High Piracy on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers

Today in the news we hear a good deal about piracy at sea. Somalia of course is one good example. Another is the piracy that continues to be a threat to ocean freighters in the area of Indonesia. While most of these crimes involve the stealing of ships and cargo not too many, but still some, involve the capturing of ship crews. To help prevent ocean hijacking and outright piracy, several nations including the United States have begun patrolling the most dangerous of these sea lanes. What is a story that hasn’t been publicized too much is the piracy and murder that took place on the inland waterways right here in the U.S. The river pirates at the turn of the 19th century were an obstacle to westward immigration.

keel boats
Flatboat and keelboat on Ohio River, public domain image

There was a time when traveling down the Ohio River was akin to journeying on the Oregon Trail by wagon train. The dangers were every bit as great. The threat on the inland waterways didn’t come from a party of raiding Indians. It came from ruthless pirates who had no qualms at all to hijack a river boat, steal the boat itself and murder crew and passengers. Piracy attack along the Ohio River bank took many lives. The dangers on the Ohio went all the way down to Cairo Illinois where it merges with the Mississippi River.  An article written in the book, Waterways West, by author Robert West Howard, estimates that between the early years of 1785 and 1805, more than two-thousand men, women and children lost their lives at the hands of these violent river pirates. Think about it. That is an astoundingly high figure of deaths at a time when our nation’s population was a fraction of what it is today. During that period of time, rivers like the Ohio and Mississippi represented what we often call the Wild West. The Ohio River was the original home of the legendary figure Mike Fink, probably the most famous boatman on the early Ohio.

This was the era before steamboats. The description of a typical vessel in this era was a flatboat perhaps forty to seventy feet in length and twelve to fifteen feet wide. The hull was raised maybe seven feet out of the water. On the deck was built a log cabin. Wagons and livestock might have been carried on the flat roof of the cabin. Two large rudder/oars were fixed on the front and back. These boats or arks depended on the river current for power. Basically, it served the same as a wagon train wagon except it floated down the river. These powerless barges with valuables onboard were prime targets for the river pirates and murderers.

River pirates had a few ways to commandeer these floating arks. They would hide out in a cave along the river. Perhaps one would offer to help navigate the relatively helpless barge over some supposed dangerous rapids downriver. He might get aboard and suggest that they maneuver to a cave where there was also supposedly good clean water and a marvelous sight. When the boat entered the cave area it would be set upon violently by the pirate gang. Once inside the cave the immigrants would be slain, the vessel looted of everything and perhaps then floated downriver to the Cumberland River and sold in Tennessee. It was that ruthless and in many ways more deadly than the attacks that occurred decades later on the Oregon Trail.

mississippi river
Today’s Mississippi River near confluence of Missouri River

To say these murderers were chased is an understatement. This was a time when the United States was a very new nation. The frontier Wild West was the region of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. There was no established law enforcement and the only method to deal with these deadly pirates were as vigilantes. Vigilante groups were the law enforcement of that era and in that place. They were similar to the later groups in Montana, Wyoming and other frontier territories.

One particular event probably illustrates best as to how these pirates were dealt with when captured or killed. The Harpe brothers led a small gang of pirates/robbers who moved around the lower Ohio and upper part of the Mississippi. The Harpe brothers, sometimes described as actually cousins, didn’t only rob and kill people on the rivers but also did the same by ambush on land. They were both river pirates and cold blooded killers. The Harpes roamed the entire area of Kentucky and down to the Cumberland Gap and on the Natchez Trace. The Harpes were also connected with a shady robber named Wilson. The Harpes with all their wisdom decided to kill Wilson and bring his head in to Natchez to collect a bounty. The problem was, the boatmen of Natchez recognized the Harpes for who they really were. They were both promptly arrested, tried and beheaded. So to discourage other would be pirates, the heads of all three were displayed on stakes along the Natchez Trace. A strong statement by the people and boatmen of Natchez was truly made.

old cincinnati ohio
Early Cincinnati Ohio with the Ohio River running through

Eventually, and as a protective measure, flatboats began traveling down the Ohio as a flotilla. This of course was very similar to the wagon trains that flowed across the prairie decades later. Some believe the idea for the wagon trains went all the way back to these river flotillas. Obviously, there was strength in numbers. Additionally, the flotillas had a keel boat in the middle of the chain of flatboats as protection. Keelboats were first built in Pittsburgh PA around 1775. The keel boat had a deck house with bunks and cargo space which in the case of protecting the flotilla included a one pound cannon, rifles and cutlasses and a crew not shy to use them. You can see the better maneuverability the keel boat had from the picture at the top of this page.The keel boat was positioned in the middle of the flotilla so to guard against trouble downriver and upriver. The keel boats assured that the flotilla would make it safely past known plunder points. There were many hidden ambush points on the river banks. The Keelboats were largely successful in protecting the defenseless flat boats..

Pirates operated on the rivers during the last part of the 18th century and during the early part of the 19th century. They also operated on the Great Lakes during the 1800’s. Wherever there was an opportunity to plunder and a lack of law enforcement, the pirates/robbers will appear. In the violent events that took place on the Ohio River at the turn of the century, a good argument could be made that the perpetrators were vicious murderers rather than pirates. In many instances they were both. Pioneers have always been in harms way. It went with the territory. At the time of the piracy and murders along the Ohio River, the river represented the American frontier very similar to what the Dakotas were in the 1830’s.

A few other interesting stories you will be interested in. The Great Train Robbery and The Yellowstone Steamboat in Texas.

The river piracy and violence on the early Ohio River was an unfortunate part of history. Essentially it was a violent and dangerous part of American westward expansion which would repeat itself over and over with pioneer immigrants who would travel the old Santa Fe Trail after 1821 and the various Overland trails beginning in the late 1830’s.

(Photos and images are from the public domain)