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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

Story of Fort Henry

By A. B. Brooks

Volume I, Number 2 (January 1940), pp. 110-118

Early settlers in the region of which West Virginia is now a part had the problem of dealing with the Indians, many of whom had been provoked to unfriendliness. A combination of scouts and fortresses was the usual method of protecting settlements. The scouts, chosen on account of their skill as woodsmen, were constantly alert to detect the presence of Indians who might be skulking in nearby covers. By this means settlers were warned of danger and could enter a fort if one were available.

The Wheeling Settlement

An entry in Washington's journal, for October 23, 1770, made during his memorable trip down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Point Pleasant and return, contains his only reference to settlers at this place: ". . . About three miles or a little better below this place, at the lower point of some islands which stand contiguous to each other (Sisters and Pike Island) we were told by the Indians with us that three men from Virginia had marked the land from hence all the way to Redstone . . ." The three men referred to were doubtless Ebenezer, Jonathan and Silas Zane who, in the previous year, 17691 had come from the South Branch Valley, Virginia, had marked trees to establish tomahawk claims to the land, and made further preparations for permanent settlement. The land marked covered most of the present site of Wheeling, including Elm Grove. Soon afterward others came. In historical accounts some of the names listed are: McCulloch, Wetzel, Biggs, Shepherd, Caldwell, Boggs, Scott, Lynn, Mason, Ogle, Bonnett, McMechen and Woods.

Fort Henry

The fort at Wheeling, first named Fort Fincastle for one of Lord Dunmore's titles, was built early in June, 1774, by Major William Crawford whom John Connolly, the Royal Captain Commandant of West Augusta, then at Fort Pitt, sent down the Ohio River for this purpose.2 In Lord Dunmore's war Major Crawford made three expeditions to the Indian territory, in the second of which he built Fort Fincastle.3

An inquiry about Fort Henry addressed to the War Department, Washington, D. C., was replied to by Major General E. T. Conley in part as follows: "This office has no plans for Fort Henry, Virginia, and it has been ascertained from the Chief of Engineers, War Department, this city, that that office has no plans of the fort. It was built on the site of Zane's Run, and was originally named Fort Fincastle, 1774. It was renamed Fort Henry, in honor of Gov. Patrick Henry, 1776."4

Descriptions of the site and the construction of Fort Henry are found in many places. Contradictions occur often. The following is chosen as typical of the descriptions:5

"The fort was in the shape of a parallelogram, with wooden towers or bastions at each corner, which projected over the lower story and which were pierced by port holes for the use of rifles and muskets. In case of attack the fighting was carried on almost entirely from these bastions. Between these bastions was stretched a strong and closely-connected line of oak and hickory pickets, surrounding entire enclosure,6 within which were located a magazine powder, barracks and cabins for sheltering those who sought refuge within the stockade. On the roof of the barracks7 was mounted a swivel gun captured during the French and Indian War by the British. There was also a well of water within the stockade. On the west side of the Fort outside of it was a never-failing spring of pure, limpid water. The main entrance was on the east side, which was closed by a strong wooden gate. The ground in the vicinity was cleared, fenced and cultivated, extending to the base of the hill on the east, about an eighth of a mile distant.

"From the bluff on the south side of the fort extendedthe bottoms to the bank of Wheeling Creek. The expanse of ground was a level stretch of land and was used for a cornfield. As late at 1810 it was occupied by no buildings of consequence.

"To the southeast of the fort and distant from it about 70 yards stood the residence of Col. Ebenezer Zane, located on a level with the fort, built of rough hewn logs and which at the threatened attack on the fort by the Indians in 1781, was burnt by them. The owner subsequently rebuilt the house, and it was occupied and held by him with a force of five men at the siege of the fort in 1782......8

First Attack on the Fort

"In the year 1774 there was a war against the frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania. Murders, retaliations and robberies by the Indians and the settlers early in the summer, caused a general alarm to spread throughout the region west of the Alleghanies. Forts were built to which the people fled for safety; but in many cases this precaution was not sufficient. Victims of savage butchery were numerous."9

This situation was greatly aggravated by expeditions sent out to burn Indian villages. Governor Dunmore, of Virginia, sent two armies of 2,000 men, to attack the Indians on their own ground. One army went by way of Pittsburgh and Wheeling, to the Little Kanawha. This division was led by Governor Dunmore. The other, under General Lewis, crossed the mountains from Lewisburg, and thence down the Kanawha to Point Pleasant, where the great battle with Cornstalk and his warriors took place.

