THE HARPE BROTHERS & THE MURDER OF JAMES BRASEL
by Donald Todd
The two most vicious killers ever to roam the roads and trails of the frontier were the terrible Harpe brothers, known as Big Harpe and Little Harpe. They were the sons of a North Carolina Tory who had moved to Knox County about 1795. Soon after the Harpes moved to east Tennessee, frequent murders began to occur along the routes and trails of Tennessee and Kentucky, however, it was nearly two years before the perpetrators of these crimes were identified.
In early December of 1787, the Harpes committed a murder on the Wilderness Road north of the present town of London, Kentucky which led to their identification as the probable murderers in the previously unsolved crimes. A young man, Thomas Langford from Virginia, had spent the night at a small inn run by John Farris, Sr., an old family friend from back home in Virginia. He was traveling alone through the wilderness on his way to Frankfort and was preparing to leave when five people, two men and three women, all poorly dressed and ill-kept, stopped for breakfast. Young Langford graciously paid for their meal. Since he was traveling alone, he invited them to travel along with him on his way north.
A day or two later, a drover moving a herd of cattle south over the road stopped at the inn and told how he had discovered the body of a young man while driving some of his cows from the woods back into the road. The body had been hidden by the side of a log and covered with leaves and brush. From his description, the innkeeper recognized the dead man as his young friend. Fortunately, the innkeeper had sent word back to the authorities about the motley crew with which his friend had been traveling. He joined the posse which set out to hunt down the murderers of his young friend. A few days later the killers were discovered and surrounded before they realized that anyone was near. Resistance was impossible and they were taken without bloodshed.
The five were lodged in the Stanford jail. All three women were in advanced stages of pregnancy. Two were consorts of Big Harpe, and the third was the wife of Little Harpe. Her name had been Sally Rice before her recent marriage to Little Harpe. Her father was later to become a prominent Roane County minister who founded the city of Riceville. As the investigation into the murder continued, it became known that this motley crew had actually committed four murders between Cumberland Gap and Stanford on this one trip. It was determined that the Harpes should be tried at Danville, Kentucky. They were transferred to the Danville jail. This was a log structure with walls nine inches thick but the jailer, wishing to take no chances, bought two horselocks to anchor the men’s feet to the ground and installed a new lock on the door. Two guards were hired to keep a constant watch on the prisoners.
During February and early March, the two women friends of Big Harpe had their babies in the Danville jail. Both were delivered by a midwife. On the night of March 16, 1798, the two desperados who had been temporarily unchained, overpowered their guards and cut their way out of jail taking the guards’ guns with them. All of the women and the babies were left behind. It was soon learned that the two Harpe men had headed for Cave-in-Rock, a hideout for outlaws and river pirates on the Ohio River.
The women remained in jail until after Sally Harpe’s baby was delivered in April. After convincing the local people that they were the innocent victims of the brutish Harpes, the people provided them with an old mare and food and clothing and sent them on their way back to East Tennessee. Within a short time after leaving Danville, they turned onto a little known trail to Green River, where they traded their mare for a boat and headed down stream to the Ohio where they would rejoin their marauding mates.
The Harpes remained holed up out of reach of the law for a short time until the manhunt gradually died out. They then moved back to East Tennessee and are said to have located a hideout in the Indian territory in the mountains somewhere between the present towns of Oliver Springs and Wartburg. This hideout was to serve them if they became pursued while in the southern end of their territory. They had already resumed their campaign of pillage, robbery, and murder.
