Pirate dramas not limited to the high seas

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 13, 2009

Several years before Buddy Ebsen was Jed Clampett of “The Beverly Hillbillies” he was George “Georgie” Russell on the big screen.

Fess Parker was Davy Crockett.

It was 1955 and the movie was “River Pirates,” a production of Walt Disney and his Mickey Mouse company.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Well it’s now 2009. As the world again is caught up in the notion of pirates and piracy, maybe some might be interested to know that the Mississippi River has seen its share of buccaneer-type activity.

Downstream there was Jean LaFitte, also known as the Gentleman Pirate of New Orleans. His heyday was about the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and his territory was the entire Gulf of Mexico.

LaFitte preferred being known as a privateer, which, in fact, he frequently was. The distinction is that a pirate is in business for himself, while a privateer is commissioned by a nation for the purpose of harassing enemy shipping. Pirates and privateers both get to keep whatever booty they seize, so by either name it’s a pretty good business. LaFitte is much respected, in part because he supported U.S. efforts against the British at the end of the War of 1812, keeping New Orleans in American hands.

Vicksburg itself was in the center of pirate actions, wet to the west and dry to the east.

There were bandits on the river in the last half of the 1700s and first half of the 1800s in these parts who commandeered flatboats and looted them of goods. The river in those days was like a giant interstate highway. All the goods produced for trade by settlers all throughout the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri basin were floated down to New Orleans to be placed on ships sailing to other ports in America and around the world.

But most of the cut-throat activity around here took place on the Natchez Trace. Thieves figured out that waiting for the boaters to sell their goods was just as profitable and lots easier. Flatboaters would walk back north on the Trace, which stretched to Nashville, and had gold in their pockets. Gold was much better booty than pelts.

The most notorious pirates were upstream where the Mississippi and streams feeding it are far less wide.

Capt. Samuel Mason was the pirate on whom Disney’s 1955 movie was based. Mason actually ran an operation much like the trading post towns depicted in the more recent “Pirates of the Carribean” movies. Cave-in-Rock, as it was known, is still a tourist attraction near Marion, Ky.

Apparently, Mason had two methods of operation. One was to take boatloads of thugs out onto the Ohio and overpower flatboaters and their families, stealing everything they had. The other was to lure travelers in to his makeshift wharf for the night, and then use women, whiskey and gambling in his tavern to separate them from their goods.

Despite Disney’s adaptation, there was nothing friendly about Sam Mason. Victims were almost always beaten to a pulp and many of them were killed, with the river’s current taking away the evidence.

A $1,000 bounty was placed on Mason, which would be about $50,000 today. One of his fellow thugs stabbed him in the back to get the reward, but was himself set upon and quickly murdered by more loyal members of the Mason gang.

Next to gain prominence was James Hart Ford, a nearby ferry operator who sometimes steered people into Mason’s traps. Ford had a side business of catching runaway slaves and reselling them or returning them for rewards.

A story about him is that he went headfirst to hell. Due to a clap of thunder (or a convenient slip of the hands) as his casket was being lowered, the front rope gave way and his casket ended up almost perpendicular in his grave. The story goes that pouring rain then collapsed the soil around the casket and its position was never changed.

Stories such as that give piracy the aura of adventure and drama.

Somewhere, right now, someone is thinking about making a movie about the pirates of Somalia.