Tuesday, August 30, 2016

From Patriot to Desperado

Cave-In-Rock, Illinois

August 31, 1777, Samuel Mason, a Patriot captain in command of Fort Henry on the Ohio frontier, survives a devastating Indian attack.
The son of a distinguished Virginia family, Samuel Mason became a militia officer and was assigned to the western frontier post of Fort Henry in present-day West Virginia. In the summer of 1777, with the colonies fighting a war for independence, Mason feared attacks by the Indian allies of the British. He was proven correct on August 31, 1777, when a band of Native Americans from several eastern tribes attacked the fort.
The Indians initially fired only on several men who were outside the fort rounding up horses. Hearing the shots, Mason gathered 14 men and rode to their rescue; this was exactly what the warriors hoped he would do. They ambushed the party, killing all but Mason. Badly wounded, Mason escaped death by hiding behind a log. A second party that attempted to come to his rescue suffered the same fate as the first. All told, Mason lost 15 men, compared to only one fatality among the attackers.
Mason recovered from his wounds and continued to command Fort Henry for several years. Following the end of the war, though, he fell on hard times. Repeatedly accused of being a thief, he moved farther west into the lawless frontier of the young American nation.

By 1790's, Mason took to robbing travelers along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, often with the assistance of his four sons. The law eventually ran them off for robbing people.

Mason then moved to the Henderson, Kentucky area - then known as Red Banks - the Commonwealth sent a constable to regulate his activities, but Mason and his gang ended up killing him. Once again a group of regulators ran him out of town. 
After this, he and his family and gang became river pirates on the Lower Ohio River, preying on boatmen who moved valuable goods up and down the river. Historical records place Mason at Cave-In-Rock, Illinois in 1797.

The 1962 film How the West Was Won featured Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man going down the Ohio River. Along the way, they stopped in at Cave-In-Rock where Stewart meets a group of pirates. Their trick was to lure people in the cave then robbing and killing their victims. Walter Brennan's character, Alabama Colonel Hawkins, was based on a real pirate in the Lower Ohio River Valley: Samuel Mason.

By the early 1800's, Mason had become one of the most notorious desperadoes on the American frontier, a precursor to Jesse James, Cole Younger and later outlaws of the “Wild West.” In January 1803, Spanish authorities arrested Mason and his four sons and decided to turn them over to the Americans. En route to Natchez, Tennessee, Mason and his sons killed the commander of the boat and escaped.
Determined to apprehend Mason, the Americans upped the reward for his capture, dead or alive. The reward money soon proved too tempting for two members of Mason’s gang; in July 1803 they killed Mason, cut off his head and brought it into the Mississippi territorial offices to prove that they had earned the reward. The men were soon identified as members of Mason’s gang, however, and they were arrested and hanged.

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