America was still new frontier by the time Micajah “Big” Harpe and Wiley “Little” Harpe had endured the treacherous transatlantic journey from their homeland of Scotland. Anyone who had the money to do so was free to travel and colonize the new world. Some were looking for work, some were tired of living under the rule of the British Crown, others were brought over against their will as slaves to help farm the fertile colony soils, and then there were those with other ideas.
The Harpe brothers – later learned by historians to have been cousins who called themselves brothers – earned the nicknames “Big” and “Little” on account of Micajah Harpe’s six foot four stature towering Wiley “Little” Harpe. The pair settled with their fathers in North Carolina and were on their way to find work as overseers for slaves on a plantation when the Revolutionary War broke out.
The Harpes fought on the side of the British, but quickly joined leagues with a rape gang. Big and Little had little interest in politics, but did enjoy the idea of raping women and pillaging the early colonies. There wasn’t a man, woman or child who was safe when the Harpes were near. They seemed to enjoy the horrors of war, and partook in more force than what was necessary to get the Crown’s point across.
Captain James Wood was the first to learn of the Harpes’ real interest in the war after he came across Little Harpe raping a young woman. Woods shot him and the woman was able to flee. The gunshot was non-fatal and shortly after the British lost the battle of Yorktown in 1781, the Harpes joined forces with their Chickamauga Cherokee allies.
The Harpes continued to battle against the Patriots, raping their women and pillaging their villages. As revenge, Susan Wood – the daughter of Captain Wood – along with Maria Davidson were captured and forced to become their wives. The women traveled with the Harpes as they made their way to Tennessee. During the trip a man named Moses Doss, who had also been traveling with the Harpes, expressed a concern for the women’s well-being. The Harpes’ response to his concern was to kill him outright.
Once the Harpes and their entourage reached the Cherokee settlement outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they would spend nearly 13 years of their lives, they participated in several attacks against the Patriots including the defeat of Daniel Boone’s frontiersmen at the Battle of Blue Licks in Kentucky.
In 1794, the Harpes and their wives fled the Cherokee village prior to a raid conducted by the Patriots. They looted local pioneers and took up residency in Powell’s Valley, just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. Three years later the Harpes would begin their murder spree.
They were quickly run of out the Knoxville-area after locals accused the Harpes of stealing hogs and horses. There were also rumors that it was the Harpes behind the brutal murder of a man named Johnson. His body was found in a river covered in urine and his chest cavity had been ripped open and weighed down with rocks. The state of Johnson’s body at the time of his discovery would become a sort of calling card for the dynamic duo, as they forged their trail of terror across Appalachia.
The pair did not discriminate against victims and were easily provoked. One man claimed that Big Harpe had become annoyed with his infant crying and had bashed the tiny child’s head against a tree. This would later become the only murder either of the cousins expressed any sort of remorse over. By 1799 the cousins were confirmed to have killed 39 people, but it has been estimated that there were many more unknown victims and some historians believe that their death toll may have been closer to 50.
In July of 1799, a militia group formed to avenge the death of a woman named Mrs. Stegal. John Leiper was able to shoot down Big Harpe after he tried to attack Leiper with a tomahawk. Big Harpe had not been killed by the gunshot and when Mrs. Stegal’s husband arrived he decapitated Big Harpe and left his head in a tree, where as it stood as a grim monument for nearly a decade before it was stolen.
Little Harpe managed to evade capture and is believed to have joined up with a notorious river pirate named Samuel Mason. Not much is known about his whereabouts, but historians believe he may have been captured by Spanish officials. He and Mason attempted to escape their captors, but Mason was gunned down while attempting to flee. Little Harpe and another gang member who managed to escape unscathed attempted to collect on the reward for Mason’s capture.
The plan had backfired. Harpe and the other gang member were immediately recognized. He was hanged in 1804.
Due to their notorious reputation, surviving family was forced to change their name to Harper in order to distance themselves from the ruthless killers and to disguise their former British loyalty.