In 1774, as tensions between colonials and Native Americans living along the upper Ohio River grew, settlers either fled east of the mountains or forted up. During the summer, Maj. Angus McDonald of the Virginia militia marched over the Appalachians to Wheeling on the Ohio River and joined the locals like Ebenezer Zane, the town’s founder, and John Caldwell in erecting Fort Fincastle. (Wheeling had grown to about twenty-five cabins by 1774.)
Fort Fincastle was situated on a high bluff above the river. A palisaded fort, it covered about half an acre in the shape of a parallelogram. Bastions stood at each corner and projected over the walls. The bastions and walls contained loopholes through which the defenders could fire. A magazine, barracks, and several cabins covered the interior ground, both to house the fort’s garrison and shelter any civilians fleeing to the fort when threatened. A swivel gun was mounted on the barracks rooftop, indicating it was higher than the surrounding walls. There was a well inside the fort and a freshwater spring outside the west wall. The main entrance was on the east front and ground was cleared all around. Cornfields and fenced farmland occupied most of it. Ebenezer Zane had a fortified house about seventy yards southeast of the fort.
Fort Fincastle became a base of operations for settlers and Virginia militia fighting the Indians during Dunmore’s War. Just six months after the Treaty of Camp Charlotte nominally ended that conflict, Massachusetts militiamen exchanged fire with British regulars at Lexington and Concord. The danger of a renewed Indian war in the west was all too apparent. Fort Fincastle, renamed Fort Henry after Virginia’s new governor, Patrick Henry, remained a critical defensive post and was quickly put on a war footing. The first major Indian attack occurred in September 1777, when a large band of Ohio Indians attempted, but failed, to take the fort by surprise. After a brief battle outside the fort’s walls, the Native Americans burned the surrounding fields and houses, including Ebenezer Zane’s, then departed. Raiders also passed nearby in 1781.
The best-known Revolutionary War events around Fort Henry occurred in conjunction with a three-day siege in September 1782. While negotiators worked out the Treaty of Paris, Native Americans and British officers continued to wage their war. That summer, the British and allied Indian nations (Wyandot, Shawnee, Mingo, Tawaa, Pottowatomie, Delaware, and others) held a grand council to determine their future operations. They settled on two offensives. One army of roughly 600 warriors would invade Kentucky. A second would invade northwestern Virginia. The offensive into Kentucky culminated in the Battle of Blue Licks on August 19, in which a mixed force of British officers, loyalists, and Native Americans defeated a smaller force of Americans. The offensive into northwestern Virginia was delayed, but eventually Capt. Andrew Bradt led his company of about 50 loyalists from Butler’s Rangers and 250-350 diverse Indian warriors to the Ohio.
John Lynn, an American scout watching the approaches to Wheeling, spotted the Indian war party’s advance and rushed back to Fort Henry. He arrived a few hours before the Indians and rangers in the evening of Wednesday, September 11. Although defended by militia during most of the war, by 1782 Fort Henry did not have a regular garrison. Instead, it served as a place of refuge for the local community. The short warning between Lynn’s arrival and the war party crossing the Ohio only allowed enough time for the people of Wheeling to reach the fort and man its walls. No county-wide general alarm could be sounded. It also created a conundrum. Most of the powder and ammunition available was stored in the Zane house, which had been rebuilt as a blockhouse closer to the fort. Because the blockhouse was always occupied, it was a safer place to store the community’s powder than the normally-empty fort.
When word of the Indian advance arrived, Ebenezer Zane critically remained in his blockhouse along with a few family members, friends, and two slaves. The building’s occupants included Ebenezer Zane, his wife, Andrew Scott, Molly Scott, George Green, Miss McCullough, and Zane’s slave Sam with his wife Kate. With the blockhouse occupied, the military stores were safe and the building served as a physical impediment to an infantry assault on the fort. Ebenezer’s brother Silas, also a colonel in the militia, commanded from the fort. Because only local families had time to reach Fort Henry, it was extraordinarily vulnerable. Between sixteen and twenty men were available to man its walls, while some forty women and children sheltered inside. Silas’s and Ebenezer’s teenage sister, Elizabeth, was among them.
Zane reported that when the British and Indians finally reached Fort Henry, they “formed their lines round the garrison, paraded British colors, and demanded the fort to be surrendered, which was refused.” Accounts vary about how it was refused, whether the fort’s defenders simply declined, taunted their attackers, or fired on the British flag. Looking back on her teen years, octogenarian Lydia Boggs Shepherd Cruger remembered, “all the people in the Fort raised a defiant yell—men, women, and children, all ordered to do so, throwing up hats, caps, brooms, sticks, and everything in their reach,” but she sometimes mixed details from three different episodes.