In August, 1777, General Hand, of Fort Pitt, learned from spies that the Indians were collecting in large numbers for an attack on some part of the country. He believed that Wheeling would be the point assailed. Therefore, all settlers between Fort Pitt and Point Pleasant were warned of the danger.10 Although no Indians were reported by the spies, suddenly, on the morning of September 1, they appeared before Fort Henry. They had assembled, the previous evening and night, on the Ohio side of the River.

Although accounts are somewhat conflicting, we shall try to look in on the scene and note what was happening. Within the fort were gathered members of the approximately thirty families of the settlement -- about forty men and twice that number of women and children. On account of being previously warned they had provided themselves with sufficient food and ammunition. The cabins, barracks, and commandant's house furnished shelter. The seventeen-foot solid wall prevented their seeing out, but port holes in walls and bastions provided restricted views and opportunity to use rifles. On top of the commandant's two-story house was mounted a dummy cannon. Col. Silas Zane was in command of the fort.11 On the outside were gathered, in the sheltering cover of the woods about 400 Indians of the Shawnee, Wyandot and Mingo tribes (some say 300), supplied with arms and ammunition by the English. Some authorities state that the renegade, Simon Girty, led the Indians, but others deny it. The Indians did not attack openly at first. They carried out an ambuscade which succeeded. Early in the morning a few Indians showed themselves, as decoys. Captain Mason, with 14 men left the fort and went in pursuit. The Indians fled and drew Mason's men into the trap. Only three escaped. Captain Ogle, hearing the firing, went to the rescue with twelve men, nine of whom were killed. This left about a dozen men to defend the fort. Encouraged by success the Indians moved forward for an attack. Their first act was to demand surrender, through a "white man" stationed in a window of one of the abandoned cabins. He offered protection to those who surrendered, emphasizing that he spoke for Governor Hamilton, of Detroit, representative of the British army. The reply to the demand for surrender was answered by a shot at the announcer from a port hole, of the fort. Immediately there was a rush at the gate by the Indians, and repeated attempts to break down the wall by the use of battering rams. Failing in this they attempted to set fire to the stockade, carrying flax and other inflammable materials and piling them against the outside. This also failed. The expert riflemen inside, aided by the women who assisted in loading guns, made good use of the time the Indians were in exposed positions. After twenty-three hours of vain attempts to break down the stockade or destroy it by fire, the attackers turned their attention to destruction of houses and property of all kinds. Every cabin was burned and all stock, including some 300 cattle, was killed. In the meantime, Colonel Andrew Swearingen, and 14 men, from Holliday's Fort came down the Ohio River by boat and entered the fort. Major Samuel McCulloch, with 40 men, also arrived from Fort VanMeter. His men rode through the gate, which was thrown open on their approach, but McCulloch was cut off by the Indians and prevented front entering. He was followed by the enemy up Wheeling Hill where he met another body of warriors returning from a foray. Being thus hemmed in he escaped by forcing his horse over a steep declivity. The story of this feat is well known.

An attack on Fort Henry, planned in 1781, was abandoned for some unknown reason; and a contemplated attack in the summer of 1782, was thwarted.

Second Attack on Fort Henry

In September, 1782, occurred the last siege of Fort Henry, regarded by some as the last battle of the Revolution. A force of forty irregular British soldiers and 238 Indians, under Captain Bradt, made the attack. Between the former siege and this one the homes of the settlers had been rebuilt, including that of Ebenezer Zane. His dwelling contained a store of surplus ammunition and arms and it had been decided to occupy it in case of another attack. Being notified of the approach of the enemy by John Lynn, a scout, preparations were speedily made for the expected attack. Those who demained within the Zane house were Andrew Scott, George Green, Elizabeth Zane (Colonel Zane's wife), Molly Scott, Miss McCulloch, a sister of Major Samuel McCulloch, a negro slave and his wife, "Daddy Sam" and Kate. From all other homes the occupants had entered the fort. Although Colonel David Shepherd was superior officer in the county it appears that Colonel Silas Zane was again in command.12

The Indians approached carrying the British flag and asked for surrender, which was refused. During the night of attack the garrison of Fort Henry was re-enforced by the arrival of a few men who had come down in a boat from Pittsburgh. They carried some cannon balls, some of which were taken and used in the real cannon which had been substituted for the wooden one, the rest being appropriated by the attackers.

