Webster County was formed in 1860 from Henderson, Hopkins, and Union Counties. The Tradewater River runs along the western border of the county. The Green River runs along the eastern border. The county was named in honor of Daniel Webster, one of the greatest of American orators, statesmen and lawyers. Neighboring counties include Crittenden and McLean Counties.
“William Jenkins, a Revoluntionary War veteran, was probably the first settler in the area. Jenkins came to the Tradewater country in 1794 and built a stagecoach inn known as the Halfway House on the old Indian trail between Nashville and St. Louis. Halfway House, five miles north of present day Dixon, included among its guests Meriwether Lewis, governor of the Louisiana Territory. Following his capture and escape from a band of Indians in the early 1800’s, Jenkins served as a constable (1808-1816), enlarged Halfway House, and built a cotton gin and the first frame house in the vicinity. Jenkins remained in the area, observed its settlement and growth, witnessed the formation of Webster County and noted the divided loyalties of the Civil War year. According to Richard Collin’s Historical Sketches of Kentucky (1874), Jenkins “aged 103 was in Nov 1871 still living in Webster County”. From the Kentucky Encyclopedia, edited by John Kleber.
As one enters Webster County from McLean County on Hwy 56, one crosses over the Green River. Visible are the remains of a coal docking station.
The first community one will come to is SEBREE which was once the location of Sebree Springs, a summer resort and park operated by G. L. Dial. The historic Sebree Deposit Bank (c.1890) is well worth a stop to see the beautiful marble floor interior. Another historic site in the area is the McMullin-Warren House.
Taking Hwy 132 South, one will pass by Wildwood Golf Course and Conference Center.
Continuing south finds one in DIXON which is the county seat for Webster. The downtown area has a number of historic homes, and was the site of a number of Civil War skirmishes as noted on the historic marker.
Be sure to visit the historic War Memorial on the courthouse lawn. Built in remembrance of 85 Webster County Residents who died in World Wars I & II, it’s a true reminder of the part Webster county played in the history of our nation.
Also take time to drive past the Rice House located at 400 S. Main Street which is the birthplace of poet Cale Young Rice and his philanthropist wife, Leban Lacey Rice. Some outstanding titles of work include Bridging the Years, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch and Passionate Follies. Another historic building is the People’s Bank (c.1903) which is currently used for lawyer’s offices.
A few miles outside DIXON on KY 630 is the site of the Battle of Burnt Mill. This skirmish which occurred at Deer Creek was the first battle of the Civil War to take place in Kentucky. Twenty-five Union soldiers were taken captive by the local Confederate contingent, led by Captain Al Fowler of Hopkins County.
From Dixon, head north along Hwy 41A towards TILDEN and one will pass the site where the Famous Outlaw Big Harp was apprehended and beheaded.
A historic marker marks the spot where his head was displayed on a pole for a while. This is a fascinating story about a gang of outlaws who terrorized Western Kentucky and the final fate of their leader. (See story listed below.)
Turning left onto Hwy 56 one will travel past the town of TILDON through what was once Camp Breckinridge. Everything on the right is still part of Camp Breckinridge. Lady Bird Johnson once held the mineral rights to much of this land. The Johnson Family still retains these rights.
This brings one to the end of the EVERLY BROS. ROCK-N-ROLL TRAIL and the start of the W.C. HANDY BLUES TRAIL which takes one through Union County and up into Henderson County where W.C. Handy once lived.
Excerpts from FRONTIER JUSTICE by Harold Utley, which tells a little bit about Outlaw Big Harp and his brother and how he came to be beheaded in Webster County.
A little more than 3 miles north of Dixon, on the west side of U S 41A is a historical marker with the title "Frontier Justice". There have been perhaps more newspaper articles, stories, legends and tall tales told about the story behind this marker than any other in western Kentucky. Some of the writers of these legends and tall tales are not very careful about their "facts". The dates of the events range more than thirty years, from the 1790s to the 1820s. At the risk of criticism and ridicule, I will try to present an accurate story of two brothers, perhaps the most cruel and bloodthirsty humans ever to live.
Before 1800, western Kentucky was sparsely populated. Some of the early settlers were outlaws fleeing punishment by hiding in the wilderness. There were also decent, God fearing citizens that came looking for a future.
It is believed that the Harps, Micajah (Big Harp, born about 1768) and Wiley (Little Harp, born about 1770) were brothers and natives of North Carolina. Their father was thought to have been a Tory who fought for the British at the Battle of King's Mountain and other battles in the area. After the Revolutionary War, the Tories were forced to flee to Mississippi. However, the Harp brothers fled into east Tennessee. About 1795, the brothers, accompanied by Susan Roberts and Betsy Roberts, settled in Knox County west of Knoxville. The Harps roamed the area about two years in the company of Creek and Cherokee Indians.
