A Gunpowder Story
By John Esten Cooke
In the autumn of 1777 the English decided to
attack Fort Henry, at Wheeling, in northwestern
Virginia. This was an important border fort
named in honor of Patrick Henry, and around
which had grown up a small village of about
twenty-five log houses.
A band of Indians, under the leadership of one
Simon Girty, was supplied by the English with
muskets and ammunition, and sent against the
fort. This Girty was a white man, who, when a
boy, had been captured by Indians, and brought
up by them. He had joined their tribes, and was
a ferocious and bloodthirsty leader of savage
When the settlers at Wheeling heard that
Simon Girty and his Indians were advancing on the
town, they left their homes and hastened into the
fort. Scarcely had they done so when the savages
made their appearance.
The defenders of the fort knew that a desperate
fight must now take place, and there seemed little
probability that they would be able to hold out
against their assailants. They had only forty
two fighting men, including old men and boys,
while the Indian force numbered about five
What was worse they had but a small amount
of gunpowder. A keg containing the main supply
had been left by accident in one of the village
houses. This misfortune, as you will soon
see, brought about the brave action of a young
After several encounters with the savages,
which took place in the village, the defenders
withdrew to the fort. Then a number of Indians
advanced with loud yells, firing as they came. The
fire was returned by the defenders, each of whom
had picked out his man, and taken deadly aim.
Most of the attacking party were killed, and the
whole body of Indians fell back into the near-by
woods, and there awaited a more favorable
opportunity to renew hostilities.
The men in the fort now discovered, to their
great dismay, that their gunpowder was nearly
gone. What was to be done? Unless they could
get another supply, they would not be able to
hold the fort, and they and their women and children
would either be massacred or carried into
Colonel Shepherd, who was in command,
explained to the settlers exactly how matters stood.
He also told them of the forgotten keg of powder
which was in a house standing about sixty yards
from the gate of the fort.
It was plain to all that if any man should
attempt to procure the keg, he would almost surely
be shot by the lurking Indians. In spite of this
three or four young men volunteered to go on the
Colonel Shepherd replied that he could not
spare three or four strong men, as there were
already too few for the defense. Only one man
should make the attempt and they might decide
who was to go. This caused a dispute.
Just then a young girl stepped forward
and said that SHE was ready to go. Her name was
Elizabeth Zane, and she had just returned from
a boarding school in Philadelphia. This made
her brave offer all the more remarkable, since she
had not been bred up to the fearless life of the
At first the men would not hear of her running
such a risk. She was told that it meant certain
death. But she urged that they could not spare
a man from the defense, and that the loss of one
girl would not be an important matter. So after
some discussion the settlers agreed that she should
go for the powder.
The house, as has already been stated, stood
about sixty yards from the fort, and Elizabeth
hoped to run thither and bring back the powder
in a few minutes. The gate was opened, and she
passed through, running like a deer.
A few straggling Indians were dodging about
the log houses of the town - they saw the fleeing
girl, but for some reason they did not fire upon
her. They may have supposed that she was
returning to her home to rescue her clothes. Possibly
they thought it a waste of good ammunition
to fire at a woman, when they were so sure of
taking the fort before long. So they looked on
quietly while, with flying skirts, Elizabeth ran
across the open, and entered the house.
She found the keg of powder, which was not
large. She lifted it with both arms, and, holding the
precious burden close to her breast, she darted out
of the house and ran in the direction of the fort.
When the Indians saw what she was carrying
they uttered fierce yells and fired. The bullets
fell like hail about her, but not one so much as
touched her garments. With the keg hugged to
her bosom, she ran on, and reached the fort in
safety. The gate closed upon her just as the
bullets of the Indians buried themselves in its
The rescued gunpowder enabled the little
garrison to hold out until help arrived from the other
settlements near Wheeling. And Girty, seeing
that there were no further hopes of taking Fort
Henry, withdrew his band.
Thus a weak but brave girl was the means of
saving strong men with their wives and children.
It was a heroic act, and Americans should never
forget to honor the name of Elizabeth Zane.