Frontier Justice

Historical Marker #1004 in Webster County remembers the brutal statement that was made by posting the head of notorious outlaw Micajah Harpe at a noted crossroads. Harpe's head served as a warning and deterrent for other potential highway robbers and murderers.

Kentucky's history includes some infamous characters and deeds, but probably none so desperate as the Harpes and the string of terror they unleashed on Kentucky's byways in the late-eighteenth century.

The Harpes were born in North Carolina. While they often attempted to pass themselves off as brothers, apparently they were cousins whose families had sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. After the war, the Tory supporting Harpes were encouraged to relocate. They landed in what is now present-day southeast Tennessee and lived for several years among the Cherokees. Micajah Harpe, known as "Big Harpe," and Wiley Harpe, known as "Little Harpe" had two women who traveled with them, sisters Susan and Betsey Roberts.

In 1797, the Harpes were living near Knoxville, Tennessee, and Wiley had just married Sarah (Sally) Rice. Apparently the Harpes made a living by rustling neighbors' livestock and occasionally robbing travelers of money and goods. When the Harpes were captured after stealing some horses they escaped from their captors and vowed violence going forward.

The Harpes' reign of terror began in East Tennessee and then proceeded though the Cumberland Gap and along the Wilderness Road into Kentucky. In December 1798, they killed a man they had befriended in present-day Rockcastle County, Kentucky. When they were captured shortly thereafter they were taken to Stanford and placed in jail. They then moved to Danville to await trial. The Harpes broke out of the Danville jail in March 1799. They next killed a boy near Columbia, Kentucky, and then headed for an outlaw's paradise at Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, on the Ohio River. Being too cut-throat for the den of thieves there, the Harpes were forced to leave and head back to Kentucky where they left a trail of dead bodies between there and their old haunts near Knoxville.

In the summer of 1799, after killing several people near Henderson, Kentucky, Micajah was pursued by a posse to a canebrake in Muhlenberg County, where he was shot in the spine. A member of the posse cut off Big Harpe's head and it was taken to a crossroads in present-day Webster County as a warning to others who might think of pursuing the life of an outlaw.

Four years later, Wiley "Little" Harpe was captured near Greenville, Mississippi, after being identified. With a swift trial Wiley was hanged, and like "Big" Harpe, his head was cut off and displayed.