American River Pirates and Their Influence on Pioneer Life

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“When I think of pirates, I think of the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Aden. I don’t think of the Ohio River.” (Lepper) Mark Twain lived during a time when hearing someone’s relation of a river pirate in America was typical, and stores along the rivers were frequently being pillaged. He had much experience on the rivers due to his early profession, and witnessed first-hand the crimes that they committed. Twain expressed his thoughts toward piracy through his literature, written around the time that these greedy bandits took place. In the late 18th century, river pirates roamed the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, hunting for pioneers traveling down the river with their cargo. A common location for them to reside was a large tavern referred to as Cave-In-Rock, and since this was so easily disguised the pirates used their cunning and intelligence to scam the pioneers into their trap. River pirates were an essential element to America’s history, and they provided for many of the hardships the pioneers had to face when living in early America. River piracy began in the late 18th century as the river traffic increased due to trading in New Orleans. People would sail down the river with all of their possessions they intended to trade, and because of this many found it extremely economically profitable to steal from these boats. The pirates remained mainly on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, since these were the two most frequent routes to use when traveling to New Orleans. The most common location for the pirates to reside was a huge cavern that is referred to today as, Cave-In-Rock. (Davis) * Cave-In-Rock was a vast cavern about 55 feet by 160 feet, situated in the limestone bluffs right off of the Ohio River in Southern Illinois (Davis). This was a wonderful haven for criminals engrossed in river piracy since it provided expansive views of the Ohio River due to its lofty elevation of about 50 feet up (Ailinani). Also, since there were countless trees and brush surrounding it, the entrance was partially concealed, making the opening difficult to find unless you knew what you were looking for (Valois). The dense river traffic and immensity of the cave lured many travelers to come and explore. This gave the pirates the ability to come out, steal the boat, and murder the voyagers. (Ailinani)

The first river pirate to use the advantages of Cave-In-Rock was Captain Samuel Mason, a former officer in George Washington’s army. According to Harry Ailinani, he came from an excellent family and was recognized as an intellectual man, but before long he began to thieve, rob, and kill in eastern Tennessee. Mason developed a gang who eventually spread to present-day Henderson, Kentucky on the banks of the Ohio River, and it was there that he discovered Cave-In-Rock. Mason used his intelligence to generate “accidents” that intentionally grounded passing flatboats. For example, he used the men in his gang to pose as pilots that would help guide ships of pioneers through an intricate eight mile channel leading up to Cave-In-Rock. Then, they would deliberately ground the boats and raid them. Mason also used women to wait at a nearby island called Diamond Island, and they would ask passerby to pick them up and take them to the tavern where the gang was waiting. These techniques were just a few of the many that Mason used to create terror on the rivers for 20 years. When simply trying to bring their cargo down to New Orleans pioneers would have to risk their lives and possessions. Finally, after many years, Mason was found by law officials. He moved to the Spanish territory in lower Mississippi and attempted to pass as an ordinary citizen, but his plan was ruined when he was discovered with 20 scalps and $7,000 bankroll. The Spanish turned him over to the Americans, but when he was on his way to jail he was able to find a way to escape. However, soon after two of his own men killed him in order to receive the...
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