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James Ford, born James N. Ford, also known as James N. Ford, Sr. the "N" possibly for Neal (October 22, 1775July 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 Inn. 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. 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

James Ford born in the Ninety-Six District, Province of South Carolina of the British Empire, now present-day Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, South Carolina 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 to what would become Princeton in Caldwell County, Kentucky. The second marriage of his mother would provide James with a number of step and half siblings who would provide important ties to his future political, business, and criminal career.

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).

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.

The military experience of James Ford was limited to officering and leading frontier Kentucky and Illinois Territorial Militia units. Even without combat experience, serving in the militia helped Ford acquire a certain amount of local prestige and create leadership opportunities for him in the politics and business affairs of the Ohio River valley of Kentucky and Illinois.

James Ford was the Captain of the Livingston County Cavalry of the 24th Regiment of Kentucky Militia from July 1, 1799 to December 15, 1802.

While living in Illinois Territory, on January 2, 1810, James Ford became the captain of the Grand Pierre area militia company of the 4th Regiment of Illinois Territory Militia which was one of three territorial militia companies in southeastern Illinois, the other two companies were based around the frontier settlements of Elizabethtown and Cave-In-Rock were all volunteer frontier military units., The Grand Pierre Company was composed of soldiers from Grand Pierre a former frontier settlement in the area located near the Grand Pierre Creek Watershed, now present-day Rosiclare, Illinois. Grand Pierre was one of three frontier Illinois militia districts in what later became Hardin County, Illinois. The fort used by the Grand Pierre militia company may have been the same blockhouse which had been formerly located north of the present-day water tower Rosiclare used later by the Sturdivant Gang for their counterfeiting activities in the late 1810s-early 1820s. At one point during the occupation of the fort by the counterfeiters, James Ford held the deed to the land the fort was built on giving him legal ownership of the fort land, making him guilty by association for allowing counterfeiting to occur on his Illinois property holdings.

James Ford was also the captain of a company of the Illinois Territorial Militia from July 15, 1811 to August 8, 1811. Ford was later promoted to major being one of two such military ranks available in the 4th Regiment of Militia in the Illinois Territory on November 28, 1811.

James Steele, Sr. also spelled Steel who had been a private in Ford's Company succeeded him as Captain of the Grand Pierre militia. In the War of 1812, Steele served as a private in Captain John Cochran's Company of the 1st Regiment of Illinois (Territorial) Militia, under the command of Captain Absolem Cox, at Kaskaskia on September 3, 1812. The residency of James Steele was recorded in the first Illinois State Census in 1818 and the 1820 U.S. Census as living in Pope County, Illinois, now present-day Hardin County, Illinois. At the time the state and federal censuses were conducted, Steele was a criminal member of the Sturdivant Gang of counterfeiters which operated in the Rosiclare area of Hardin County from the 1810s to 1820s

James Ford was a substantial land owner who owned a five-hundred acre plantation at his home in Tolu, Kentucky as well as holding numerous other properties on the Kentucky and Illinois sides of the Ohio River. 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.

James Ford owned a considerable number of slaves in Kentucky. He leased out his slaves, for salt making operations under a contract with the U.S. government at the U.S. Saline, near Equality, Illinois. The influence of James Ford 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 two runaway slaves he owned. The cruel and ruthless treatment Ford showed toward his slaves was told in numerous stories many true and untrue. In one tale Ford was alleged to have punished one of his slaves by using a vise to secure the head of the slave and cut off their ears and pull out their teeth. The 1832 runaway slave notice Ford had printed in the Sangamo Journal indicated that a slave named "Ben" had his ears removed for "robbing a boat on the Ohio River". In another tale James Ford allegedly bound hand to foot an offending slave and dragged him to death behind a mule, through a field of tree stumps.

James Ford was also alleged to have had legitimate and criminal associations with John Hart Crenshaw an Illinois businessman operating the Illinois Salines and who kidnapped free blacks to sell into the illegal slave trade as well as practicing illegal slave breeding. The road from the Old Slave House of Crenshaw in Illinois crossing the Ohio River to Ford's Ferry, Kentucky was a heavily traveled route of the infamous Reverse Underground Railroad which sent its victims to a life of enslavement in the Southern United States.

According to Dr. Charles H. Webb, the future husband of Cassandra Ford the only daughter of James Ford while at their plantation mansion in 1822 described the appearance of James Ford:

He was of about six feet in height, and of powerful build, a perfect Hercules in point of strength; but he has now grown to corpulent to undergo much fatigue. His head is large and well shaped; his sandy brown hair, now thin, is turning gray, for he must be fully fifty years old; his eyes, of a steel-gray color, are brilliant and his glance quick and penetrating; his nose rather short and thick; his upper lip remarkably long, his mouth large, and his lips full and sensuous. He has a broad firm double chin, and his voice is deep and sonorous. His complexion is very florid, and he converses fluently. On the whole, when in repose, he gives one the idea of a good natured, rather than a surly, bulldog; but, if aroused, I should say he would be a lion tamer.

ames Ford was ambushed and shot dead at Ford's Ferry near his home on July 7, 1833 by members of his own criminal gang. He was buried in the Ford family cemetery in Kirksville, Kentucky on the grounds of the Ford family plantation property, now located on Tolu-Carrsville Road (Kentucky Route 135 - KY 135), in present-day Tolu, Crittenden County, Kentucky, on a farm that was owned by the Brazwell family in the 1980s. Ford is buried next to the graves of his sons, Philip and William and daughter, Alma. The Ford Family Cemetery burial ground is located currently on private property. The inscription on his headstone reads:

Here lies James Ford, who died more for the Western County, building it up more than all others. But was worse misrepresented by ungrateful men, his enemies.

In the 1790s, Samuel Mason, who later highwayman and river pirate 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.

Following the death of James Ford in 1833, Ford's Ferry continued on as an important Ohio River ferry crossing with a high water road which was still being used even when the river flooded. The small town built around Ford's Ferry came to be spelled Fords Ferry continued to prosper. According to the 19th century source, Collins' Historical Sketches of Kentucky the town had four stores and two hotels with a population of approximately seventy-five people. Eventually, the Ohio River ferry at Cave-In-Rock became the last and only ferry in the area and bypassed the flow of river and road traffic at Ford's Ferry which caused it to cease operations and be abandoned along with the town.