VICKSBURG FACTS: Avast Ye, River Pirates in Vicksburg

Published 8:00 am Friday, October 7, 2022

By Vera Ann Fedell | The Vicksburg Post

Did you know River Pirates were once in Vicksburg?

Long before Vicksburg was incorporated in 1825, the Vicksburg area was once settled by Spanish settlers. The Spanish settlers originally named this land Nogales due to the abundance of walnut trees along the bluffs. By 1776, the Spanish settlers began to call it Walnut Hills. 

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River Piracy existed as early as the 1760s along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, as stated in Samuel M. Lackey’s research, “Backcountry Robbers, River Pirates and Brawling Boatmen: Transnational Banditry in Antebellum U.S. Frontier Literature.”

Some of the pirates that existed while the Spanish government ruled the Mississippi territory, stayed at the Chickasaw Bluffs, Walnut Hills, Stack Island and the Crow’s Nest along the Mississippi River, according to Lackey’s research.

The River Pirates were criminals that did not pledge allegiance to any nation and often came from different nationalities to form their crews. As stated in Lackey’s research, river piracy was dangerous for boatsmen during the Golden Age of Flatboating, which was a period of major water travel for both commercial activities that were carried out on primitive crafts such as flatboats, keelboats, barges and rafts and migration to the west. 

The pirates that terrorized the Mississippi River had several methods of attack. Some pirates would lure their victims in by offering to help with navigating over dangerous water rapids and allowing the pirate crew to get on board and attack.

There were other River Pirates that would offer whiskey and card-play to get the boatsmen to land on shore, according to Lackey. Some pirates would find natural hide-out spots and attack their victims as they sailed along the river, or the pirates would raid and sink the boats while the boatmen were on shore to rest for the night. 

In 1802, some of the most famous River Pirates were sighted in the Vicksburg area. According to the article about Samuel “Wolfman” Mason from the Legends of America website, Mississippi Gov. C.C. Claiborne got word that Sam Mason and one of the Harpe Bothers, Wiley Harpe, “attempted to board the boat of Colonel Joshua Baker between Yazoo and Walnut Hills,” which is present-day Vicksburg. 

Sam Mason and his pirate crew were known for causing chaos around the Natchez Trace and for hiding out in areas in Rocky Springs, Miss. Wiley “Little” Harpe and his bother, Micajah “Big” Harpe, were known as “The Harpe Brothers.” They were ruthless raiders and would terrorize their victims up until their deaths all along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. 

The Harpe Brothers are considered the earliest documented serial killers in United States history.

River piracy slowly stopped by the time steamboats were being used as the main source of water transportation. Soon, river pirates became nothing more than myths and folklore.