The seige of Fort Henry, at the mouth of Wheeling creek, in the year 1777, is one of the most memorable events in Indian warfare - remarkeble for the indomitable bravery displayed by the garrison in general, and for some thrilling attendant incidents. The fort stood immediately on the left bank of the Ohio river, about a quarter of a mile above Wheeling creek, and at much less distance from an eminence which rises abruptly from the bottom land. The space inclosed was about three quarters of an acre. In shape the fort was a parallelogram, having a block-house at each corner with lines of pickets eight feet high between. Within the enclosures was a store-house, barrack-rooms, garrison-well, and a number of cabins for the use of families. The principal entrance was a gateway on the eastern side of the fort. Much of the adjacent land was cleared and cultivated, and near the base of the hill stood some twenty-five or thirty cabins, which formed the rude beginning of the present city of Wheeling. The fort is said to have been planned by General George Rogers Clarke; and was constructed by Ebenezer Zane and John Caldwell. When first erected, it was called Fort Fincastle but the name was afterwards changed in compliment to Patrick Henry the renouned orator and patriotic governor of Virginia.
At the time of the commencement of the seige, the garrison of Fort Henry numbered only forty-two men, some of whom were enfeebled by age while others were mere boys. All, however, were excellent marksmen, and most of them, skilled in border warfare. Colonel David Shepherd, as a brave and resolute officer in whom the borderers had full confidence. The store-house was well-supplied with small arms, particularly muskets, but sadly deficient in ammunition.
In the early part of September, 1777, it was ascertained that a large Indian army was concentrating on the Sandusky river, under the bold, active, and skillful renegade, Simon Girty. Colonel Shepherd had many trusty and efficient scouts on the watch; but Girty deceived them all and actually brought his whole force of between four and five hundred Indians before Fort Henry before his real object was discovered.
On the 26th, an alarm being given all the inhabitants in the vicinity repaired to the fort for safety. At break of day, on the 27th, Colonel Shepherd, wishing to dispatch an express to the nearest settlements for aid, sent a white man and a negro to bring in some horses. While these men were passing through the cornfield south of the fort, they encountered a party of six Indians, one of whom raised his gun and brought the white men to the ground. The negro fled and reached the fort without receiving any injury. As soon as he related his story, Colonel Shepherd dispatched Captain Mason, with fourteen men, to dislodge the Indians from the cornfield. Mason marched almost to the creek without finding any Indians, and was about to return, when he was furiously assailed in front, flank, and rear by the whole of Girty's army. Of course, the little band was thrown into confusion, but the brave captain rallied his men, and taking the lead, hewed a passage through the savage host. In the struggle, more than half of the party were slain, and the gallant Mason severely wounded. An Indian fired at the captain at the distance of five paces and wounded, but did not disable him. Turning about, he hurled his gun, felled the savage to the earth, and then succeeded in hiding himself in a pile of fallen timbers, where he was compelled to remain to the end of the seige. Only two of his men survived the fight, and they owed their safety to the heaps of logs and brush which abounded in the cornfield.
As soon as the perilous situation of Captain Mason became known at the fort, Captain Pyle was sent out with twelve men, to cover his retreat. The party fell into an ambuscade and two-thirds of the number were slain upon the spot. Captain Pyle found a place of concealment, where he was obliged to remain until the end of the seige. Sergent Ogle, though mortally wounded, managed to escape, with two soldiers into the woods.
The Indian army now advanced to the assault, with terrific yells. A few shots from the garrison, however, compelled them to halt. Girty had changed the order of attack. Parties of Indians were placed in such of the village-houses as commanded a view of the block-houses. A strong party occupied the yard of Ebenezer Zane, about fifty yards from the fort, using a paling fence as a cover, while the main force was posted under cover on the edge of a cornfield to act as occasion might require.
Girty then appeared at the window of a cabin, with a white flag in his hand, and demanded the surrender of the fort in the name of his Britanic majesty. At this time, the garrison numberd only twelve men and two boys. Yet the gallant Colonel Shepherd promptly replied to the summons, that the fort should never be surrendered to the renegade. Girty renewed his proposition, but before he could finish his harangue, a thoughtless youth fired at the speaker and brought the conference to an abrupt termination. Girty disappeared, and in about fifteen minutes, the Indians opened a heavy fire upon the fort, and continued it without much intermission for the space of six hours. The fire of the little garrison, however, was much more destructive than that of the assailants. About one o'clock, the Indians ceased firing and fell back against the base of the hill.
