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Samuel Mason or Meason (17391803) was the leader of a gang of river pirates on the lower Ohio River and the Mississippi River in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was associated with Cave-in-Rockmarker, Stack Islandmarker and the Natchez Trace.

Early life and Revolutionary War Service

Mason was born in Norfolkmarker, Virginiamarker and raised in Charles Townmarker, West Virginiamarker, where he lived until moving to what is now Ohio County, West Virginiamarker in 1773.

Samuel Mason was a captain of the militia in Ohio county, Virginia (today West Virginia) during the American Revolution. According to Ohio county court minutes dated 7 January 1777, Mason was recommended to the governor of Virginia to serve as captain of the militia. On 28 January, he was present and cited as a captain from Ohio county at a “council of war” held Catfish Camp. Catfish Camp was located at or near present Washington, Pennsylvania. On 8 June 1777, Mason wrote a letter from Fort Henry to brigadier general Edward Hand. The letter was signed Samuel Meason. On 1 September 1777, he was wounded but survived an ambush attack by Native Americans near Fort Henry. Most of the men in his company perished during the attack. He moved again in 1779, this time to what is now Washington County, Pennsylvaniamarker, where he was elected justice of the peace and later selected as associate judge, leaving for Kentucky in 1784. Mason's surname was spelled interchangeably as Meason in many of the early records. This is explained in at least two family histories of the Mason/Meason family. One is Pioneer Period and Pioneer People of Fairfield County, Ohio by C. M. L. Wiseman and dated 1901. The other is Torrence and Allied Families by Robert M. Torrence and dated 1938.


Mason moved his family to the Red Banks, Kentucky, area in the early 1790s, near what is now Hendersonmarker, Kentucky. He later settled downriver on Diamond Island and engaged in criminal activity. By 1797 he moved the base of his river piracy further downriver to Cave-in-Rockmarker on the Illinois shore.

Mason's gang of pirates openly based themselves at Cave-in-Rock until the summer of 1799 when expelled by the Exterminators under the leadership of Capt. Young of Mercer Countymarker, Kentucky. Mason moved his operations downriver and settled his family in Spanish Louisiana (Missourimarker) and became a highway robber on the Natchez Trace in Mississippi.

In April 1802 Mississippi Governor William C. C. Claiborne was informed Mason and Wiley Harpe had attempted to board a boat of a Colonel Joshua Baker between Yazoo and Walnut Hills.

Arrest and execution

Spanish officials arrested Mason and his men early in 1803 at the Little Prairie settlement in what is now northeastern Arkanasas. The Spanish took Mason and his family members to New Madrid, Missouri, where they held a three day hearing to determine if Mason indeed was a pirate. Although Mason claimed he was simply a farmer who had been maligned by his enemies, the presence of $7,000 in currency and 20 human scalps in his luggage convinced the Spanish he indeed was a pirate. Mason and his family were taken under guard to New Orleans, where the Spanish governor ordered them to be handed over to the American governor in Mississippi Territory as all their crimes appeared to have taken place on American territory or against American boats.

While being transported back up river Mason and gang member John Sutton (aka Wiley Harpe) overpowered their guards and escaped, with Mason being shot in the head during the escape. Although one account claimed Captain Robert McCoy was killed in the escape attempt, in fact McCoy, the Commandant of New Madrid, actually died in 1840 – nor was he crippled by Mason. The American governor immediately issued a reward for their recapture, prompting John Sutton and another man to bring Mason's head in an attempt to claim the reward (whether they killed Mason or whether he died from his wound suffered in the escape attempt has never been established). There they were recognized as two of the pirates, resulting in their receiving a different reward than they had anticipated. Sutton and the other man were arrested, tried in federal court, found guilty of piracy, and hanged in Greeneville, Mississippi, in early 1804.


  • Otto A. Rothert, The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock, Otto A. Rothert, Cleveland 1924; rpt. 1996 ISBN 0-8093-2034-7


  1. Boyd Crumrine, Virginia Court Records in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Records of the District of West Augusta and Ohio and Yahogania Counties, Virginia, 1775–1780, Consolidated Edition, p. 366, dated 1981.
  2. History of the Upper Ohio Valley, Vol. 1., Brant & Fuller, p. 73, dated 1891.
  3. Samuel Hazard, Pennsylvania Archives, Selected and Arranged from Original Documents in the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Conformably to Acts of the General Assembly, February 15, 1851, & March 7, 1852, Vol. V., p. 445, dated 1853.
  4. History of the Upper Ohio Valley, Vol. 1., Brant & Fuller, pps. 80–82, dated 1891.
  5. D. Roland's 1907 "Mississippi, comprising Sketchs of Towns, Events...".p. 176 1907
  6. Houck's "History of Missouri from the Earliest explorations..." 1908 .p. 140; According to Conrad's "Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri" 1901 .p. 557 a Creek Indian named Tewanaye who killed a David Trotter in New MAdrid in 1802 had been found guilty of Murder in New Orleans and in a return trip near Natchez in a galley Tewanaye had tried to escape and crippled McCoy; Tewanaye was executed in New Madrid January 3, 1803.
  7. Wagner, Mark and Mary R. McCorvie, "Going to See the Varmint: Piracy in Myth and Reality on the Ohio River, 1785–1830", In X Marks The Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, edited by Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen, pp. 219–247. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.

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