The first efforts of the enemy were toward destruction of the fort by battering it in every way possible. The first day was spent in futile attempts in this direction. The Indians placed their chief reliance upon burning and during the night made many attempts to burn both the fort and Colonel Zane's house. The negro slave detected the approach of an Indian and killed him as he was about to set fire to the residence. The cannon was brought into play, firing sixteen times during the attack. Being impressed by the effectiveness of the cannon, the Indians and soldiers made one of their own out of a hollow tree which they wrapped with chains found in a blacksmith shop and loaded with the balls taken from the Pittsburgh boat. When they fired it the explosion did no damage to the fort but killed and injured several persons who stood about.

It was during the second siege that the ammunition ran low in the fort and a volunteer, Elizabeth Zane, sister of Ebenezer Zane,13 ran to the cabin and returned under fire with a supply of powder, thus doing her part toward defense, and furnishing the background for a much-repeated story of pioneer days.

At the end of three days the Indians were thoroughly discouraged and, soon after, when Captain Boggs arrived with seventy men, they gave up and turned their attention to Rice's Fort, in the vicinity, where they lost heavily again.

Thus Fort Henry not only saved a large proportion of the inhabitants of the young colony at Wheeling, but played an important, though minor, role in the closing days of the American Revolution. The Second Siege was the last formidable raid of Indians into West Virginia.

Reconstruction Proposed

Such interest attaches to Fort Henry that patriotic and historically-minded citizens have proposed its reconstruction. The space which it occupied is now built up with houses and crossed by city streets. It would be necessary, therefore, to erect the stockade at some not distant point. It would be desirable to make of the reconstructed fort a local historical museum, exhibiting chiefly such things as belonged to that particular period. In this way it would again serve the community and the state.



"History and Government of West Virginia" -- Fast & Maxwell, 1901.

"Wheeling Illustrated," H. R. Page & Co., 1889.

"History of Wheeling and Ohio County" -- Hon. Gibson Cranmer, 1902.

"Our Western Border" -- Charles McKnight, 1875.

"History of West Virginia" -- J. M. Callahan, 1923.

"Pennsylvania Archives" -- 1774.

"Washington-Crawford Letters."

"Dunmore's War" -- Thwaite.

"Chronicles of Border Warfare" -- Withers.

"Border Settlers" -- L. V. McWhorter, 1915.

"Washington's Journals."


1Although 1769 is generally given as the Wheeling settlement date, an account contained in a "Histoiy Of Wheeling and Ohio County," by Hon. Gibson Cranmer, 1902, states that the Zane Brothers, together with Isaac [email protected], two persons of the name of Robinson, and probably one or two others left their home.; the South Branch in the late fall of 1769; that (!old weather and hunger caused them to turn back; and that the three Zanes did not reach the Ohio River and build their first cabin at the mouth of Wheeling Creek

until the fall of 1770.

2See Penna. Archives IV, pp. 519-552; and Washington-Crawford Letters, p. 95; also Thwaite's "Dunmore's War," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society, 1905, page 86.

3"The fort was erected in the spring of 1774 on a plan submitted by Col. Angus McDonald and was erected under the supervision of Gen. George Rogers Clark." -- "History of Wheeling and Ohio County," by Cranmer, page 95.

4It was called "Wheeling Fort" by Lord Dunmore in a letter to Col. Andrew Lewis, July 12, 1774. (See "Dunmore's War" p. 86.)

5"History of Wheeling and Ohio County," by Cranmer, p. 108.

6The height of the pickets, or logs, forming the stockade is usually given as seventeen feet.

7Most authorities say the gun was mounted on the roof of the Commandant's two-story house in the fort.

8The Zane house stood near the present Stone & Thomas Department Store, on Main Street. There are several logs of the building still in existence, as well as small remnants of the stockade. The fort stood on the west side of Main St. There is a small marker placed at the edge of the sidewalk on the west side of Main Street.

9"History &- Government of West Virginia" -- Fast and Maxwell.

10"Wheeling Illustrated," H. R. Page & Co., 1889, states that Dr. John Connolly, Cornmandant of West Augusta, then at Fort Pitt, notified the inhabitants of the threatened attack.

11"Callahan's "History of West Vtrginia," page 86, states that the fort was commanded by Col. David Shepherd.

12Captain Boggs, according to one author, was Commandant.

13According to "Border Settlers" by McWhorter, a "more plausible story is that Molly Scott and not Elizabeth Zane carried the powder."

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