Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace by Robert M. Coates

Here is Jascha Heifetz playing Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 77




My husband got me a present the other day.  We have had to cut down a few of our trees before they fell down due to the tornado winds we've been getting.  I hated to do it, but the limbs were hanging over our neighbors' yards and next door they have five little kids who play outside all the time.  If one of the branches fell on them I would never forgive myself.

Unfortunately, this has reduced the population of birds in our backyard.  So Josh bought me this cute bird feeder.  At first we saw no birds, but yesterday a bright red Cardinal and a nut hatch came by. Today we have a sparrow.  Yay!

And finally I'm seeing birds visit our bird bath.  Right now a Mockingbird is taking a dip.  He flew away before I was able to take his photo, but I hope you can see the little bird helping himself to seed.




Well, he's gone.  Now two mockingbirds are fighting over it.






The Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez TraceThe Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace by Robert M. Coates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Living many years in the South I have developed a taste for Southern novelists and Southern history. I have driven across the Natchez trace, starting in Huntsville, Alabama all the way through to Grenada Mississippi. I have also spent a weekend in Natchez the small town on the border of Mississippi on the river of the same name, across from Vidalia, Louisiana, which has the best barbecue restaurant I have ever before eaten at. If I'm not mistaken, it's called "The Butt Hut". Just FYI, if any of you pass through there.

I am reading through an encyclopedia of Tennessee places, people and history (yes, I read encyclopedias; I'm that sort of nerd). Outlaws came up as well as mention of some books that record their dastardly deeds. This book is one of them.

If nothing else, this book makes the reader appreciate the value of an effective police force. Police forces were non-existent back when our country was just born. And many a psychopathic maniac took advantage of that fact.

As people started traveling out west to stake their claims and try their fortunes in unknown parts, many traveled through the vast forest land that came to be known as the Natchez Trace. There is now a paved highway through the forest, if one would like to drive through. I can say from personal experience that it is worth it.

We like to think of ourselves as civilized, but there was a time when some European settlers could prove themselves as savage as any barbarous murderers of any brutal times past.

These gangs killed to rob, to ravish, and murder, many times just for the sheer pleasure of it. The first known serial killers in America are the Harpe brothers and they kept people from Tennessee to New Orleans in constant terror from 1797 to past the turn of the next century.

Of course, people reach a point where they've had enough and after years of searching and chasing, one Harpe brother's career came to an end when his head was nailed to a tree as a deterrent to other would-be criminals.

His brother ran off and joined another gang and did not meet his just desserts until years later.

Other Outlaws were Samuel Mason, a cowardly ex-soldier, who nevertheless, enjoyed hiding in the woods and surprising isolated travelers, stealing all their possessions and killing them.

The worst, and also the last, was a man named Murrel who was a respected plantation owner in town. He had a wide network that involved the seediest criminals as well as professional bankers and lawyers.

He would "rescue" slaves i.e. steal slaves, promising them freedom and a passage to the north, only to turn around and sell them farther south and west. If he couldn't sell them, he shot the poor deceived slave dead, leaving their weighted bodies in the Mississippi river. I am not going to describe how his gang weighted the bodies.

He and his clan planned a huge uprising where the slaves were to murder their masters and their families and then travel to freedom with Murrel and his clan. Of course Murrel's real purpose was to sell them. Luckily the wife of one planters overheard a couple of slaves talking and got the story out.

One man, Staunton, on his own by becoming perhaps the first undercover detective, joined Murrel's clan, got a list of the members and turned it over to the authorities.

But Murrel knew the law and he had good lawyers. They set out to destroy Staunton's good name and character so he would be thrown out as a witness. It worked in that Staunton's reputation was destroyed, but eventually Murrel was convicted.

As I said, he was the last outlaw gang leader. It was by now the 1850s and things began to change. Townspeople began to understand the need for law enforcement, but also the trace and the surrounding forest became more populated, settled and less isolated. Criminals did not have the invisibility and places to hide as before. No doubt they moved farther west to more desolate areas. Which reminds me that I read a very good history of the Texas Rangers, but that's another book review.


As horrible as their deeds were, these Outlaws were a part of American history and I think it is important to read all aspects of our past: the good, the bad, and the dastardly.

I wonder why Clint Eastwood never made a movie about the outlaws of Natchez Trace? Someone needs to.



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14 comments:

  1. i didn't know there were trees there... color me surprised... have you read the Britannica?

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    1. Hi Mudpuddle. I have not read the Britannica, but I'd like to. I love reading dictionaries and encyclopedias. Color me nerdy.

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  2. very nice bird house! if you have as many birds as we do, you'll need to buy stock in a bird seed manufacturing outfit and have it delivered by dump truck, haha... we quit doing that; it just got to be too much... just the hummingbird feeder now....

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    1. Oh, I'm sure I should do that. Because we also buy in bulk parrot seed. And as far as I can see, my birdos only eat the sunflower seeds, so I don't know why I'm wasting money on all the other seed.

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  3. Hi Sharon - It is so interesting that so many bad folks made Natchez Trace their base. I guess, as you mention, no police force and a good place to hide. This setting would have been good for a Clint Eastwood movie back in the 1970’s.

    That is a nice bird feeder. Hopefully even more birds will come.

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    1. Hi Brian. This particular book was the history of Tennessee and Mississippi. I think outlaws were always on the fringe. There's a very good book, out of print, about the beginnings of the Texas Rangers. It was really the wild west before Texas became a state.

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  4. Another Heifetz fan here... I have to admit I can't remember if I'd heard his Brahms before. Thanks for sharing!

    I am not familiar with that part of US history so I'll definitely keep that book on my radar. It's hard to imagine such sickos exist, but I guess the lesson is, things don't really change, do they.

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    1. Hi Marian!

      I love Heifetz as well.

      It is horrible that when societal boundaries are not in place and enforced there is an element of society that will sink to barbaric levels.

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  5. Interesting ... I ought to know more about the region and its history .... your review might get me started .....

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    1. Hi R.T. You would enjoy it. Especially since you've lived in the deep south as long as you have.

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  6. Aww, I'm a bird person, too!!! I hear your sorrow over cutting down trees. You see why I WANT to move to Texas, where it RAINS and things actually grow on their own???? I won't bog you down w/ my sob story of trying to grow trees in our desert-y yard. But our neighbors do have mature trees and the mocking birds sing in them, and the doves visit our yard for straw. We do have flowering shrubs that humming birds visit. It's so fun to birdwatch, but I need more trees!!!

    The outlaw book does sound interesting. I do love that past American history...even if it is terrible. Like you said, we should still know it, regardless.

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    1. There are some birds at night who are somewhere in my backyard. Maybe nightingales? But I love their song. It is so peaceful.

      This book definitely gives an idea of what it was like to live in our country when it was less civilized.

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  7. Very interesting title, I may have to add it to my TBR. I am so interested in little-known aspects of history like this. So glad you found my blog - we DO have a lot in common. Happy Reading!

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    1. Hi Sarah! I have in recent years become interested in regional history and since I've lived in the South for as many years as I've lived in the north I appreciate the histories of every region.

      And I am very glad to find your blog. I subscribed to it so I look forward to getting future posts.

      I saw your blog on R.T.'s roll and the name immediately attracted me, so I guess not all the good book blog names were take after all. :)

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I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.