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James Ford (pirate)

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Subject: Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, List of highwaymen, James Ford, American pirates, 1770s births
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James Ford (pirate)

James Ford
Born Oct. 22, 1775
Spartanburg County, South Carolina (British Royal Colony)
Died Jul. 7, 1833
Tolu, Crittenden County, Kentucky
Nationality American
Occupation justice of the peace, ferry operator, criminal gang leader, prominent land and slave owner, state militia officer, river pirate, slave stealer, kidnapper, slave trader
Known for Being a pillar of the community and secretly, the criminal leader of the Ford's Ferry Gang, along the Ohio River

James Ford (1770?-1833) was an American civic leader and business owner in western Kentucky and southern Illinois at the turn of the 19th century. Despite his clean public image, as a "Pillar of the Community", he was also, secretly, a river pirate and the leader of a gang that would come to be known as "Ford's Ferry Gang". His gang was the river equivalent of highway robbers; they would hijack flatboats and Ford's "own river ferry" for tradable goods from local farms coming down the Ohio River. At one point, they used the "Cave-in-Rock" as their headquarters, on the Illinois side of the lower Ohio River, which is about 85 miles below Evansville, Indiana.


  • Biography 1
    • Early life and family history 1.1
    • Ohio Valley 1.2
    • Criminal associates 1.3
    • Military service 1.4
    • Property 1.5
    • Slaveholding and allegations of illegal slave trading 1.6
    • Similarities of James Ford and the Ford's Ferry Gang to Henry Plummer and the Innocents 1.7
  • References 2
  • External links 3


Early life and family history

James Ford was the son of Philip Ford and Elizabeth Ford, son of John Ford. He had two brothers Philip Jr. and Richard. His father died while he was young and his mother remarried to William Prince who brought the family out to what would become Princeton, Kentucky. This second marriage would provide James with a number of step and half siblings who would provide important ties to his future political and criminal career.

In the late 1790s he married Susan Miles, the daughter of William Miles, brother of the ferry keeper at Miles Ferry which connected the Kentucky and Illinois banks of the Ohio River downriver of Cave-in-Rock near the future location of Rosiclare, Illinois. She bore James two sons, Philip (Nov. 25, 1800 - Nov. 23, 1831) and William M. (1804 - Nov. 2, 1832), and one daughter, Cassandra (1805-1806 - 1863). Susan died sometime in the 1820s and in 1829 Ford married Elizabeth "Betsy" W. (Armstead) Frazier (1790-1800 - 1834-1835), a widow whose husband had died suddenly while staying at Ford's plantation in what was then Livingston County, Kentucky, and now Crittenden County, Kentucky. She bore James one son, James N. Ford, Jr., (c. 1830 - October 1844).

Ohio Valley

Original caption: Cave at (Cave-in-Rock), used by river pirates in 1790's

James Ford had settled on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River by the late 1790s, when Samuel Mason's river pirates operated out of Cave-in-Rock. Early writers identified him with the "James Wilson" who operated a tavern and brothel in the cave in the spring of 1799, but these are now believed to be incorrect, since historical records show that a man named James Wilson lived in the area at the same time as Ford.

Criminal associates

Military service

  • Captain of the Livingston County Cavalry of the 24th Regiment of Kentucky Militia from July 1, 1799 to Dec. 15, 1802.
  • Captain of the Grand Pierre area militia, 4th Regiment of Illinois Territorial Militia, Jan. 2, 1810. (This was in the area of what is now roughly the Grand Pierre Creek Watershed near modern-day Rosiclare, Illinois, one of three militia districts in what is now Hardin County, Illinois). It's quite possible that the fort used by this militia company was the same one used by the Sturdivant Gang in the late 1810s and early 1820s. At one point during the gang's occupation of the fort, Ford held the deed to the land.
  • Promoted to Major (one of two such positions in the 4th Regiment) on Nov. 28, 1811. James Steele, Sr., succeeded him as captain of the Grand Pierre militia. Steele later became associated with the Sturdivant Gang.


James Ford was a substantial land owner and held numerous properties on the Kentucky and Illinois sides of the Ohio River and also, owned many slaves. Through his first wife's family he secured the rights to the Miles Ferry which soon became known as Ford's Ferry, though, this is not the infamous one he operated later, upriver from Cave-in-Rock, called Ferry Ohio. Through his second marriage, he secured control of the Frazier Salt Works at the Lower Lick (Great Salt Springs) in the Illinois Salines in Gallatin County, Illinois, during the late 1820s.

Slaveholding and allegations of illegal slave trading

James Ford owned a considerable number of slaves in Kentucky, as well as, Illinois. His influence was felt as far away as Springfield, Illinois, which can be attested in the Sangamo Journal newspaper, where he ran a fugitive slave notice, with detailed physical descriptions of three runaway slaves he owned. The cruel and ruthless treatment James Ford showed toward his slaves was attested to in a story of how he bound a supposedly, offending slave and dragged him to death behind a mule, through a field of tree stumps. Ford was also, alleged to be a business associate of Illinois saltworks operator and illegal slaver, John Hart Crenshaw, involving the kidnapping, enslavement, and sale of free negros in Illinois and Kentucky.

Similarities of James Ford and the Ford's Ferry Gang to Henry Plummer and the Innocents

From 1863-1864, Henry Plummer was the elected sheriff of the gold rush town, Bannack, Montana, in Idaho Territory. He was later, accused of being the leader of an outlaw gang, the Innocents, who stole gold shipments from Bannick, and was hanged by local vigilantes.


  • W. D. Sniveley, Jr., and Louanna Furbee. 1868. Satan's Ferryman: A True Tale of the Old Frontier. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.
  • Thomas E. Prince, Jr. 1990. The Story of a Family: The Origins of the Prince and Bradshaw Families of Lyon County, Kentucky. Louisville, Ky.: Horse Head Publishing. 46-47.
  • Rothert, Otto A. 1924. The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock, Otto A. Rothert, rpt. 1996 ISBN 0-8093-2034-7
  • Wellman, Paul I. 1964. Spawn of evil: the invisible empire of soulless men which for a generation held the Nation in a spell of terror. Doubleday.

External links

  • James Ford: 'Satan's Ferryman' and 'Outlaw of Cave-in-Rock'
  • Ford's Ferry Gang and Sturdivant Gang Rogue's Gallery
  • Isaiah L. Potts (Billy Potts, Sr.) and Polly Blue of Potts Hill (Potts Inn), by William R. Carr
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