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He undoubtedly didn't resemble Blackbeard or Jack Sparrow, and the sea was not his lair. But he was a pirate nonetheless, and his reign helped to stoke folklore that persists to the present day.
His name was Capt. Samuel Mason, and he operated along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He was the worst of the worst, according to SIUC archaeologist Mark Wagner and U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Mary McCorvie, who recently contributed a chapter on river piracy to X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy (Univ. Press of Florida, 2006).
"There's a lot of folklore about piracy on the Ohio River, and most of what's written isn't true," Wagner says. "But Samuel Mason did bad, bad things on the Ohio for a period of about 20 years. He was extremely vicious."
Mason began his career of thieving, robbing, and killing in eastern Tennessee. When things got too hot for him there, he and his gang began terrorizing the area around present-day Henderson, Ky., on the banks of the Ohio. There, Mason added attacks on river vessels—mainly flatboats carrying emigrant families or trade goods downriver—to his arsenal of criminal activities.
After some years, a citizen posse succeeded in driving out Mason's gang, whereupon they set up shop for a time at Cave-in-Rock, a large one-room cave on the Illinois shore of the Ohio. Decades later, that locale inspired films such as "How the West Was Won," Wagner and McCorvie write, "in which fictional pirate Col. Jeb Hawkins robbed and murdered passing river travelers from his hideout at Cave-in-Rock."
As law officials gradually gained more power in the region around Cave-in-Rock, Mason decamped to Spanish territory along the lower Mississippi in 1800, where he continued to prey on river travelers. Eventually the Spanish captured and questioned him ("We still have the actual court transcript," Wagner says).
Mason tried to pass himself off as an ordinary settler—a ruse that failed when a $7,000 bankroll and some 20 scalps were discovered in his possession. The Spanish turned Mason over to the Americans, but he escaped en route to jail, only to be killed by two of his own men for the reward money.
Piracy on the Ohio and Mississippi "appears to have started in the late 18th century, as the dramatic increase in river traffic to New Orleans made this form of banditry economically profitable," Wagner and McCorvie write. Pirates had plenty of choices for good hangouts, since the surrounding countryside was very sparsely settled. Piracy continued after Mason's death, but not nearly on the same scale, they say, and its heyday was over by about 1830.
Interestingly, however, "archaeologists have yet to identify a single definite pirate-related archaeological site in either the Ohio or Mississippi River valleys," Wagner and McCorvie write. Instead, the main evidence for piracy comes from accounts in travel diaries, court transcripts, other government papers, and the like.
The two scholars have begun to study whether assemblages of artifacts from various sites can help archaeologists distinguish ordinary encampments from pirate camps. Finding and excavating the wrecked remains of flatboats and other vessels also may shed some light on river piracy—although, Wagner and McCorvie note, "It may be extremely difficult archaeologically to distinguish the wreck of a flatboat that sank due to pirate attack from one that sank due to natural causes."
Digging in storerooms, rather than in the dirt, may prove the most fruitful way to learn more about the activities of river pirates along the Ohio and Mississippi, they say. They "suspect that many additional but as yet unexamined documents relating to Ohio and Mississippi piracy exist in Spanish, French, and American archives"—just waiting to help scholars separate fact from fiction.
—by Marilyn Davis, ed.
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