Southern Illinois History Page

Captain Young and the Exterminators

History of Henderson Co., Kentucky

    The few pioneers who had settled here were, a few years afterwards, reinforced by the incoming of the ancestors of many of the best families now living, among whom were the Hopkins, headed by General Samuel Hopkins, agent and attorney, in fact for Richard Henderson & Co., the Bells, Andersons, Holloways, Talbotts, Newmans, Barnetts, Ashbys, McBrides, Fuquays, Rankins, Hamiltons and others.
    About this time all this section of the country, to the Tennessee line and including a great portion of the territory north of Green River, was infested and completely overrun by a band of notorious murderers and thieves, who proved a terror to the better class of people. Among this class of outlaws were the Harpes, the Masons, the Wilsons, the Mays, of whom mention has been made, and many others, who were not the avowed, but were the secret friends and abettors of the outlaws. These fiends incarnate, thirsted for blood; they rode the forests through and through, fearing neither the power of God, nor the defenses of the settlers. At that time cabins were far apart, and they connected only by paths and trails. For the settler to attempt a defense by the use of fire-arms, was but an invitation to murder, and to undertake a union of forces at any time for the purpose of combining against the outlaws, was as useless as it was next to impossible. Therefore, many men, solely for self-preservation, were forced to become apparent friends of these people Outlawry was at high tide, and deeds of violence, shocking to civilization, were perpetrated with as little concern as though regulated by law, and carried out by authority of the courts. A half hour's ride in any direction would place the highwayman out of the range of primitive danger, and safely away in a territory where they could not be found with a double microscopic search warrant. For this reason, then, they were to be, and were greatly feared by all honest men. The better class in those days were in the minority and had to content themselves and keep absolutely quiet in the enjoyment of their possessions, and in the occupancy of a purely neutral position.

    During the year 1799, the outlaws, of whom mention has before been made, had increased in numbers, daring and villainy. They rode over a large territory of country, embracing the entire Green River section, extending as far northeast as Mercer County, and met with no resistance adequate even to their discomfiture. They were guilty of hell-born iniquities, which would put to blush the demonical deed of all ignorance and vice which had preceded their adventure into the new country. They were the terror of terrors, and so much to be dreaded, that Captain Young, a dashing commander, with a number of equally brave men of Mercer County, armed themselves and determined at all hazards, to drive the villains from the country. Mounted upon fiery charges of blood and metal, and armed with the best weapons the country afforded, this body of liberty-loving, impetuous troopers, rushed to the deliverance of their country and friends from this organize clan, not actuated by any lion-like temptation to spring upon their victim or to satiate a long settled an deadly hate, but a clan organized to glut a savage vengeance unknown to the most heartless red man. The life they led, was one of hire and salary, not relevant-it was the county of money against human life. It was not only the counting of so many pieces of silver, against so many ounces of blood, but it was a life of inhuman nature, enveloped in depravity, intensified in all of its paroxysms of crime. Murder, coupled with robbery, or murder alone seemed to have been the actuating impulse of this Godless clan. The innocent, the weak and harmless, the silvery lock of decrepit old age, the golden tresses of sweet infancy and purity of charming maidenhood, served as no palliating medium, but these met the same fate as did hardly manhood. All, all, who feel in the way of these highwaymen were sacrificed to satisfy their thirst for blood, and died examples of the barbarity of incontinent brutes and fiends. To capture or slay these, was the ultima-thule of captain Young, and his men, and nothing short of a sad and serious reverse, a grand and overwhelming victory for the outlaws, could check them in their most holy, lawful and natural expedition.
    A bright sun shone upon their departure, the blessings of the people followed them, the sweetest smiles and cheering words of female beauty greeted them and bade them God speed. The Aeolian whisperings of the winds cheered them on, the forests echoed, clear consciences and a firm faith in the right and their ultimate triumph, strengthened them. In all of their adventurous plans and perilous surroundings, they recognized the coadjutant power of the Almighty, in whose good will they most implicitly relied. Captain Young and his men recognized the perils of their undertaking; they understood the wily machinations of the enemy, and with blood for blood emblazoned upon their banner, started upon their mission of capture or death, utterly regardless of their own personal comforts or the hardships attending a campaign in such a wild and comparatively unmarked country.
    Exasperated by new stories told them as they passed on in search of the outlaws, the feelings of the patriots became more and more intense, and to slave an outlaw was an act commending the slayer to promotion. None of the sympathetic cords were to be touched, no repentance or contrition, no changing of minds firmly purposed, but the keenest ambition was to come in rifle range and then to unhorse a fleeing malefactor. To apply the knife to the throat of one of these was to be a favor graciously embraced by any of the command. So determined was Captain Young and his men, Mercer County was soon delivered, and the outlaws fleeing for the south side of Green River, many of them, however, were killed before reaching Green River.
    Captain Young was not satisfied with the great and good work that had been done, but determined to pursue the villains until the last one of them was made to bite the dust, or flee for safety to some other more congenial territory. Tot his end, therefore, he crossed Green River into what was then Henderson County, and it is asserted as a positive fact that twelve or thirteen outlaws were killed in county. The citizens, who had been so long under the terrible yoke, gave him all the aid possible and Henderson County was soon free. The mission of this God-serving band of brace and true men was extended through Henderson on down as low as what was known as "Flin's Ferry" and "Cave-in-rock," on the Illinois side of the Ohio River. This place, it was said, and most generally known, was the headquarters of a numerous gang of Jack Shepard cut-throats, who had appointed it as a place of rendezvous, where they kept supplies for flatboats descending the Ohio. Here they held high carnival, engaged in their debauches and planned raids upon the surrounding country. It was a secret hiding place, wild and frightful and dangerous to attack. When rendezvous in sufficient numbers they frequently attacked flatboats, murdered the crews and floated the boat on to New Orleans on their own account.
    The raid of Captain Young was the first check ever given the outlaws, and for a time broke them up almost entirely. It was soon followed by the killing of the notorious Uriah, or Big Harpe, and the flight of Little Harpe, Mason and others, to the territory of Mississippi, where they and their co-operators were killed by each other, or captured and hanged by the law. Captain Young and his men returned to Mercer, receiving the plaudits of the people, and were ever afterward remembered in the prayers of those few settlers who had lived in indescribable suspense. The country, though thinly settled, was now brought to a state of quiet security, every face beamed in the hallowed evidence of liberty and freedom of speech, which had so long been denied them, and honest men soon became outspoken, while the over-timid and secret abettors of the outlaws couched lances with them in heralding the good name and daring deeds of Captain Young and his glorious little squad. The outlaws had no friends now.
    — Edmund L. Starling. 1887. The History of Henderson County, Kentucky. Henderson, Ky. 29-34.

Created July 16, 2000 by Jon Musgrave © 2000