Pirates dispose of a victim at
Cave-in-Rock for an episode of
"In Search of History" that aired on
The History Channel.

Buy the Book

Otto A. Rothert's classic history,
The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock is the best compilation yet of the stories to date concerning the cavern of crime. Buy the book from Amazon.com and help the Southern Illinois History Page.

And if you like river pirates, land sharks and other rogues, check out Robert Coates, The Outlaw Years, and The Devil's Backbone, both of which focus more on the Natchez Trace outlaws.

River Pirates by Disney!
If you can play RealVideo or QuickTime movies take a look at this clip from Walt Disney's 1956 classic, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates filmed near Cave-in-Rock.

Check out these maps!
Jedidiah Morse's
1797 Map of North America

Or take a look at
Illinois in 1799.

Coming Soon!
Books on the Outlaws
of Southern Illinois
Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock
— Frontier Era Outlaws —

  • James Hall on frontier outlaws
    James Hall, America's foremost early western writer once owned an interest in Shawneetown's newspaper and served as district attorney for the region. As an officer of the court he dealt with the outlaws face-to-face and even led one of the raids on the Sturdivant Gang. His writings on the Harpes, were the first to be compiled. This article from his Sketches of the West, provides an excellent introduction to the outlaws of the Cave-in-Rock country and beyond. He references the Harpes, Mason and the Sturdivants.
  • Philip and Peter Alston
    Both members of this father and son pairing are connected with the outlaws at Cave-in-Rock. The father, a counterfeiter, may have been the one who taught Duff the trade. The son, a lesser outlaw, is credited with later being a member of Mason's gang at the Cave.
  • John Duff, the Counterfeiter
    John Duff led the hunting party met by George Rogers Clark in 1778. He is also believed to be the same Duff, known to be a counterfeitor in the area of Cave-in-Rock in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He is a character considered to be one of the "Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock." Gov. Reynolds provides two conflicting accounts of Duff.
  • Big and Little Harpe
    The Harpes, either brothers or first cousins, rampaged across the frontier as America's first serial killers in 1798 and 1799. At one point they joined up with the river pirates at Cave-in-Rock and killed at least three or four men while in Illinois. Overall, they are credited with at least 40 murders. William Calhoun Love wrote in his memoirs about the Harpes who murdered his father, the local justice of the peace.
  • Capt. Samuel Mason
    Capt. Samuel Mason led the pirates on the lower Ohio River, first from his home at Red Banks, then Diamond Island, and finally by 1797, from Cave-in-Rock.
  • Col. Plug
    Col. Plug is yet another of Southern Illinois' cast of river pirates from the end of the 19th Century. This article originally appeared in the (Cincinatti) Western Review in January 1830.
  • Capt. Young and the Exterminators
    Capt. Young of Mercer Co., Kentucky, led a band of vigilantes and bounty hunters which did their best to clean the outlaws from western Kentucky. They made it as far west as Cave-in-Rock. Although no battle between Young's men and the gang at Cave-in-Rock is recorded one likely took place during the early summer of 1799.
— Antebellum Outlaws —

  • The Legend of Billy Potts and Potts Inn
    Isaiah L. Potts ran an inn on the old Ford's Ferry road where it joined the Golconda-to Shawneetown road. A justice of the peace, Squire Potts lived as much outside the law as in it. The legendary "Billy" is supposed to be his son. This 1937 article tells the basic story "Billy" and the criminal activities at the inn.
  • Sturdivant the Counterfeitor
    The Sturdivant gang of counterfeitors operated throughout Southern Illinois in the late 1810s and early 1820s. They had a base at Sturdivant's Fort near what is now Rosiclare. Frontier Judge James Hall wrote this description of the Sturdivants in 1835. Follow up with Ron Nelson's research of the raids on Sturdivant's Fort and the present day search to find the fort.
— Post War Outlaws —

  • Logan Belt
    During the post-Civil War period a feud between the Belt and Oldham clans tore through Hardin County. Logan Belt led his side. This web site has pictures, essays and two books on Belt. The first is The Life of Logan Belt and the second is Who Killed Logan Belt.
  • Vigilantism and the Klan
    This collection of stories is from a single issue of the Hardin County Gazette in 1879. It provides a good snapshot of what life would have been like in the days of Belt. At this point, his men had already formed up as the Klan to redirect attention away from their leader.
— Other Outlaws —

  • The Antecedents of Organized Criminality in Kentucky
    This review or organized crime across the river in Kentucky focuses on the Cave-in-Rock region as the heart of the "criminality". In 12 pages it covers the gamut from Sam Mason and his river pirates up to the brothels and gambling rings of the mid 20th Century. Note: The file is in PDF format.

Special Features: Old Slave House | Indians of Southern Illinois
Last updated August 16, 2000 — Back to the Southern Illinois History Page
©1999 Jon Musgrave