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Published on Tuesday, October 2, 2012


By Janett L. Grady


They were (and are) a different breed of men and women. They worked hard, lived reckless, rambunctious lives and would fight at the drop of a hat. They were independent and had their own code of honor.

We refer to them as part of a cowboy culture, and most of us know of these men and women because of the Hollywood movies we've seen, movies about America's push westward, movies about wagon trains, frontier saloons, wild women and wilder cowboys, sheriffs, outlaws and posses.

There is something else about "cowboys," though, that begs to be told:

Our first American cowboys were hard-riding, resourceful guerrilla fighters who sided with the British during the American Revolution.

Who first called cowboys cowboys is not known for sure, but it's generally believed they received the name because of the rapscallion-type boys who tended cows on English farms. What is known for sure is that the name cowboy came to us from the British during the American Revolution.

Not all American colonists were rebels, and the British soldiers called the colonists who sided with England, "cowboys," probably meaning to show a disdain and lack of respect. To the American rebel, these "cowboys" were traitors, men who attacked American farms stealing horses and cattle and engaging in murderous forays, often using rape and torture to terrorize their fellow colonists, an ungodly technique of war rarely found of the King's disciplined soldier.

"Cowboy" guerrillas of the Revolution were nothing at all like the later saloon girls, wild-west gunfighters and outlaws portrayed in Hollywood movies. Historical record reveals that some of the colonists who supported the British make our well-known outlaws, men such as Jesse James and his brother Frank, the Youngers and the Dalton brothers, look like choir boys.

The Harpe brothers, for instance, during the Revolution, sided with the British and terrorized American settlers to the point of causing equally terrifying response.

Micajar, or Big Harpe, and Wiley, Little Harpe, were vicious and evil to the core. They wore the jackets and boots from the colonists they had tortured and killed. They carried swords, tomahawks, or the long British "bagnits." The Harpes showed no mercy...they were blood-thirsty killers.

After Yorktown, when their neighbors refused to forget their depredations, the Harpes fled, making their way to Knoxville, Tennessee, which back then was the gateway to the West and as wild as any of Hollywood's frontier towns.

The Harpe brothers continued their wicked ways.

They one day butchered a neighbor and stole his team of horses. The Harpes were later captured for this murder, but then escaped.

Their next victims were emigrants moving along the Wilderness Road.

Soon, scores of rapes and murders were charged against them. Again captured, they were imprisoned in Danville, Kentucky, but the flimsy log jail was no match for their brute strength.

They resumed their murdering ways along the Wilderness Road. But to say they merely murdered people would be an understatement and therefore a distortion...the Harpes did more than just kill people. The Harpes disembowelled their victims, hurling mutilated bodies, filled with gravel and stone, into the Barren River.

The brothers then moved westward to the Ohio River, where they joined the lawless community of Cave In The Rock, a deep limestone cave that was large enough to hide an army. But so horrible was the blood lust of the Harpes, the pirates and cutthroats who lived in the cave drove them out.

The Harpes then drifted through the forest, two wild-eyed giants with tangled beards, dressed in ragged buckskins and carrying muskets, tomahawks dangling at their sides and wicked pig-stickers in their belts.

By the summer of 1798, a long list of horrible murders was charged to the "Terrible Harpes." Using dogs and skilled trappers, posses now hunted for these evil men.

When a posse finally caught up with the Harpes, the posse showed themselves to be somewhat angry, to say the least.

Somehow, Wiley (Little) Harpe managed to escape, but his brother took a slug in the spine, knocking him off his horse. As Big Harpe lay sprawled on his back in agony, the posse watched him squirm and waited for him to die. Tired of waiting, one man of the posse sawed at the outlaw's neck with a large knife...while Big Harpe called out his dying words: "You are a goddamn rough butcher but cut on and be damned." The man wrung off the outlaw's head, as you would the head of a hog. The head was placed in a sack and the posse set out for home.

Somewhere along their way, the posse camped and boiled Harpe's head in a pot. The head was then nailed to a tree, and for years the gleaming white skull grinned down at frightened travelers.

Little Harpe had escaped but his days were numbered.

In March of 1803, a convicted small-time thief named Sam Mason escaped from a jail. Rewards were posted, and a quiet, bearded stranger who called himself Setten offered to go out and bring Mason back. He did, returning with Mason's head in a ball of clay.

Setten was accepting his reward, when a townsman shouted, "Hey, that's Wiley Harpe!"

Little Harpe was hanged on February 8, 1804.

The Harpes were vicious, evil men who sided with the British during the American Revolution. The British called these men and men like them, "cowboys," and the name stuck, today the name implying an independent breed of resourceful men and women with their own code of honor.

America's fight for independence spawned ungodly men like the Harpes, and less than a hundred years later, the Civil War spawned outlaws like Jesse James, the Youngers and the Daltons.

Whether we like it or not, all these frontier bad guys can be lumped into the same Hollywood mystique of being part of America's push to settle the West, part of the cowboy culture of America. The word "cowboy" was and is used to describe them.

Janett L. Grady is a senior citizen who lives and writes with her husband in Palmer, Alaska.

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