The Harpe Brothers

Oh, lord, over at The Old Southwest, there’s a great post on the Harpe Brothers. Did I tell you how I ended up writing my story “Sarah Clark”? It’s precisely because I was drunkenly telling the story of the Harpe Brothers and I realized that this is not just a great drunken story, but a great story all together. Especially there at the precipice between myth and fact when the woman steals Big Harpe’s head to grind up for medicine for her nephew.

I notice that part is conveniently absent from the rendering over at The Old Southwest.

Just a reminder that, even if I cover the same territory as historians, I’m walking a different beat.

Anyway, Britton makes a great point, after he discusses rumors of the Harpes’ involvement at attacks on Buchanan’s Station and Nashville, which I am excited to read further extrapolations on:

In this case, the Harpe’s atrocities were blamed on their involvement, or relation to, the only other people whites of the late 18th century believed capable of such things, Indians and slaves.

You know that’s an approach to facts I find fascinating. “Not us. Not us.” The constant pushing away of challenges to our own sense of goodness as coming from the groups already known to be not good, even as the fact that they are from us would seemingly not be deniable.

The only small quibble I have with the whole post is that Big Harpe’s body was left in Muehlenberg County (on Harpe’s Hill, which you may drive over on Harpe’s Hill Road), but his head was displayed in Webster County. “Sarah Clark” is, in part, an explanation for why they’d haul his head thirty miles, but I think the truth of the matter is that he inconveniently got himself frontier-justiced at the edge of a large swamp where other bad guys were unlikely to be hanging out waiting to rob people. But 41A has been a route between the Evansville area and the Nashville area since there have been people wanting to travel between those two places.

Better to have the warning where people were around to take it.

Little Harpe’s Head supposedly ended up on a pike along the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, which wasn’t a place he was well-known for misbehaving in. But again, that’s where they needed the warning.

Anyway, the reason I doubt the Harpes were at Buchanan’s Station is that, now that I’m on the Buchanan’s Station mailing list, I’ve read a lot of accounts of the attack and none of them mention the Harpe brothers. Not a single one. And there’s a lot of bragging about which Indians got killed or injured and those folks are mentioned, sometimes, by name. If the Harpe brothers were there and if they suffered a defeat at the hands of a rag-tag bunch of people who won because some dude didn’t know how to fire his blunderbuss (I mean, it was a little more than that, but let’s not overlook the tremendous luck they had), you’d think one person would have mentioned it.

I mean, think of it this way. If your parents lived in LA in the 60s and a group of deranged hippies broke into their house and your mom and dad were able to fight them off and they later learned that Charles Manson was there–perhaps they were an early dry run when Manson figured out he didn’t want to be in the house when it happened–even if Manson wasn’t the leader of the gang, don’t you think their story would be about the night they fought Charles Manson and won?

After all, for better or worse, being attacked by Indians was a pretty common thing. Being attacked by the Harpe brothers and living to tell the tale?

That’s the kind of thing a person brags about.

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