Betty Zane (c. 1765-1823)

Betty Zane
Betty Zane delivering the gunpowder
Library of Congress,
Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-USZ62-2355]

Elizabeth Zane, better known as “Betty Zane,” is hailed as a heroine of the Revolutionary War for her defense of Fort Henry in the wilderness of western Virginia. 

She was born near the Potomac River in Berkeley County, Virginia on July 19 -- but the year is indefinite, with historians placing it between 1759 and 1766.  In any case, Betty moved with her family at an early age to the area that now is Wheeling, West Virginia.  The Zane family and a few others established Fort Henry in 1774. 

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 American Revolution began back East:  the tribes who lived beyond the Appalachians understandably wanted the British to put down the rebellion, and almost all of them allied themselves with the British.

While living with the daily reality of a terrifying attack, the women of Wheeling also were busy with cooking, washing, sewing, weaving, and other household tasks without the supplies that most housewives could take for granted.  While men hunted and fished for food, frontier women grew vegetables, tended to livestock and poultry, and often did other farm work. 

A tight-knit community soon arose among the settlers, one to which Betty Zane felt very attached.  Growing up in this frontier region, she was accustomed to a high-stakes lifestyle.  There was little sense of stability and security, and a spirit of collaboration was necessary to survival.

Her family sent her to Philadelphia for some formal schooling, but Zane returned to Wheeling in 1781, the year that Americans won the important Battle of Yorktown.  The war was not yet formally over though, and especially on the frontier, an alliance of British Canadians and Native Americans would continue to fight settlers until after the War of 1812.

On September 11, 1782, Fort Henry was besieged by the British and their Native American allies.  Betty Zane was among those trapped inside.  The attackers greatly outnumbered the defenders:  250 Native American warriors allied with 50 exceptionally able British soldiers who never had been defeated.  Inside Fort Henry, there were only about 20 males of fighting age.  Worse, they soon found themselves running out of gunpowder. 

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.  Knowing this, Betty volunteered to make the extremely perilous trip herself, claiming, “I am of no use here in the fort. I cannot fight, but I can bring the powder” (“The Heroine of Fort Henry”).  She converted the usual disadvantage of being female into an advantage, as she reasoned that the British and Native Americans would be less inclined to shoot a girl than a boy.  Her rationality combined with her daring spirit compelled her to brave the sixty yards between Fort Henry and the Zane home, knowing she faced some 300 enemies.  

Luckily, she traveled to the Zane home unharmed.  The Indians were amazed and yelled “Squaw, squaw” when she ran past.  She wrapped the gunpowder in her apron and started to make her way back to Fort Henry.  This time, 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, although one shot tore her dress.  She successfully delivered the gunpowder, and two days later, the attackers retreated.

Not much is known about Betty Zane’s later life, but she married John McGloughlin and had five daughters.  It was hard for widows to sustain their families on frontiers, and when John died, she married Jacob Clark and had two more children.  She lived primarily in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio and died on August 23, 1823.  She was buried in Walnut Grove Cemetery there, and a large statute honors her. 

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; indeed, their risk increased because of the probability of rape if they were captured.  Hundreds of girls and women were in fact taken captive, and many more were killed, often with horrific brutality.

Betty Zane's cunning and bravery saved Fort Henry from seizure by the Native Americans and British.  Her act of heroism furthered the Revolutionary cause, not only by protecting Fort Henry, but also by proving that girls contributed to it as well.  Her bravery is immortalized in a book written by her descendant, the famous writer Zane Grey, entitled Betty Zane (1903).  Her legacy lives on in the town of Betty Zane, West Virginia and also in Martin’s Ferry, where she is celebrated each year with “Betty Zane Pioneer Days.”

Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History

Works Cited:

  • Brennan, Margaret, “Betty Zane,” in Doris Weatherford, ed.,  A History of Women in the United States:  State-by-State Reference (Scholastic, 2003), Vol. 4, p. 207.
  • Commeti, Elizabeth, “Betty Zane,” in Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds, Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary (Harvard University Press, 1971) Vol. 3, p. 703-704.
  • Conley, Phil.  “Betty Zane.”  West Virginia Encyclopedia (West Virginia Publishing Company, 1929), p. 1041.
  • Farley, G.M. "Betty Zane, Daughter of Revolution,” Wonderful West Virginia , May 1977.