Southern Illinois History Page

James Ford: 'Satan's Ferryman' and 'Outlaw of Cave-in-Rock'

Southern Illinois History Page

    If counterfeiters, river pirates and serial killers hadn't been enough for the region of Cave-in-Rock at the turn of the 19th Century, residents didn't have to wait long for another group to move in and take over the lucrative activities of their predecessors.
    The Sturdivants replaced Duff in the counterfeiting business, and a man of wealth and prestige took up the reins of leadership dropped by Mason at his assassination. Although earlier historians have hedged their comments about James Ford, the overwhelming amount of evidence, seems to indicate he led the life of a Mafia don, or an even better description would be the Sheriff of Nottingham, except no Robin Hood ever arose to challenge him.
    Following the decline of the pirates, another group of outlaws preyed upon travelers in the general vicinity of the Cave-in-Rock. Known as the Ford's Ferry gang, they took up where the pirates had left. Ford led this group, although from well behind the scenes. For the most part of his life, he acted to be inside the law, when in fact, he actively pursued life outside of it. For the first third of the 1800s, he served as a civic leader in both southeastern Illinois and western Kentucky. At one point he operated a tavern in Illinois, another time one of the saltworks near the Great Salt Springs or the Lower Lick as it would have been known in his time. He also served as a justice of the peace, sheriff and judge across the river. A ferry operator, he built and maintained long stretches of road on either side of his ferry just upstream from Cave-in-Rock. Even today, stretches of it can still be traveled in both states following county road signs that designate it "Ford's Ferry Road."
    Earlier this century, Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock writer Otto Rothert became the first to seriously study the life of James Ford. His description of Ford is an apt one as he describes the situation in western Kentucky in the time Ford lived high on his plantation opposite McFarland's Tavern (Elizabethtown, Ill.) near Tolu, Kentucky:
    "Outlaws were no longer in a position to carry on their depredations with the freedom that attended the earlier days. Population had increased, and with that increase came a better reign of law. The line between law-abiding and law-breaking citizens was rapidly widening. For about ten years, ending in 1833, Ford apparently stood between the two, and kept in close touch with both."
    That year, 1833, saw the end of Ford as unknown vigilantes assassinated the civic leader with the iron grip on the law.
    Legend has tied Ford to the James Wilson gang of pirates at the cave as well as to slave trader Lewis Kuykendall and kidnapper John Hart Crenshaw. Local historians such as Ron Nelson have discovered his ties to the Sturdivants.
    Although some writers have described him as "Satan's Ferryman," his full story has never been told as it is still being discovered in documents forgotten in county court houses and state archives. Eventually his story will be told. Until then, read the books, "Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock," and "Satan's Ferryman."
Created and Written July 9, 1999 by Jon Musgrave