Part 1 of 5

Source:  The Crittenden Press. (Marion, Ky.) 1919-Current, November 26, 1920, Edition 1, Image 8 - Chronicling America - The Library of Congress.


Written for the Press by R. C. Haynes


The most disturbing element, perhaps, in the early days of Crittenden county was that of what is known as the Jim Ford band of desperadoes. Though making their headquarters at Cave-in-Rock, just across the Ohio River, in Illinois, the reputed leader of the band, “Major” James Ford, lived on a farm on this side of the river, and many of the depredations were committed in this county. Just how he obtained the title of Major is not known to the writer, though probably he was an official in the war of 1812 or some of our Indian wars.

James Ford, it seems, was, in some respects, a man out of the ordinary, possessing a nature similar to the celebrated Dr. Jikill[Jekyll] and Mr. Hyde. While being a reputed leader of the band of desperate robbers and murderers, and condemned and feared by travelers and people from a distance, around his home he was looked upon as a generous man and a good neighbor. He would lend his aid in all their log rollings and barn raisings, and unfortunate neighbors, it is said, often received a ham or a middling of bacon from the Ford home.

W. T. Hickman, the first sheriff of Crittenden county and a great grandfather of the writer of these sketches, lived on an adjoining farm to that of the Fords. Andrew Love, a veteran of the Revolutionary war, also lived in the neighborhood and was a friend and admirer of the Ford family. Peter Cartwright, the noted Methodist evangelist, while traveling through the county, often made the Ford home his stopping place. At one time, it is said, under the influence of this great preacher James Ford made a profession of religion; but later finding as he said, “this world and religion don't go together” he apparently fell from grace. The late W. C. Watts, in his “Chronicles of a Kentucky Settlement,” gives an instance in which the evangelist preached one of his powerful sermons at a school house in the Hurricane neighborhood. At the close of the sermon, when the minister gave an invitation for those wishing to lead better lives to come to the mourners' bench for prayer, a daughter of the Major asked permission of her father to go forward. He readily gave his consent and accompanied his daughter to the altar, but refused to kneel, when urged to do so by the evangelist, he replied, “Not now, I've one more settlement to make first.” That settlement apparently was never made.

James Ford owned a number of negro slaves who cultivated his farm. Though, it is said, he was a kind husband and indulgent father, he ruled his slaves with a rod of iron. On one occasion the neighbors heard the Ford dinner bell. It began ringing early in the morning and continued to ring uninterruptedly. Along toward noon a neighbor, fearing that some member of the Ford family was sick or in need of help determined to investigate. When arriving near the house she saw the negro cook still ringing the bell as if for life. It was a large bell and was placed on a pole in the yard. The negro woman was pulling desperately at the bell rope.

“Why, Aunt Vinie,” said the neighbor, “what in the world are you ringing that bell so much for, is anyone sick?”

“No, Missus,” answered Aunt Vinie still pulling on the rope, “nobody aint sick, but wile Ise getting' brekfus dis morning' I burned de biskits, and Marse Jim he got mad and said I mus ring dis bell till time to git dinner, and I can't quit yit, and she pulled away at the bell rope.

While today Cave-in-Rock, Ill., situated on the north bank of the river, is an up to date little town filled with enterprising and industrious people and surrounded by honest and prosperous farmers, it was, at the time of which we write, a wild and thinly settled country. The cave itself is much the same now as then. It is a large hole cut out by nature into a towering bluff of rock, extending back perhaps fifty feet from the opening, with walls and floor and ceiling of solid rock. The room is about thirty feet wide and as many feet high, with an opening in the ceiling leading into another room of similar dimensions, said to have had at that time a secret exit into the hills beyond the river. It was an ideal rendezvous for such a gang of robbers and cutthroats as that of the James Ford gang.

It was doubtless a member of [the] gang that sought the life of Abram Wright, an account of which we gave in a previous sketch. What became of the ferryman, Barker, who was an honest man, is not known to the writer, however, the ferry at that place passed into other hands, thought to be members of the gang of desperadoes. At that time what was then known as Barker's Ferry was probably the most frequented crossing between old Shawneetown and the mouth of the Cumberland river. There were no rails then and people going north and south traveled afoot or on horseback. Many missing travelers were traced to this point and never heard of afterwards. It was believed, but could never be satisfactorily proved, that they had been robbed and murdered by the Ford gang. This was only one way they employed in doing their depredations.

Late one afternoon a flatboat, with its crew and a couple of passengers, was floating down the Ohio river. When the boat was opposite Cave-in-Rock a man came to the bank of the river and waved a white flag. A passenger on the boat told the following story of what took place:

“Thinking the man might be in want of aid or wished to become a passenger on the boat, the captain directed the craft to be run up near the shore. When in talking distance the man asked what he wanted.

“‘I have some mighty good whisky in the cave,’ the man replied, ‘and if you happen to be in need of any I can supply you with the best ever drank.’

“The supply of whisky on the boat was low and after some consultation it was agreed to land the boat and fill our bottles. (At that time it was considered somewhat of a calamity to be on a boat, or elsewhere, without a good supply of “something to drink” always available.)

“The boat was rowed a few hundred yards below the cave and landed. The boatmen then went ashore and started off in the direction of the cave leaving only myself to guard the boat. It was now growing dark, but I watched the men until they disappeared at the opening into the frowning cliff of rock. Soon the darkness of a cloudy and moonless night set in. Even the towering walls of Cave-in-Rock were not visible from the boat. For some time I waited unsuspicious of foul play, for the return of my companions. Not a sound could be heard in the direction of the cave. Altho I had never heard of the band of desperadoes making their headquarters there, after waiting for perhaps two hours I became uneasy as to the welfare of the boatmen and resolved to investigate. Placing a couple of pistols in my belt, I left the boat, stepped ashore and took my way through the dense darkness toward the cave.

(Continued next week.)

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