Born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, at the age of fifteen he was sent to college but within the year he ran away to join the filibuster of General William Walker, to Nicaragua but his party was intercepted by American officials. Escaping the authorities he made his way home. His father decided to give him money and send him to California. He made his early fortune mining in California and in Mexico prior to the American Civil War.
In 1861, he joined in a conspiracy to seize San Francisco and create a "Pacific Republic" in California and Oregon, but it failed due to the loyalty and precautions of Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Albert Sidney Johnston. Later in 1863, after traveling secretly to Richmond, Harpending obtained a letter of marque and returned to join with other California members of the Knights of the Golden Circle in San Francisco to outfit the schooner J. M. Chapman, as a Confederate privateer in San Francisco Bay. Their object was to raid commerce on the Pacific coast to capture and carry gold and silver shipments back to support the Confederacy. Their attempt was detected and they were seized on the night of their intended departure by the USS Cyane, revenue officers and San Francisco police. The conspirators were tried and found guilty of treason. Asbury Harpending, and the other leaders were each sentenced to ten years in prison confined at Alcatraz. A few months later President Lincoln issued an amnesty proclamation granting full pardon to all political prisoners upon the condition that they take and keep the oath of allegiance. Harpending was given his freedom in February 1864.
After the war, he was involved in mining, real estate and railroads. After he was involved in the Diamond hoax of 1872, he sold out in California and retired to Kentucky. However, after a few years, he moved to New York City and became involved in investment and speculation on Wall Street. In 1913, Harpending published his biography, The Great Diamond Hoax and Other Stirring Episodes in the Life of Asbury Harpending - An Epic of Early California. He died in 1923.
- Asbury Harpending, The Great Diamond Hoax and Other Stirring Incidents In the Life of Asbury Harpending, Edited By James H. Wilkins, The James H. Barry Co., San Francisco, 1913.
- DANFS Online; Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships Page 584, APPENDIX II. ANNEX I, PRIVATEERS COMMISSIONED BY THE CONFEDERATE STATES GOVERNMENT
- California Military Museum; The Pacific Squadron of 1861-1866, The following article is taken from Aurora Hunt's book, The Army of the Pacific; Its operations in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, plains region, Mexico, etc. 1860-1866, under the chapter The Pacific Squadron of 1861-1866. pp.305-310
- John Boessenecker, Badge and Buckshot: Lawlessness in Old California, Univerciy of Oklahoma Press, 1997. pg. 135-136
- Harpending, The Great Diamond Hoax...