American River Pirates

The Ohio and Mississippi Rivers today are tightly controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, but there was a time when both rivers were wild and often dangerous frontiers. It was literally a frontier region because until 1803, the area known as the Louisiana Purchase was Spanish territory, with St. Louis and New Orleans being Spanish towns. 

In the later 1700s and very early 1800, travelers west on the rivers might be seeking new land, or they might be taking agricultural products down to New Orleans for sale. There were no roads west from the young United States, so rivers were the highways into the Ohio country and the Mississippi Valley. The Indian menace was eradicated at the 1793 Battle of Fallen Timbers, sharply increasing the number of boats on the rivers.

They faced one danger that has not made much of an impression in history books: pirates. River pirates did not sail galleons armed with rows of deadly cannon, but they were just as bloodthirsty. 

River travelers might travel in flatboats or the larger keelboats. They generally tied up at night to a tree on shore, and were vulnerable to night raids. Sometimes pirates would pose on the riversides as farmers with fresh food to sell, and other times might pose as travelers and tie up alongside an unsuspecting victim boat. 

One author estimates that in the period 1785 to 1805, river pirates killed about 2,000 people, probably more than the lives lost in the bloody Indian wars of the 1790s. Among the pirates were the brothers known as Big Harpe and Little Harpe, America’s first serial killers. There were several places on the Ohio and down the Mississippi that were notorious pirate nests.

River travelers and the growing riverside towns coped with the menace by traveling in convoys, by forming vigilante bands and by calling in federal troops.

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