Thursday, September 20, 2012

Pirates on the Ohio River?

I've been doing some research on different topics hoping to get some ideas for another book series and I came across this interesting piece of information. There were actually River Pirates here in America!!  I don't know why but the thought of pirates on rivers made me chuckle.  However, once I found out a bit about them, I realized they were no laughing matter.

As early as 1802, pirates began accumulating on the Ohio River with the express intent of relieving settlers passing in flatboats of all their goods and money. Because the Ohio spilled into the Mississippi River which led as far south as New Orleans, it was a popular way to travel long distances for many families. Before the invention of the steam ship, people would hire flat boats which were nothing more than huge rafts to carry them and their possessions down stream with the current. 

The River pirates would hide out in the forest along the water and lure the unsuspecting settlers in by pretending to have supplies and food for sale or by pretending to be injured and in need of help. They often put their women out on rocks by the shore, begging passersby for a ride on their boat. Once the kind settlers reached the shore, they were killed, their bodies dumped in the river and all their goods taken.

Actual picture of inside of the Cave
These pirates eventually had a hideout along the river called Cave-in-the-Rock.  This fifty foot high cave was surrounded by dense woodlands and sat high upon a cliff, affording the pirates a good view of the river. It soon became a true den of iniquity filled with alcohol, prostitution, gambling and pirates. Three notorious pirate gangs were known to inhabit Cave in the Rock during its short history: The Jim Wilson Family, The Mason Gang, and the Harpes. The Harpes were the worst of these gangs who killed people simply for the sport 

Actual picture of outside

Pirating continued from Cave-in-the-rock until 1816 when steamships began to traverse the river in full force. With too many passengers to resist and traveling at faster speeds, the steamboats discouraged the pirates from taking the risk and eventually they gave up and deserted their hideout. By 1818 Cave-in-the-rock was deserted. 


  1. Thurs Sept 20th,
    "Morning, MaryLu."
    And yet again, more interesting history accounts ... 'Pirates on the Ohio River' ! That "Cave-in-the-Rock" was huge ... a crafty place for the pirates to be in hiding. And flat boats (rafts) proved to be a most unsafe and treacherous means of travel for the settlers ... had hind-sight and fore-sight be known !
    Thanks for sharing this intriguing research with us ... very interesting indeed.
    Take care, and, God Bless,
    In Him, Brenda Hurley

  2. that a story that I hear coming to life in the back of your mind? (Hehe) Wow! This cave looks like a really neat place to visit. Thanks for another history lesson, MaryLu. :)

  3. I haven't heard about that one! Living up here on the Great lakes, I'm heard of a few other not-so-salty pirates... have you heard the exploits of "Roaring" Dan Seavey?

  4. I actually have heard of these. I believe that Yul Brynner played one of these pirates in a movie or something like that. Maybe you could look him up to see for sure. But I think this kind of piracy is a little more "evil" than the others.

  5. What horror for those travellers going down the river. Being on those flatboats too, must have been terrifying, not knowing when someone was going to jump out at you. I'm glad to hear that the steamboats began the journey and the pirates gave up. Their hide-out cave would be cool to visit now though. Thanks for another interesting bit of history. A novel about these pirates would be fascinating to read! :)

  6. Yes, I found this so interesting too! I had no idea there was a movie made about them. And no, I haven't heard of Roaring Dan Seavey.. I'll have to look him up. There's so much history out there that isn't found in school history books.. it's these little fascinating stories that really intrigue me. Sometimes history books can be so dry.. and they don't have to be.
    I believe you can visit Cave-in-the-rock today and see the place all this happened. Evil evil men.. well most of them.. and yes, very terrifying for those traveling down river.
    Thanks for dropping by!

  7. Thank you for the interesting article. What a nightmare experience for families traveling down the Ohio River. I have a genealogy blog and have linked to this post at I think my readers will enjoy your page.

  8. One of my favorite books as a teenager was "down the big River" by Stephen w. Meader. The subject is river pirates who had a cave at the junction of the Wabash in the Ohio River