In all likelihood, Captain Bradt himself had approached the fort under a flag of truce, hoping its defenders would surrender. Defenders who surrendered to soldiers might expect humane treatment from military forces—although Native Americans did not have such a reputation. He lacked the artillery needed to reduce Fort Henry, so his alternatives were either starving the garrison out or taking it by assault. After their long trek from the Sandusky, supplied only by what they could carry, his troops and the Indians lacked the supplies needed for a long siege. At the same time, Indians were loath to assault forts, although it was not unprecedented. The occupants of forts taken in that manner could expect to be slaughtered. So, the promise of humane treatment was Bradt’s only negotiating leverage. Some of the attackers may have recognized the swivel gun atop the barracks. The verbal exchanges between the fort’s defenders and their attackers involved yelled speculation about whether the gun was made of wood and defender dares to find out. The defenders eventually fired it, ending any speculation.
The British and Indians withdrew and waited for full dark. Around midnight, the Indians attempted to storm the fort and set it alight, but were driven back. They made two more attempts that night, on both the fort and Zane’s house. Zane’s slave Sam apparently detected the first attempt on Zane’s house and killed the attacker. Through the night, the women in the fort cleaned and loaded weapons then passed them forward, occasionally taking a moment to cool the heated barrels.
From atop the barracks, the fort’s defenders continued to fire their swivel gun. Tradition has it that the attackers were sufficiently impressed by its effectiveness to try and fashion one of their own on September 12. Before the attack, a boat loaded with gunpowder and shot for a small cannon arrived from Fort Pitt, bound for Kentucky and the forces under George Rogers Clark’s command. Reportedly, the Indians found a hollow tree, wrapped it in chains, and then loaded it with the boat’s cargo. Predictably, it exploded when ignited and killed its slapdash crew. Comical from the standpoint of the Americans, the episode has a whiff of frontier legend about it. Bradt, his rangers, and the Indians were familiar with artillery from their frequent visits to Detroit. Moreover, they were well aware of the dangers of poorly-made gun barrels and their propensity to explode and injure the users.
By dawn on September 12, the night-time assaults and frequent attempts to burn the fort and Zane’s house had exhausted both sides and depleted their ready ammunition. In the morning, the Americans fired on a black man outside the fort’s walls and took him prisoner. He claimed to have been an Indian captive, but the fort’s defenders did not trust him. Ebenezer Zane reported, “About 8 o’clock next morning, there came a negro from them to us and informed us that their force consisted of a British captain and forty regular soldiers and two hundred and sixty Indians.” The Indians withdrew to a local spring to recover and likely plan their next steps, but kept up a constant fire on the fort.
At this point on September 12, Elizabeth Zane entered the history books. Because the fort’s defenders had rushed into it, they were limited to the ammunition and gunpowder they could carry. By morning, it was largely gone. The military stores in Ebenezer Zane’s house were achingly close, but still too far to easily reach without passing through a long gauntlet of hostile warriors, soldiers, and gunfire. The fort’s defenders held a council and decided that one of them should run the gauntlet to retrieve gunpowder from Zane’s house. The colonel’s younger sister, Elizabeth Zane, volunteered. When some objected that a man could make the trip with less risk, she allegedly replied, “and should he fall, his loss will be more severely felt. You have not one man to spare; a woman will not be missed in the defence of the fort.” The men agreed. She removed clothing that would slow her down, then charged out of the fort when the gates were opened. Her gender reportedly stunned the attackers, who did not feel compelled to attack a woman. They may not have realized the purpose of her dash. Reaching the cabin, Ebenezer let her in. He and his defenders wrapped a tablecloth around her waist and then poured a kegs’ worth of powder into it so she could run back. This time, the Indians reacted, firing at her unsuccessfully during her entire run to the gate. Betty Zane had saved the fort in what became known as the “gunpowder exploit.” Some historians reverse the story and have Elizabeth running from the Zane house to the fort and back. Zane Grey, the western novelist and Ebenezer Zane’s great grandson, immortalized Betty Zane’s story in his first novel in 1903. Claiming to base it on family lore, he chose the former version, which remains the dominant narrative. Colonel Zane made no mention of it in his brief report to army authorities at Fort Pitt and historians have been unable to find any reports of the siege from Captain Bradt.
The attackers continued desultory firing at the fort and Zane’s house all day on September 12, finally launching a last infantry assault at 10 o’clock that night. As before, it failed. Bradt and his small force faded away on the morning of September 13. Zane reported that the Americans had sustained no losses with only one wounded.
