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The last hero of the American Revolution

BettyZaneThe noted end to the Revolution came Sept. 28, 1781 at the siege of Yorktown. There, General George Washington and the French General Rochambeau defeated General Charles Cornwallis. It would not be until September 3, 1783 that the Treaty of Paris would formally end hostilities. During those interim years, there would be skirmishes between the colonies and British. Possibly the very last one would occur at a small and little known place, Fort Henry.

The Siege of Fort Henry (September 11–13, 1782) was an assault on the American Fort Henry, a frontier fort on the western reaches of Virginia that is now the site of Wheeling, West Virginia. The high degree of resolution and courage among frontier womanhood was exemplified by Betty Zane, a dark-haired and dark-eyed beauty who single-handedly saved Fort Henry in the upper Ohio River Valley from annihilation in a brave dash through hostile Indians to bring gunpowder from her brother’s cabin. Fort Henry was a parallelogram, 356 feet long and 150 feet wide, on a hillside overlooking the Ohio River, standing at what is now Tenth and Main streets in Wheeling, surrounded by a stockade fence twelve feet high, and having a three-foot walkway running around the inside. It was practically impregnable so long as supplies lasted. The fort was besieged by the British and their Native American allies. Betty Zane, then just 17 years old, was among those trapped inside by 250 Native American warriors (mostly Wyandot and Delaware) allied with 50 a group of seasoned British soldiers who never had been defeated. Inside Fort Henry were only about 20 males of fighting age.

Living there was a testament to the family’s boldness. Betty’s older brother, the famous Ebenezer Zane, pioneered this area in the turbulent Ohio Valley, and the land was hardly “child-friendly.” Surrounded by thick woods, it was the home of Native Americans who became increasingly hostile because of encroachment on their lands. Beyond that, their move was illegal, as the colonists were defying a royal order that reserved land west of the Appalachian Mountains for natives. The threat of attack increased as the tribes who lived beyond the Appalachians wanted the British to put down the rebellion, and almost all of them allied themselves with the British.

To make things worse, during this siege, they were running out of gunpowder. Betty’s brother carelessly left gunpowder at their house, about 60 yards from the fort. During the battle, while Betty was loading a Kentucky rifle, her father was wounded and fell from the top of the fort right in front of her. The captain of the fort said, “We have lost two men, one Mr. Zane and another gentlemen, and we need gunpowder.” It would not be long before this young girl would become the last hero of the American Revolution.

Betty Zane was the sister of the fort commander, Col. Silas Zane. Betty’s brother Ebenezer remembered that he had carelessly left a keg of gunpowder back at home. A few boys volunteered to retrieve it, but they were not allowed to leave because their deaths would mean the loss of valuable fighters. According to a common account she said, ‘‘you have not one man to spare; a woman will not be missed in the defense of the fort.’’ Startled to see a young woman emerge from the fort and sprint across the open field, the British and natives held their fire. The common drawings of the event show Betty carrying a keg of powder. However, the keg was too heavy for her to carry and run with so in the Zane cabin, Betty gathered a quantity of gunpowder, perhaps in her apron or table cloth, and dashed back to the fort. Her feat is more impressive when we consider that she had gone without sleep for 40 hours pouring lead into bullet molds and dipping the molds into water.

Luckily, she traveled to the Zane home unharmed. The Indians were amazed and yelled “Squaw, squaw” when she ran past. As she returned back to Fort Henry, however, the Native Americans and British were not fooled by the seemingly harmless girl, and they fired at her. Zane sprinted and miraculously managed to evade the gunfire. One shot tore her dress. She successfully delivered the gunpowder, and two days later, the attackers retreated.

To say who this young heroine was, one must tell of her whole family. Most of its members also have a place in American history. Her father, a Dane, came to America with William Penn. Zane Street in Philadelphia was named for him. Later he moved to Berkeley County on the Potomac where five sons and Betty were born. On the death of their father, the children moved to the Ohio Valley where the brothers became famous as Indian fighters and settlers. They are memorialized by Zane Highway which runs through Eastern Ohio, becoming Zane Street in Wheeling. The Betty Zane room in Wilson Lodge of Oglebay Park is named in her honor. Her kinsman, Zane Grey, has immortalized her in his famous novel, Betty Zane.

Betty’s feat is not without controversy. Some historians are skeptical of the historical accuracy of but the legend persists. There is no mention of the heroic act in any contemporary account, including the official report by her brother to General William Irvine. Its similarity to the account of Madame Anne Bailey’s dash to save Fort Lee in the same decade casts additional doubt. The earliest reports of the episode are found in A. S. Withers’ 1895 Chronicles of Border Warfare and in an early 19th-century Philadelphia newspaper account. More than one hundred years after her deed, John S. Adams wrote a poem called Elizabeth Zane that achieved some popularity.

Two other girls in the fort, Molly Scott and Lydia Boggs, later claimed credit for this or similar feats, but most historians agree that Betty Zane’s role was key. Moreover, if Boggs and Scott do merit more recognition, it only reinforces the point that it was not unusual for young women to participate in the many conflicts of the new nation. The reality of violence on the frontier remained genuine for decades, and there was little chivalry for women. Their risks were high because of the probability of brutal treatment if captured. History records that hundreds of girls and women were in fact taken captive, and many more were killed.

Not much is known about Betty Zane’s later life. Before her first marriage, she bore a daughter, Minerva Catherine Zane, also known as Miriam, by one Van Swearingen. Court records in Ohio County, Virginia show an order for Van Swearingen to deed property to Betty Zane, so the daughter would be provided for and not become a burden on the county. Betty then married John McGloughlin and had four daughters; Mary Ann “Polly”, Sarah Nancy, Rebecca and Hannah McLaughlin. It was hard for widows to sustain their families on frontiers, and when John died, she married Jacob Clark and had two more children; a son, Ebenezer Clark, and a daughter, Catherine Clark. Betty lived primarily in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio. Zane’s date of birth was July 19, 1765 and died on August 23, 1823. She was buried in Walnut Grove Cemetery there, and a large statute honors her.

Information contained here taken from the following resources: