The Harpes are said to have been brothers ( though some sources say cousins), born in Orange County, North Carolina to Scottish parents. Their father or their uncles, were allegedly of Tory allegiance, who fought on the British side during the Revolutionary War. Big Harpe is known to have had two wives, sisters Susan and Betsey Roberts. Little Harpe married Sally Rice, daughter of a Baptist minister.
By 1797 the Harpes were living near Knoxville, Tennessee. However, they were driven from the town after being charged with stealing hogs and horses. They were also accused of murdering a man named Johnson, whose body was found in a river, ripped open and weighted with stones. This became a characteristic of the Harpe's murders. They butchered anyone under the slightest provocation, even babies. R.E. Banta in The Ohio claims that Micajah Harpe even bashed his infant daughter's head against a tree because her constant crying annoyed him. This was the only crime he would later confess genuine remorse for.
From Knoxville they fled north into Kentucky. They entered the state on the Wilderness Road, near the Cumberland Gap. They are believed to have murdered a peddler named Peyton, taking his horse and some of his goods. They then murdered two travellers from Maryland.
DeathsIn July 1799, John Leiper raised a posse to avenge the murder of Mrs. Stegal, including Moses Stegal, the victim's husband. Leiper reached Harpe first, and managed to shoot Big Harpe. After a scuffle with a tomahawk, Leiper overcame Harpe. When Stegal arrived, he decapitated Harpe and stuck his head on a pole, at a crossroads still known as "Harpe's Head," or Harpe's Head Road in Webster County, Kentucky. By the end of their reign of terror, the "Bloody Harpes" were responsible for the known murders of, no less than, 40 men, women, and children. Little Harpe eluded the authorities for some time, using the alias John Setton, until allegedly being caught in an effort to get a reward of his own on the head of an outlaw, Samuel Mason. He was captured in 1803 and hanged, following his trial, on 8 February 1804.
There are still descendants of the family today, including those that have changed their surname back to the original spelling.