Elizabeth Zane’s gunpowder exploit was the stuff of legend and would remain so for almost seventy years. In 1849, Lydia Boggs Shepherd Cruger swore out an affidavit challenging the story. She proclaimed the real heroine was Molly Scott, who had run from Colonel Zane’s cabin to the fort to retrieve gunpowder and then back. Even more damning, she announced that Elizabeth Zane was not in town in 1782 and that Scott had never been in danger because the Indians had withdrawn well outside the range of their muskets and rifles. By then, Cruger was eighty-three years old and there was only one living witness to the event who could contradict her.
Historian William Hintzen looked into the matter in the 1990s. He found that the descendants of Molly Scott had always proclaimed that Elizabeth Zane made the dash in 1782. Hintzen concluded that Cruger likely confused the events of three different attacks on Fort Henry in 1777, 1781, and 1782. Her recollection more closely followed the events of a 1781 raid in the area. So, Elizabeth Zane’s gunpowder exploit remains intact. Cruger’s recollections highlight the tentativeness of historical memory, while Hintzen’s detective work illustrates the value of historical research.
In retrospect, the 1782 siege of Fort Henry was one of the last battles involving Americans in the War of Independence. But, on the frontier, it would prove to be simply another episode in the perpetual conflict that governed relations between the new country and North America’s native population.
History of the Upper Ohio Valley, Vol. 1 (Madison, WI: Brant & Fuller, 1891), 71; Glenn F. Williams, Dunmore’s War (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2017), 183; Roy Bird Cook, “Virginia Frontier Defenses 1719-1795,” West Virginia History, Volume 1, Number 2 (West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, January 1940), 119-130.
A.B. Brooks, “Story of Fort Henry,” West Virginia History, Volume 1, Number 2 (West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, January 1940), 110-118; Pioneer Life in the West; Comprising the Adventures of Boone, Kenton, Brady, Clarke, The Whetzels, and Others in their Fierce Encounters with the Indians (Philadelphia: The Keystone Publishing Co., 1890), 147.
Alexander Scott Withers, Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Chronicles of Border Warfare or, A History of the Settlement by the White of North Western Virginia, and of the Indian Wars and Massacres in that section of the State, 4th impression (Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd Company, 1912), 226. Withers’ Chronicles were first published in 1831 and relied heavily on local tradition. They then passed through several hands, including notable historians Lyman Draper and Reuben Gold Thwaites, for editing and annotation to identify many of Withers’ errors. Like many early historians of border warfare, Withers’ account suffers from its methodology, but it is still useful for capturing local “memories” of people, places, and events that were only a generation in the past. Many subsequent historians relied on Withers as a primary source and repeated his errors.
Alan Fitzpatrick, Wilderness War on the Ohio, new rev second ed. (Benwood, WV: Fort Henry Publications, 2002), 562. Fitzpatrick offers an excellent profile of Bradt in this book. He also estimates that the attackers totaled roughly 300, including Bradt’s rangers.
“Ebenezer Zane to Irvine,” September 17, 1782, C.W. Butterfield, ed., Washington-Irvine Correspondence: The Official Letters which Passed Between Washington and Brig.-Gen. William Irvine and Others Concerning Military Affairs in the West from 1781 to 1783 (Madison, WI: David Atwood, 1882), 397; Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 356.
Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 356. Wills De Hass places Silas in the Zane house. Wills De Hass, History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia (Wheeling, WV: H. Hoblitzell, 1851), 268.
Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 357; History of the Upper Ohio Valley, 1: 108; Triplett, Conquering the Wilderness,262; De Hass, History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia, 263.
“The Narrative of Lydia Boggs Shepherd Cruger Covering the Years 1772-1786,” Jared C. Lobdell, ed., Indian Warfare in Western Pennsylvania and North West Virginia at the Time of the American Revolution (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2006), 118. Cruger thought the fort’s defenders fired on the British as well.
Triplett, Conquering the Wilderness,264; Brooks, “Story of Fort Henry,” 110-118; History of the Upper Ohio Valley, 1: 110; De Hass, History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia, 267.
“The Reminiscences of Stephen Burkham,” and “Recollections of Rachel Johnson,” Further Materials on Lewis Wetzel and the Upper Ohio Frontier, Jared C. Lobdell, ed. (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 1994), 97, 106; “The Narrative of Lydia Boggs Shepherd Cruger,”Indian Warfare in Western Pennsylvania, 123.
William Hintzen, “Betty Zane, Lydia Boggs, and Molly Scott: The Gunpowder Exploits at Fort Henry,” West Virginia History (West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, 1996), 95-109; Cruger’s statement to historian Lyman Draper and her affidavit are available in Lobdell, ed., Indian Warfare in Western Pennsylvania.