Samuel Mason, a captain in command of Fort Henry on the Ohio frontier, survives a devastating Indian attack only to become one of the young nation’s first western desperados.
The son of a distinguished Virginia family, Samuel Mason became a militia officer and was assigned to the western frontier post of Fort Henry in present-day West Virginia. In the summer of 1777, with the colonies fighting a war for independence, Mason feared attacks by the Indian allies of the British. On this day in 1777, a band of Native Americans from several eastern tribes did attack the fort.
The Indians initially fired only on several men who were outside the fort rounding up horses. Hearing the shots, Mason gathered 14 men and rode to their rescue. This was exactly what the warriors hoped he would do. They lay in wait and ambushed the party, killing all but Mason. Badly wounded, Mason escaped death by hiding behind a log. A second party that attempted to come to his rescue suffered the same fate as the first. All told, Mason lost 15 men compared to only one fatality among the attackers.
Mason recovered from his wounds and continued to command Fort Henry for several years. Following the end of the war, though, he seems to have fallen on hard times. Repeatedly accused of being a thief, he moved farther west into the lawless frontier of the young American nation. By 1797, he had become a pirate on the Mississippi River, preying on boatmen who moved valuable goods up and down the river. He also reportedly took to robbing travelers along the Natchez Trace (or trail) in Tennessee, often with the assistance of his four sons and several other vicious men.
By the early 1800s, Mason had become one of the most notorious desperados on the American frontier, a precursor to Jesse James, Cole Younger, and later outlaws of the Wild West. In January 1803, Spanish authorities arrested Mason and his four sons and decided to turn them over to the Americans. En route to Natchez, Tennessee, Mason and his sons killed the commander of the boat and escaped.
Determined to apprehend Mason, the Americans upped the reward for his capture, dead or alive. The reward money soon proved too tempting for two members of Mason’s gang. In July 1803 they killed Mason, cut off his head, and brought it into the Mississippi territorial offices to prove that they had earned the reward. The men were soon identified as members of Mason’s gang, however, and they were arrested and hanged.