James Ford (pirate)

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James Ford
Toronto's first Ferry Horse Boat.jpg
This is an early 19th century horse-powered ferry boat the kind used by James Ford the prominent Kentucky civic leader who secretly was an outlaw on a ferry he operated across the Ohio River of western Kentucky to southern Illinois in the late 1790s-mid-1830s
Born James Neal Ford
October 22, 1775
Province of South Carolina (British Royal Colony), British North America, British Empire, present-day South Carolina
Died July 7, 1833 (aged 55)
Tolu, Livingston County, Kentucky, present-day Crittenden County, Kentucky
Cause of death gunshot wound
Resting place Ford family burial ground, Tolu, Livingston County, Kentucky, present-day Crittenden County, Kentucky
Residence Tolu, Crittenden County, Kentucky
Nationality American
Other names James N. Ford, Squire Ford, Captain James Ford, Major James Ford, Satan's Ferryman
Citizenship American
Occupation justice of the peace, planter, businessman, ferry operator, criminal gang leader, state militia officer, river pirate, slave stealer, slave trader
Employer Kentucky state government, Illinois Territorial government, James Ford & Company, self-employed
Known for Being a pillar of the community and secretly, the criminal leader of the Ford's Ferry Gang, along the Ohio River. Ford was an Illinois associate of Isaiah L. Potts and the Potts Hill Gang, highway robbers, of the infamous Potts Tavern. James Ford also, had an association, with illegal slaver trader and kidnapper of free blacks, John Hart Crenshaw and may have taken part in the, Illinois version of the "Reverse Underground Railroad.
Title Squire
Spouse(s) Susan Miles (first wife), Elizabeth "Betsy" W. Armstead Frazier (second wife)
Children Philip Ford (son from Susan Miles)
William M. Ford (son from Susan Miles)
Cassandra Ford (daughter from Susan Miles)
James N. Ford, Jr. (son from Elizabeth Frazier)
Parent(s) Philip Ford and Elizabeth Ford
Relatives Philip Ford, Jr., (brother)
Richard Ford (brother)
John Ford (grandfather)
Dr. Charles Webb (son-in-law)
Military career
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Kentucky Militia
Illinois Territorial Militia
Rank captain, major
Unit 24th Regiment of Kentucky Militia
4th Regiment of Illinois Territorial Militia
Commands held

Livingston County (Kentucky) Cavalry (1799-1802)

Grand Pierre Company (Illinois) (1810-1811)
Ford's Ferry Gang
Founded by James Ford
Founding location Tolu, Livingston County, Kentucky
Years active 1790s-1833
Territory Ohio River, Kentucky, Illinois
Ethnicity European-American
Membership (est.) 10
Criminal activities river piracy, slave stealing, horse and cattle theft, highway robbery, counterfeiting, murder
Along the Ohio River, James Ford and his gang of outlaws, chose flatboats, keelboats, and rafts, as profitable targets, to attack, because of the valuable and plentiful cargo on board.
Cave-In-Rock on the Illinois side of the Ohio River where James Ford and his gang would meet to run their criminal operations in the region
A view of the Ohio River, near Cave-In-Rock, Illinois in 1832 a year before James Ford was murdered at his slave plantation home across the river in Tolu, Livingston County, Kentucky, now present-day Crittenden County, Kentucky

James Ford, born James N. Ford, also known as James N. Ford, Sr. the "N" possibly for Neal (October 22, 1775 – July 7, 1833), was an American civic leader and business owner in western Kentucky and southern Illinois, late 1790s to mid-1830s. Despite his clean public image, as a "Pillar of the Community", Ford was secretly a river pirate and the leader of a gang that would come to be known as the "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. Ford was an Illinois associate of Isaiah L. Potts and the Potts Hill Gang, highway robbers, of the infamous Potts Tavern. James Ford also had an association with illegal slaver trader and kidnapper of free blacks, John Hart Crenshaw and may have taken part in the Illinois version of "Reverse Underground Railroad. At one point, they used the "Cave-in-Rock" as their headquarters, on the Illinois side of the lower Ohio River, which is approximately 85 miles below Evansville, Indiana.

Early life

James Ford was the son of Philip Ford and Elizabeth Ford and the grandson 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.

Marriages and children

In the late 1790s, James Ford 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, down river of Cave-in-Rock, near the future location of present-day Rosiclare, Illinois. Susan Ford bore James two sons, Philip (November 25, 1800 - November 23, 1831) and William M. (1804 – November 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. Elizabeth Ford bore James one son, James N. Ford, Jr., (c. 1830 - October 1844).

Criminal activities

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, January 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 is 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 November 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.

Slave-holding and allegations of illegal slave trading

James Ford owned a considerable number of slaves in Kentucky, as well as Illinois, around the U.S. government Saline, in Equality. His influence was felt as far away as Springfield, Illinois, which can be attested to 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 Ford showed toward his slaves was told 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. James Ford was also alleged to be a business associate of Illinois saltworks operator and illegal slaver trader on the Reverse Underground Railroad with John Hart Crenshaw of Equality, Illinois involving the kidnapping and enslavement of free negros in Illinois and selling them in Kentucky, to slave plantations in the American South.


James Ford was ambushed and shot dead at his home in Tolu, Kentucky on July 7, 1833 by members of his own criminal gang.

Similarities of James Ford and the Ford's Ferry Gang to other criminal gangs

In the 1790s, Samuel Mason led a double life while living in Red Banks, Kentucky as a justice of the peace and a gang leader of the criminal element of the frontier settlement. From 1863-1864, Henry Plummer was the elected sheriff of the gold rush town, Bannack, Montana, in the 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 Bannick 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

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