This Day in History: Betty Zane’s daring dash for gunpowder saves Ft. Henry

On this day in 1782, a 16-year-old girl makes a daring dash for gunpowder. Betty Zane made her run even as a group of British soldiers and Indian warriors tried to shoot at her! Because of her heroism, the defenders of Fort Henry were able to survive a two-day siege.

“Talk not to me of Paul Revere,” one poet would later write, “A man on horseback with naught to fear. . . . Here’s to the heroine, plump and brown / Who ran the gauntlet in Wheeling town.”

Fort Henry, you see, was located in modern-day Wheeling, West Virginia. Three brothers named Zane had established a settlement there in 1769. Unfortunately, the area became especially dangerous once the American Revolution began: The British government had allied with local Indian tribes, and attacks were a constant source of concern.

One such attack came on September 11, 1782. It had been nearly a year since George Washington won the Battle of Yorktown, but a peace treaty with Great Britain hadn’t been signed yet. Sporadic fighting still occurred, so it couldn’t have been too surprising when a force of about 50 British soldiers and 250 Indian warriors showed up outside the fort.

Fort Henry then held only about 100 settlers, less than half of which were men or boys old enough to handle a rifle.

By the second day of the siege, the fort’s defenders had run out of gunpowder. Initially, the fort’s commander thought he would send one of the men to a blockhouse outside the fort to retrieve more. But as the men debated who to send, Betty Zane stepped forward. She was the 16-year-old sister of the Zane brothers.

The men were needed to defend the fort, she noted. If she were shot, she wouldn’t be missed as much as one of the men. She volunteered to go—and no one could talk her out of it.

She left the safety of the fort and made the trip to the blockhouse quickly. Would you believe that the Indians left her alone because she was a girl?! Instead, they reportedly just laughed at her: “A squaw! A squaw!”

They weren’t laughing by the time she returned. As Betty emerged from the blockhouse, her apron was obviously loaded with something. Putting two and two together, the Indians realized that she was holding gunpowder. Now they began shooting at her as she returned, but she ran in a zigzag pattern, making herself a harder target.

She made it back to the fort, of course. The siege continued for a little bit longer, but the discouraged British-Indian force soon left. Betty’s bravery had been critical.

The story of Betty Zane was told and retold for decades afterwards. But then something happened. In 1849, a single eyewitness signed an affidavit disputing the name of the girl who had made the run. The true heroine that day, the eyewitness declared, was a different young woman by the name of Molly Scott. That eyewitness remembered a few other details differently as well. She thought the blockhouse, not the fort, needed restocking. And she didn’t remember the Indian force being so close as to be such a threat.

The story became muddled for a time, but one local historian may have solved the puzzle: He pieced together evidence showing that the eyewitness was most likely conflating some aspects of Zane’s September 1782 dash with a smaller, less threatening event in September 1781. Perhaps both Betty and Molly replenished gunpowder, but in different events about a year apart.

Either way, one point is undeniable: Brave women were just as critical to this country’s founding as were brave men.

Primary Sources:

  • A. B. Brooks, Story of Fort Henry (Vol. 1 West Virginia History, 1940)
  • Elizabeth F. Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution (1849) (modern reprint available HERE)
  • Elizabeth Zane, Biography (Elizabeth Zane Chapter, West Virginia State Society Daughters of the American Revolution)
  • History of Wheeling City and Ohio County, West Virginia and Representative Citizens (Hon. Gibson Lamb Cranmer ed., 1902) (reprinted HERE)
  • John S. Adams, Elizabeth Zane (reprinted in Clement Luther Martzolff, Poems on Ohio (1911))
  • Who Was Betty Zane? (Rim Country Museum & Zane Grey Cabin website)
  • William Hintzen, Betty Zane, Lydia Boggs, and Molly Scott: The Gunpowder Exploits at Fort Henry (Vol. 55 West Virginia History; 1996) (reprinted HERE).