The Colonel resolved to take advantage of the intermission to send for a keg of powder, which was known to be in the house of Ebenezer Zane, about sixty yards from the fort. Several young men promptly volunteered for the dangerous service; but Shepherd could only spare one, and the young men could not determine who that should be. At this critical moment, a young lady, sister of Ebenezer Zane, came forward, and asked that she might be permitted to execute the service; and so earnestly did she argue for the proposition, that permission was reluctantly granted. The gate was opened, and the heroic girl passed out. The opening of the gate arrested the attention of several Indians who were straggling through the village, but they permitted Miss Zane to pass without molestation. When she reappeared with the powder in her arms, the Indians, suspecting the character of her burden, fired a volley at her, but she reached the fort in safety. Let the name of Elizabeth Zane be remembered among the heroic of her sex.
About half-past two o'clock, the savages again advanced and renewed their fire. An impetuous attack was made upon the south side of the fort, but the garrison poured over the assailants a destructive fire from the two lower block-houses. At the same time, a party of eighteen or twenty Indians, armed with rails and billets of wood, rushed out of Zane's yard and made an attempt to force open the gate of the fort. Five or six of the number were shot down, and then the attempt was abandoned. The Indians then opened fire upon the fort from all sides, except that next to the river, which afforded no shelter to beseigers. On the north and east the battle raged fiercely. As night came on the fire of the enemy slackened. Soon after dark, a party of savages advanced within sixty yards of the fort, bringing a hollow maple log which they had loaded to the muzzle and intended to use as a cannon. The match was applied and the wooden piece bursted, killing or wounding several of those who stood near it. The disappointed party soon dispersed.
Late in the evening, Francis Duke, son-in-law of Colonel Shepherd, arriving from the Forks of Wheeling, was shot down before he could reach the fort. About four o'clock next morning, Colonel Swearingen, with fourteen men, arrived from Cross Creek, and was fortunate enough to fight his way into the fort without losing a single man.
This reinforcement was cheering to the wearied garrison. More relief was at hand. About daybreak, Major Samuel M'Culloch, with forty mounted men from Short Creek, arrived. The gate was thrown open, and the men, though closely beset by the enemy, entered the fort. But Major M'Culloch was not so fortunate. The Indians crowded round and separated him from the party. After several ineffectual attempts to force his way to the gate, he turned and galloped off in the direction of Wheeling Hill.
When he was hemmed in by the Indians before the fort, they might have taken his life without difficulty, but they had weighty reasons for desiring to take him alive. From the very commencement of the war, his reputation as an Indian hunter was as great as that of any white man on the north-western border. He had participated in so many rencontres that almost every warrior possessed a knowledge of his person. Among the Indians his name was a word of terror; they cherished against him feelings of the most phrenzied hatred, and there was not a Mingo or Wyandotte chief before Fort Henry who would not have given the lives of twenty of his warriors to secure to himself the living body of Major M'Culloch. When, therefore, the man whom they had long marked out as the first object of their vengeance, appeared in their midst, they made almost superhuman efforts to acquire possession of his person. The fleetness of M'Colloch's well-trained steed was scarcely greater than that of his enemies, who, with flying strides, moved on in pursuit. At length the hunter reached the top of the hill, and, turning to the left, darted along the ridge with the intention of making the best of his way to Short Creek. A ride of a few hundred yards in that direction brought him suddenly in contact with a party of Indians who were returning to their camp from a marauding excursion to Mason's Bottom, on the eastern side of the hill. The party being too formidable in numbers to encounter single-handed, the major turned his horse about and rode over his own track, in the hope of discovering some other avenue to escape. A few paces only of his countermarch had been made, when he found himself confronted by his original pursuers, who had, by this time, gained the top of the ridge, and a third party was discovered pressing up the hill directly on his right. He was now completely hemmed in on three sides, and the fourth was almost a perpendicular precipice of one hundred and fifty feet descent, with wheeling creek at its base. The imminence of his danger allowed him but little time to reflect upon his situation. In an instant he decided upon his course. Supporting his rifle in his left hand and carefully adjusting his reins with the other, he urged his horse to the brink of the bluff, and then made the leap which decided his fate. In the next moment the noble steed, still bearing his intrepid rider in safety, was at the foot of the precipice. M'Colloch immediately dashed across the creek, and was soon beyond reach of the Indians.
After the escape of the major, the Indians concentrated at the foot of the hill, and soon after set fire to all the houses and fences aouside the fort, and killed about three hundred cattle. They then raised the seige and retired.
The whole loss sustained by the whites during this remarkable siege, was twenty-six men killed and four or five wounded. The loss of the enemy was from sixty to one hundred men. As they removed their dead, exact information on the subject could not be obtained.
The gallent Colonel Shepherd deserved the thanks of the frontier settlers for his conduct on this occasion, and Governor Henry appointed him county lieutenant as a token of his esteem. A number of females, who were in the fort, undismayed by the dreadful strife, employed themselves in running bullets and performing various services; and thus excited much enthusiasm among the men. Perhaps a more heroic band was never gathered together in garrison than that which defended Fort Henry, and it would be unjust to mention any one as particularly distinguished. We have named the commander only because of his position.