Elizabeth Zane Biography | Women of the Revolution


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    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created AmericanRevolution.org in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      The name of Elizabeth Zane is inseparably associated with the history of one of the most memorable incidents in the annals of border warfare. The most reliable account of it is that prepared by Mr. Kiernan for the “American Pioneer,” a Cincinnati journal devoted to sketches relative to the early settlement of the country. In this a full history is given of the establishment of Fort Fincastle – afterwards called Fort Henry, in honor of Patrick Henry – under the superintendence of Ebenezer Zane and John Caldwell.

      This fort stood on the left bank of the Ohio, a little above the mouth of Wheeling Creek, and near the foot of a hill that rose abruptly from the inner margin of the bottom land. Of this land, the portion next the river was cleared, fenced, and planted with corn. Between the fort and the base of the hill, the forest had also been cleared away, and there stood some twenty or thirty log houses; a rude village, which, though of little importance then, was the germ of one of the fairest cities that now grace the domain of Virginia. The fort covered about three-quarters of an acre of ground, and had a block-house at each corner, with lines of stout pickets about eight feet high, extending from one to the other. Within the enclosure were a number of cabins for the use of families, and the principal entrance was through a gateway on the side next to the straggling village.

      In May and June, 1777, a number of savage forays upon the settlements took place, and as the season advanced, these depredations became more bold and frequent. So imminent was the danger, that the people threw aside their private pursuits; the troops were constantly in service, and civil jurisdiction gave place for months to martial law throughout the country. In September it was ascertained that a large Indian force was concentrating on the Sandusky River, under the direction of the notorious white renegade and tory, Simeon Girty. This savage host, numbering, according to various estimates, from three hundred and eighty to five hundred warriors, having completed the preparations for their campaign, took up their line of march in the direction of Limestone, Kentucky; and were brought by their leader before the walls of Fort Henry, before the scouts employed by Colonel Shepherd were able to discover his real design.

      They were made aware of this in the night by seeing the smoke caused by the burning of a blockhouse twelve miles below; and the inhabitants of the village and several families in the neighborhood betook themselves to the fort for safety. At break of day, a man despatched to bring in some horses having been killed, a party of fourteen was sent to dislodge the savages from a corn-field near the fort. They found themselves unexpectedly and furiously assailed by the whole of Girty’s army, and but two survived the skirmish. Others who had pressed to their relief, fell into an ambuscade, and two-thirds of their number perished. The Indians then advanced with loud whoops to take their position before the fort. The garrison, which had at first numbered forty-two fighting men, was now reduced to twelve, including boys. Girty, having posted his forces, appeared with a white flag, and demanded their surrender in the name of His Britannic Majesty; but Colonel Shepherd promptly replied that he should only obtain possession of the fort when there remained no longer an American soldier to defend it. The little band had a sacred charge to protect; their mothers, sisters, wives and children were assembled around them, and they resolved to fight to the last extremity, trusting in Heaven for a successful issue.

      For many hours, after the opening of the siege, the firing of the Indians, eager for butchery, was met by a sure and weIl-directed fire from the garrison, which was composed of excellent marksmen. But the stock of gunpowder in the fort was nearly exhausted! A favorable opportunity was offered by the temporary suspension of hostilities, to procure a keg of powder known to be in the house of Ebenezer Zane, about sixty yards from the gate. The commandant explained the matter to his men, and, unwilling to order any one upon an enterprise so desperate, asked who would volunteer for the perilous service. The person going and coming would necessarily be exposed to the danger of being shot down by the Indians; yet three or four young men promptly offered to undertake it. The Colonel answered that only one man could be spared, and left it to them to decide who it should be. While they disputed – every moment of time being precious, from the danger of a renewal of the attack before the powder could be procured – the interposition of a young girl put an end to their generous contention. Elizabeth, the sister of Ebenezer and Silas Zane, came forward, and requested that she might be permitted to go for the powder. Her proposition at first met with a peremptory refusal; but she renewed her petition with steadfast earnestness; nor would she be dissuaded from her heroic purpose by the remonstrances of the commandant and her anxious relatives. Either of the young men, it was represented, would be more likely than herself to perform the task successfully, by reason of greater familiarity with danger, and swiftness in running. Her answer was that her knowledge of the danger attending the undertaking was her reason for offering to perform the service; her loss would not be felt, while not a single soldier could be spared from the already weakened garrison. This argument prevailed; her request was granted; and when she had divested herself of such portions of clothing as might impede her speed, the gate was opened for her to pass out.

      The opening of the gate arrested the attention of several Indians straggling through the village, and it could be seen from the fort that the eyes of the savages were upon Elizabeth as she crossed the open space, walking as rapidly as possible, to reach her brother’s house. But probably deeming a woman’s life not worth the trouble of taking, or influenced by some sudden freak of clemency, they permitted her to pass without molestation.

      In a few moments she re-appeared, carrying the powder in her arms, and walked at her utmost speed towards the gate. One account says the powder was tied in a table-cloth, and fastened round her waist. The Indians doubtless suspected, this time, the nature of her burden; they raised their fire-locks, and discharged a leaden storm at her as she went on; but the balls whistled past her harmless, and the intrepid girl reached the fort in safety with her prize.

      The story of this siege has been preserved in the collections of Virginia as the most important event in the history of Wheeling, and is enumerated among the battles of the Revolution. The brothers Silas and Ebenezer Zane received honor for having contributed to its final success; nor did the courageous conduct of the women pass unacknowledged. The wife of Ebenezer, and others, undismayed by the bloody strife going on, employed themselves in running bullets and preparing patches for the use of the garrison, and by their presence at every point where they could perform useful service, and their cheering encouragement of their defenders, inspired the soldiers with new energy for desperate resistance. The noble act of Elizabeth, in particular, caused an enthusiasm which contributed to sustain their courage when fate seemed against them, till the arrival of relief.

      Elizabeth had but recently returned from school in Philadelphia, and was totally unused to such scenes as were daily exhibited on the frontier. She married twice, and afterwards lived in Ohio with Mr. Clarke, her last husband. An Ohio newspaper states that she has raised a family of children, and was living, a short time since, near St. Clairsville.

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