mason was sent back up to Mississippi. At some point along the way, he and another gang member got access to a gun and killed the guard. In this exchange, Mason was shot in the head, but survived and disappeared into the woods. An uproar ensued, with award posters up in local communities.

A few days later, two of his gang members brought Mason's head to the authorities to claim the award. It's unclear whether he died from his wound or if they had killed him, Dr. Wagner says. The two gang members were recognized as pirates and were put on trail, eventually hanged in Greenville, Mississippi.

The trial of the two gang members is well documented and because of these transcripts, we have a good understanding of how Samuel Mason and his gang operated, says Dr. Wagner. The two gang members testified against each other during the proceedings, giving up valuable details. They'd go on boats and pretend to be interested in buying something then rob the people onboard and either stranding them or killing them. Sometimes the boats were sunk, other times Mason used his network of people along the river to sell the boat and goods to crooked merchants along the way.

There were other accounts from the time period of boats being robbed, but no one operated on the same scale as Samuel Mason, Dr. Wagner says. The story got wide play in the newspapers at the time, building Cave-In-Rock's reputation as a den of piracy. By the 1820s, Mason's story faded away from local memory, but in the later part of the century, people would go there armed for an encounter with pirates and find nothing there.

Dr. Mark Wagner, interim director and staff archeologist of Southern Illinois Carbondale's Center for Archeological Investigations, explains that historical record shows that Samuel Mason and his gang terrorized our region's waterways about the same time when the Harpe Brothers were plundering and murdering mostly on land. Some legends put the Harpe Brothers at Cave-In-Rock as well; in fact, some legends have the Harpes and the Mason Gang in cohoots from time to time in this part of the wild west.