On July 29, 1799 the Harpes put their vicious mark on the history of the present Morgan County even though the county was still Indian territory and was not to be organized for 18 more years. On that fateful day, James Brasel and his brother Robert were riding along a road leading to their homes in Knox County (now a part of Anderson County). It was their ill fortune to meet the Harpe brothers who had recently committed another murder. In order to throw suspicion from themselves, they told the Brasels of the killing and said they were looking for the murderers. Then in a sudden change of mood, they accused the Brasels of the crimes and ordered them to get off their horses. Robert, fearing what would happen, made a dash for freedom and escaped. The Harpes tied James’ hands and feet, cut his throat and then shot him. His body was left beside the road where it was later recovered by his family. Robert attempted to raise a posse to pursue the killers but was not able to do so until they had sufficient time to escape. The real mystery is where the murder occurred. There are two different accounts and each has some points in its favor. These differing versions will be discussed later on in this account, but a short history of the Brasel’s movements into East Tennessee is in order.
Richard Brasel moved from Greenville, South Carolina to Knox County, Tennessee after he was approximately 60 years old. Several of his grown children, including James and Robert, also sold their property in South Carolina and came to East Tennessee at about the same time, which was in the 1790’s. James bought 50 acres on Grassy Creek in Knox County, Tennessee in 1795. Prior to his coming to Tennessee he had married Nancy Hall and several of their children had been born in South Carolina. Nancy was a sister of David and Samuel Hall, two of the earliest settlers of Morgan County. James and Nancy’s children were John (b. @1785), Elizabeth (b. @1787), Obedience (b. @ 1791), David (b. @ 1793) and Richard born about 1799, the same year that James was murdered.
Nancy Hall Brasel remained on the Anderson County tax list until 1812. She then sold her property in Anderson County and followed her brothers Samuel and David Hall to that part of Roane County which later became Morgan County. She purchased 27 acres of land from Daniel Stonecipher on Crooked Fork Creek and appeared on the Roane County tax list in 1814. There are several indications that Nancy brought all her children with her when she moved to Crooked Fork. The two youngest, David and Richard, appear to have left Morgan County when they grew up, but the three oldest children all married into the Stonecipher family which had already settled in Morgan County. John Brasel married Rhoda, a daughter of Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Stonecipher. Elizabeth Brasel married Benjamin Stonecipher and Obedience Brasel married Daniel Stonecipher. Both Stonecipher men were sons of Joseph Stonecipher. It is easy to see how extensive the relationship of the family of James Brasel is to the present population of Morgan County, when one considers the number of descendants of the Brasel, Hall, and Stonecipher families over the past 2 centuries.
Most of the early murders committed by the Harpes seem to have been on or near the Wilderness Road, the well-known route through the Cumberland Gap, but after the murder of Langford and the Harpe’s escape from the Danville jail, the rewards for their capture had increased until they could no longer travel that well used route because of the organized parties hunting for them.
When the Harpes came out of hiding at Cave-in-Rock they started preying on the people along the Cumberland River from Burnsides down to the Tennessee line and using the trail across the Cumberland plateau through what was later to become Kentucky and East Tennessee. They are reported to have killed a man in Stockton’s Valley near Price’s Station on the Cumberland River and a youth by the name of Trabeau farther west. They met a black youth going to the grist mill and bashed his brains out against a tree but later left the horse and bag of grain untouched.
These horrible acts so incensed the community that the people organized a company and started searching for the Harpes. They had barely got started before they killed a man by the name of Tully on Wolf River near the Kentucky and Tennessee line. Either on their way down from Kentucky or on their return they murdered a man by the name of Bradbury about eight or nine miles east of Kingston. As soon as the people of Tennessee became aware that the Harpes were back in the state they organized search parties and began to hunt for them. The Harpes crossed the Clinch River at Papaw Ford and headed back over the route they had just traveled coming south. A writer of the day tells us that this route was already known as the Kentucky Trace at the time the Harpes were using it. James and Robert Brasel had been to Stockton’s Valley in Kentucky and were returning to their homes in Knox County by the same route on which the Harpes were headed north. They met just a short distance north of the Emory River a mile or two upstream from where Montgomery, the county seat of Morgan County would later be located. Most reports indicate this as where the Brasel murder occurred. This would place it near the center of Morgan County about two miles north of Wartburg. The actual place of the murder was said to have been called Brasel’s Knob.There seems to be no place now known by that name in the vicinity, but the passage of nearly two centuries of time has probably erased the name.
