“Big” and “Little” Harpe were notorious outlaws on the frontier of the Old Southwest. The two committed murder and highway robbery indiscriminately around the frontier town of Knoxville and in other parts of East Tennessee and Kentucky. The legend of their atrocities survives as one of the most disturbing accounts of blood-lust in Tennessee history.
Little is known about the background or family of the Harpes, who were most likely brothers. They moved from North Carolina to East Tennessee in 1797, settling on Beaver Creek about eight miles west of Knoxville with at least one woman they had brought with them. Little Harpe reputedly married a woman who lived near Knoxville. Though they initially farmed peacefully, the two soon began plundering hogs, sheep, and horses from their neighbors. Their murders started in Knox County, where the community was alarmed at the fate of victims like that of a man named Johnson, whose body the Harpes cut open and filled with stones before throwing it in the Holston River. Stories of the Harpes’ inhuman violence maintain that the men even killed their own children. Luckily for Knox Countians, they eventually left for less populous areas, terrorizing settlers and travelers along the Tennessee and Kentucky border.
Big Harpe met his end in the summer of 1799 after he slit the throats of the wife and infant of Moses Stegall, a former Knoxville resident living in what is now Union County, Kentucky. A posse caught up with the brothers and shot Big Harpe, although Little Harpe managed to escape. According to witnesses’ reports, the enraged Stegall cut off Big Harpe’s head with a butcher knife while the outlaw was still conscious. Stegall collected no reward, but he placed the head in a tree in Highland Lick, Kentucky, as a warning to other outlaws.
Little Harpe continued his career as a cohort of Samuel Mason, robbing and killing travelers along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee and Mississippi. The Trace was fertile territory for these outlaws because of the number of traders and travelers who carried gold on their journeys between Nashville and Natchez. Little Harpe’s movements largely remain a mystery, but the story of his execution survives. Mason was captured in 1803, but escaped during a storm while being transported to Natchez. When two men later appeared with Mason’s head to request a reward, John Bowman of Tennessee identified one as Little Harpe. Harpe and his partner escaped, but were captured hours later in Greenville, Mississippi. After their trial in January 1804, the heads of the two hanged criminals were placed on stakes on the Trace near Greenville.
Early histories such as Life As It Is by J. W. M. Breazeale (1842) presented sensationalized accounts of the Harpes, and their exploits were immortalized in Robert M. Coates’s The Outlaw Years (1930) and O. A. Rothert’s Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock (1924). These and other writers have assured that the names of two of the most notorious outlaws in Tennessee history will continue to live on.
John D. W. Guice, “A Trace of Violence?” Southern Quarterly 29 (1991): 123-43