John Andrews Murrell was a small-time thief along the Natchez Trace whose exploits became mythologized during the 1830s and who became widely known as the Great Western Land Pirate or the Rob Roy of the Southwest.
The facts of Murrell’s life are rather pedestrian. Born in 1806 in Lunenberg County, Virginia, Murrell moved with his family to Williamson County, Tennessee, as a young child. In 1823 he was charged with stealing a horse and served a year in prison for the crime. After his release, he married, fathered two children, and continued to engage in petty thievery and counterfeiting. In July 1834 Murrell was convicted of stealing a slave and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. He reformed while incarcerated, contracted tuberculosis, and was granted an early release in in April 1844. He died of the disease in Pikeville, Tennessee, on 1 November of that year.
However, the mythology that sprang up around Murrell was far more exciting and was emblematic of the frontier nature of Mississippi in its early statehood. In 1835, writing under the pseudonym Augustus Q. Walton, Virgil A. Stewart published A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel, the Great Western Land Pirate. Stewart alleged that Murrell was not only a highwayman and slave thief but also a leader of slave rebellions. Stewart portrayed Murrell as motivated by class resentments against the wealthy planters of the South and alleged that he led slaves into rebellion, only to take advantage of the disorder and plunder plantations of their wealth, escaping with the treasure.
The Murrell legend worked its way through central Mississippi in the summer of 1835. In towns from Vicksburg and Clinton to Canton and Livingston, slaves and alleged conspirators were publicly whipped and executed. Most scholars find it unlikely that an actual slave conspiracy existed at the same time, but if so, it is unlikely that it was connected to Murrell’s plan.
According to folklore, Murrell’s band of thieves continued to range the Old Southwest and to meet in the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a land formation along the Natchez Trace, long after his incarceration and death. His story, originally told as a cautionary tale to warn planters of the dangers of the frontier, resonated and was retold among the common folk living and working on the Mississippi River. As late as the 1870s thorough descriptions of his actions and the details of his hiding places could be found in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Indeed, a century after his death, Murrell remained part of the physical and cultural landscape of Eudora Welty’s and William Faulkner’s Mississippi and was one of the many cultural reference points in their literature. Even in the mid-twentieth century, a traveling carnival claimed to feature the “head of Murrell.” Many modern residents of Mississippi have heard of Murrell and are aware of his purported exploits.
- Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture website, www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net
- David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720–1835 (2004)
- James Lal Penick Jr., The Great Western Land Pirate: John Murrell in History and Legend (1981)
- Joshua Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2014)