Not long after the Brasel murder, the Harpes were in western Kentucky, not far from their old Cave-in-Rock hiding place. Here they committed two particularly atrocious murders, that of a baby and its mother. They were hunted down and Big Harpe was wounded and captured. The enraged husband cut his head off and carried it back near where the killings took place. He sharpened a pole and mounted the head on it and raised it at the forks of a road. The skull was reported to have remained in this position for several years as a grim reminder of the fate of this viscous mass murderer. Little Harpe escaped and went to the Mississippi territory where he continued his life of crime until he was finally caught and executed.
The villainous border terror was at last removed and people could again go about their roads and trails without fear of meeting anyone more dangerous than the Indians who still owned much of the area. The full extent of the atrocities committed by these fiends will probably never be known. They seemed to murder for the pure love of seeing people die. They are reported to have said before meeting their own fate that, with one exception, they never felt any compassion for any of their victims. The one exception was when Big Harpe killed his own baby when its crying got on his nerves. The various published accounts of their activities in Tennessee and Kentucky list about sixteen known murders committed by them. There is no doubt that the number literally ran into the dozens since they were operating in a vast wilderness where murders could easily be hidden.
——————————————————————————–
At the time I started working on the history of James Brasel’s family and his unfortunate encounter with the Harpes, most of the material that I had read led me to believe that he had been murdered in Anderson County within a few miles of his home. The murder apparently took place on July 29, 1799 and was reported in the August 7th issue of the Knoxville Gazette. One more recently published report refers to the location as being near his frontier home in Knox County. However, the more research I did the more I came to doubt that the murder has occurred near James Brasel’s home. Most of the local descendants of James Brasel had always thought that he had been killed in Morgan County, but long before it was officially Morgan County. I discovered an article published in the Morgan County News in 1937 which quoted some of the older residents of Morgan County at that time as referring to the route from Wartburg to Jamestown and on into the vicinity of Albany, Kentucky as the Old Harpe Trace and also telling that James Brasel was killed in Morgan County.
I finally got a lucky break! Jerry Williams, (Melinda’s second cousin – note by MSF) who is also interested in Brasel history, discovered that I was working on this story and loaned me his treasured copy of an obscure book on East Tennessee history, entitled “Life as It Is”, written in 1842 by a Roane County lawyer by the name of J.W.M. Breazeale. I have been unable to determine if he is related to the Brasels and simply used a different spelling for his last name. This little book contains the most detailed account of the murderous activities of the Harpes during this time that I have found. Since this book was written at a time well within the memory of many persons who were alive and remembered with horror the Harpe brothers, it is probably the most authentic account of the activities of these villainous murderers available today. It has been invaluable to me in attempting to fill some of the gaps in this story. It is primarily because of this little book that I have become convinced that James Brasel’s murder did happen in Morgan County.
There are several reasons for this change of opinion after reading Mr. Breazeale’s book. One is the date of publication which was 43 years after the murder. Without doubt there were many people still alive who had a first hand knowledge of the location of the Brasel encounter with the Harpes. Another reason to give great credence to his account was his nearness as a Roane County lawyer, to what should have been his sources of information. In addition to being a lawyer, Mr. Breazeale also published a newspaper for some time, and as a publisher he would have known the importance of getting his story accurate.
I have used several sources of published information in compiling this story. Where differences between versions did occur in some of the details, I used the version best supported by logic and other supporting materials. Major sources of materials include;
The Knoxville Gazette, August 7, 1799; Life As It Is, J.W.M. Breazeale, Knoxville, TN 1842; The Morgan County News, Nosy, But It Is News, Wartburg, TN 1937; The Wilderness Road, Robert L. Kincaid, New York, 1947; The Stonecipher Tree, Mary H. Underwood, Knoxville, 1984.

Comments closed.