The Murder of James Brasel
By Palmyra Spencer, of Sioux Falls, SD
This article appeared in Braswell Branches, Vol. 9, No. 1 Winter 1999/2000
In this age of instant communication, all too frequently we hear of mass murders characterized as a phenomenon of the 1990's; however, it happened 200 years ago and touched our Braswell family with the murder of James BRASEL, son of Richard and Obedience BRASWELL.
M. B. Morton's Kentuckians are Different recounts the story of two North Carolina Colonists, John and William HARP, and their sons who fought on the side of the British. They were Scotch Covenanters intensely loyal to the Crown as a religious obligation and believed firmly in the doctrine of predestination. The sons, Micajah (called William in some accounts) known as 'Big Harp' and Wiley (called Joshua in some accounts) known as 'Little Harp', decided the cause of the King was lost, that it was foreordained from the foundations of the world, they were predestined to be damned and there was no use fighting against fate so they decided to abandon civilization and lead lives of outlawry and warfare against the human race. They joined a tribe of Cherokee Indians, wandering like themselves, outlawed for some breach of faith from the general confederacy of the Indian nations, and headquartered at Nickajack, a Cherokee Village on the Tennessee River in Alabama near the Tennessee line. Their killing began on trails frequented by immigrants and traders.
The Outlaw Years by Robert M. Coates relates how in 1796 the two brothers, Big Harp and Little Harp, arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, portraying themselves as 'honest' settlers. They had two women with them. One account identified them as Susan WOOD and her neighbor Maria DAVISON, the daughters of two Continental soldiers, who the HARPS brothers had kidnapped in North Carolina. Another account identified them as Susan and Betsy ROBERTS. The HARPS, on occasion, used the ROBERTS name as an alias. Regardless, all accounts agree two women arrived with them and they left with three women. Knox County records verify that Wiley HARP did marry Sarah RICE on I June 1797 while living in Knoxville. Sarah (Sally) was the daughter of John RICE, a minister who performed the ceremony.
Having robbed and killed before, the HARPS brothers couldn't conceal for long their true nature and maintain the appearance of honest settlers so were soon back to their old ways. They began stealing hogs and selling the pork, then stealing horses and soon had to flee town. They were captured, but escaped. Their killings intensified. Twenty‑three victims have been identified by name. In addition they killed the children they had by the three women traveling with them because they hindered their operation, an unknown number of immigrants on flat boats coming down the Ohio River and others encountered in the sparsely populated mountainous region between Kentucky and Tennessee. They often murdered just for the thrill of it. They were non‑discriminatory ‑ man, woman, child ‑ babies to old people ‑ and they did it in the most vicious ways.
Quoting from the August 7, 1799, Knoxville Gazette "On Monday the 29th James BRAZEL was found murdered on the road leading to Stogden's Valley in Prices Settlement. This unfortunate man is supposed also to have fallen a victim of the above named atrocious villains (HARPS Brothers)."
The September 26, 1799, Carolina Gazette, recounts the murder as follows:
they (the HARPS Brothers) overtook two brothers by the name of James and Robert BRASEL traveling from near Knox to Stockton's Valley in Cumberland County, Kentucky, and challenges them with being the murderers, by the name of HARP, who had murdered two men near Knox, and ordered them to surrender, until the balance of their company should come up. They immediately seized James BRASEL, who was walking and had a gun, and tied him; then ordered Robert, who was on horseback and had no arms, to dismount, which he did. They then pointed a gun to him, but he dodged round a horse and made his escape. Soon after said BRASEL met with a company who returned to the place, and found his brother James dead near the place, much beating and his throat cut." His gun had been shattered and a quarter dollar was left in his pocket. This murder took place in what is today Morgan County, Tennessee, on the spur of a mountain that became known as Brasel's Knob.
The Knoxville Gazette stated a reward of "upwards of four hundred and fifty dollars have been subscribed by the citizens of Knoxville and its vicinity . . . together with the reward offered by the Governor and Citizens of Kentucky . . . amounts to upwards of two thousand dollars."
Micajah HARP was captured, killed and beheaded in August 1799. The place where Big HARP's head was hung became known as Harps Head Road. Wiley HARP escaped and remained on the lose for five years until he made the mistake of bringing into Natchez the head of his companion in robbing and killing, Tom MASON, to collect a reward for capturing him. He was recognized, taken into custody, condemned and executed shortly thereafter.
The three women were arrested, came to trial but were acquitted. All three women subsequently married and lived respectable lives and it is said their descendants never knew about their past.
The Outlaw Years by Robert M. Coates
Kentuckians Are Different by M. B. Morton
Life As It Is by J. W. M. Breazeale
Knoxville Gazette, August 7,1799
Draper Manuscripts, Carolina Gazette, September 26,1799
Knox County Marriage Records