The Harp Brothers continued on a killing spree accounting for deaths in Rockcastle County near Crab Orchard, Knox County, were captured and put in jail in Stanford, were sent to Danville to stand trial, and escaped. They then traveled a distance of over two hundred miles to a prearranged meeting place near Diamond Island at the mouth of Highland Creek in what is now Henderson County.
On April 22, 1799, Governor Garrard issued a proclamation offering a three hundred dollar reward for the capture of Micajah (Big) Harp and the same sum for the capture of Wiley (Little) Harp. Before the proclamation could be circulated, reports reached people that the Harps had killed a man named Dooley, near what is now Edmonton in Metcalfe County, and a man named Stump on the Barren River, about eight miles below Bowling Green. It will never be known if other murders were committed on their way down river to their rendezvous with their women.
An outlaw and river pirate by the name of Samuel Mason had been operating near Diamond Island and Highland Creek in what is now Henderson County for several years terrorizing local residents. A Captain Young, from Mercer County, had organized a group of regulators and was determined to rid western Kentucky of all outlaws including the Harp brothers. Captain Young and his regulators were successful in driving the criminals from Kentucky across the river to Cave-In-Rock, Illinois.
With Mason's outlaws driven away from Diamond Island to Cave-In-Rock, the Harp women continued down river to Cave-In-Rock to join the Harps. It is believed that two of the women returned to the Diamond Island-Red Banks (Henderson) area where they remained. While at Cave-In-Rock, the Harps committed a murder that was designed to amuse Mason's pirates. A man that had been taken prisoner was stripped naked and tied on a horse. The man and horse were taken to the top of the bluff above the cave. The horse was blindfolded and prodded to cause it to jump. The man and horse fell to their deaths on the rocks at the edge of the river. This act was apparently too cruel even for Mason and his pirates. They forced the Harps to leave Cave- in-Rock.
From here, the Harps headed west, south of Green River, toward Russellville. While rumor had the Harps headed south into west Tennessee, they actually had returned to the Red Banks (Henderson) area. They had rented a log cabin on Canoe Creek, about eight miles south of Red Banks
Killings continued in Madisonville, Webster, Muhlenberg, and Christian which often were attributed to the Harp brothers including the killing of a family just east of KY Hwy 630 near the Hopkins-Webster County line.
The Harps then traveled diagonal across what is now Hopkins County, through what is now Madisonville, to Free Henry Ford and crossed Pond River into what is now Muhlenberg County. They camped for the night under an overhang, sometimes called a cave, near a hill that is now called Harp's House
The posse, composed of Moses Stegall, John Leiper, Matthew Christian, Neville Lindsey, Silas McBee, William Grissom and James Tompkins, began their pursuit of the Harps. The posse had no difficulty tracking the Harps to Pond River. Unknown to the posse, the Harps had crossed and were camped on the Muhlenberg County side of the river. The posse elected to camp on the Hopkins County side… The following day, they caught up with Big Harp and ordered him to stop but he abandoned the women and children and dashed away alone. Leiper fired a shot at Big Harp but missed. He was unable to reload his gun because of a swollen ramrod, from the rain the night before. James Tompkins, believing that Leiper was a better shot, gave his gun, loaded with powder given to him by Big Harp, to Leiper to continue pursuit. aim and fired. The ball struck Big Harp in the spine. However, he did not quit. He leveled his gun at Leiper and pulled the trigger.
Big Harp, seeing Leiper closing in on him, thinking Leiper's gun was empty, stopped to prime his gun. Leiper took dead trigger but the gun only snapped. Big Harp drew his tomahawk from his belt and waved it to keep away thepursuers. He mounted his horse and rode away. Leiper's horse ran away with Big Harp.
Matthew Christian chased down the runaway horse and returned him to Leiper. They followed the trail through a canebrake and caught up with Big Harp, not more than a half mile away. Big Harp was weak from the loss of blood and they pulled him from his horse.
Big Harp, stretched out on the ground, dying, begged for a drink of water. Leiper took one of Harp's shoes and got him a drink. Stegall, with the knife he had exhibited to Big Harp, cut off the outlaw's head. The head was placed in a saddlebag and carried to the cross-roads about a half mile from Robertson's Lick and placed it on a tree where it remained as a warning to other outlaws. This is the fate of outlaws when caught and "Frontier Justice" is administered.
Thus ended an era of crime in western Kentucky, the like which had never occurred before nor since. Hanging and the severing of the head may seem cruel and unusual but in the words of "Archie Bunker, capital punishment is a well known detergent to crime".
(For additional reading on the Harps see "The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock" by Otto Rothert, "Cavern of Crime" by Judy McGee and "Satan's Ferrymen" by W D Snively, Jr and Louanna Furbee.)