Fort Henry in what is now downtown Wheeling, was the most important fortification in our area during the American Revolution. It withstood two major attacks. The first of these occurred on September 1, 1777.
Now the sources which I consulted are somewhat inconsistent with regard to the defenders and their number. Yet they all are pretty much in agreement that there were 389 attackers most of whom were either Wyandot’s or Mingo, and these were led by Simon Girty, who was notorious for his brutality as an Indian leader on the frontier. Simon Girty was born in Pennsylvania in 1741. With two of his younger brothers he was taken captive by Seneca Indians in 1755, during the Seven Years War (1755-1763) usually referred to by us as the French and Indian War, as that was whom the then colonists perceived themselves to be fighting, while much of the rest of the English speaking peoples were fighting just the French. After being raised to manhood by the Seneca he and his brothers were inexplicably released in about 1759. In 1777, Girty was in the service of the British and was reportedly facilitating attacks by Indians against the American frontier populace.
In the absence of a permanent garrison at Fort Henry, there is some uncertainty as to who was in command of the defense. Certainly present were Militia Captain Ogle, with twelve men. Also present were Captain Samuel Meason, Colonel Ebenezer Zane and Colonel Shepherd. Keeping in mind that militia ranks were sometimes liberally bestowed, regardless of some accounts, it is likely that Shepherd as the County Lieutenant may have been in overall command.
On the morning of the 1st, two men were sent out to bring in some grazing horses. In the process they were attacked by a group of six Indians who exposed themselves to do so. One man was killed while the other was “permitted” to escape to sound the alarm. On hearing that there were but six attackers, Captain Meason went out with a party of fourteen to engage them. Once the Meason party was fully exposed and at some distance from the fort they were attacked and promptly cut down. Captain Ogle sallied out with 12 men to effectuate a rescue or a fire support party. In short order the twenty-six men who were led into the ambush were reduced to three, of whom two were wounded. However, this action bought time for the residents of Wheeling to seek shelter, either at Fort Henry or at the Zane Blockhouse. It also let a runner or two get away. It had the effect of vacating all of the other habitations in the village which could be used as cover by advancing attackers.
At this juncture, from the cover of a nearby house, Simon Girty read a proclamation issued by British Governor Hamilton of the Northwest Territory that if the defenders would surrender and pledge fealty to the King that they would be escorted unharmed to Fort Detroit. However should they resist, in the end they would be victims of the practices to which the Indians subjected their captives. Colonel Zane refused the request. Upon which Girty and his forces began the attack. The attackers continued firing at the Fort for over six hours, ceasing about 1:00 in the afternoon. During the early period of the siege nearly all of the damage inflicted was upon the attackers. That was a good thing as the fort allegedly contained thirty-three men after losing the forces of Meason and Ogle. The frontiersmen were remarkably good shots, and they were firing from sheltered positons.
When the battle renewed in the mid-afternoon the attackers created a diversion with a strong attack on the south side of Fort Henry away from its gate. As the defenders took position to repel that attack, a party of about eighteen Indians attacked the gates with rails and billets attempting to force an entry. This was discovered in time to permit the defenders to drive them off, killing about a third of the party. The firing back and forth continued through the night.
The defense of Fort Henry became somewhat methodical. Everyone among the occupiers, other than little children, had a task. Some of the women became riflemen. Others molded bullets. Some were loaders, such that each defender had more than one loaded weapon at hand. (The defenders did obtain a number of muskets from the fort’s storeroom to supplement their Pennsylvania rifles.) Others cooked and distributed food and water.
A runner or two on the first day eluded the attackers so that other communities and garrisons were alerted. On the second day Major McColloch of short creek and forty-five mounted men arrived and gained access to Fort Henry. It was during this foray that Major McColloch made his famous leap.
I remember the first time that I saw the monument in Wheeling commemorating his historic feat. My reaction was simple: “No way.”
Again, in writing this column I have relied heavily on Newton’s History of the Panhandle; Eckert’s That Dark and Bloody River; and Nogay’s Every Home a Fort, Every Man a Warrior , Bethany College Archival Materials, and on open, public sources.