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Lawton B. Evans

The Bravery of Elizabeth Zane

T HIS is a story of the attack on Fort Henry, a small frontier settlement near where Wheeling, West Virginia, now stands. It was in the summer of 1777, when Simon Girty, one of the worst characters that ever appeared on the stage of American history, led a band of four hundred Indians in assault upon the fort. Colonel Sheppard was in charge of the fortification, with only forty men. As soon as the movements of Girty and his band became known, the inhabitants of the little town of Wheeling, then composed of about twenty-five log huts, hastened to the fort for protection.

A reconnoitering party was sent out by Colonel Sheppard to discover the whereabouts of the enemy. They fell into an ambush, and more than half of them were victims of the rifle and tomahawk. Another party went to their relief, but most of them also were killed by the savages. This reduced the fort to a small garrison. Inside were the women and children, and outside raged a band of four hundred blood-thirsty Indians, led by a desperate and skillful commander. The situation of Fort Henry was indeed perilous, and all those within seemed doomed.

Colonel Sheppard was not a man to surrender easily. He would rather die by rifle shot, than be burned at the stake. Calling his men around him, he said:

"We must defend this fort to the last man. If we surrender, it means sure death to us all by slow torture, and the women and children will suffer most. Let each man do his full duty, and the women must help."

Gladly they began their desperate defense. The women cast the bullets, measured out the powder from the scant supply, and loaded the rifles. Among them was Elizabeth Zane, the sister of two of the defenders of the fort. She had recently returned from school in Philadelphia, and knew very little of border warfare, but she had a brave spirit, as we shall see.

Early one morning, Girty and his followers came before the fort with a white flag, and demanded its immediate surrender.

Colonel Sheppard hurled back the defiant reply, "This fort shall never be surrendered so long as there is an American left inside to defend it."

Girty was infuriated, and, blind with rage, called out, "Then we shall force you to surrender, and not a man or woman shall be left alive in this town." Turning to his Indian followers, he ordered them to attack the fort.

Unfortunately, some of the log huts of the inhabitants were sufficiently near to afford protection to the savages, so that they could begin their assault under cover. They ran into these huts, and opened fire, but with little effect, for the defenders kept well out of sight. The brave Patriots within were all sharp-shooters, and had no powder to waste; every shot they fired meant the death-knell of some Indian who had exposed himself.

After six hours, the Indians withdrew from the houses to a place nearby, and, for a while, there was quiet. It was fortunate, for, just at that moment, someone brought word that the powder of the fort was nearly exhausted; it would not last an hour longer, and then the Patriots would be at the mercy of their foe.

Ebenezer Zane looked at his own house, about sixty yards away, and said, "There is a keg of powder yonder. If we could get it, we would be safe; but someone will have to go for it."

"Powder," cried Colonel Sheppard, "we will have to get it, no matter what the risk. One of us must go at once."

Who should undertake the dangerous mission? The Indians were in easy gunshot, and it meant death to any one showing himself outside the fort. Colonel Sheppard would not order any person to go, but instead, called for volunteers. Every man instantly offered to go; not one held back. But just as they were deciding, a woman stepped forward, and said:

"No man can be spared now. We have too few to defend this place. I am the one to go. Unbar the gate and let me out."

Colonel Sheppard looked at her with great admiration, and, after a few moments, said, "God bless you, my girl, and may you return in safety. Perhaps your going will throw the Indians off their guard. Unbar the gates, men, and let her pass."


Unbar the gate and let me pass!

The gate was opened, and she walked steadily and quickly across the open area toward the house where the powder was. The Indians looked on in wonder, thinking she was coming to them as a captive. But the girl sprang into the house, seized the keg, and reappeared at the door, on her way back to the fort. There was now no time for leisure. She ran as fast as she could with the precious keg in her arms.

With a yell of defiance, the Indians sprang in pursuit, and opened fire upon the fleeing girl. She ran like a deer, swift and straight toward the open gate. Not a shot touched her, though bullets struck the ground about her feet and went flying around her head. In a few moments, she had reached the fort, and fell into the arms of her friends, who raised a great shout as the gate was barred and the powder was safely in their hands.

"We have a heroine in this fort, and will now conquer or die," cried the men, as they hastily prepared to meet the next attack. Suffice it to say that they did defend the fort, until help came and the savages were driven away. And, to this day, the people love to tell the story of how Elizabeth Zane saved the fort, and the lives of those who afterwards helped build a great city.