Fort Henry: The History

The Beginning

From Fort Henry’s humble beginning as “a small Fort at the Mouth of the Wheelin” it rose to become the second most important fort for the defense of the frontier and was surpassed only by Fort Pitt.

Construction of the fort was undertaken in June of 1774 following Vice Governor John Connolly’s orders under the authority of Lord Dunmore, then Governor of the territory of Virginia. On it’s completion the fort was named Fort Fincastle in honor of Lord Dunmore. The construction of the fort was supervised by Col. William Crawford and completed before the middle of July.

The fort was in the shape of a rectangle, 225 feet long by 150 feet wide. It was located in the 1000 block of present day downtown Wheeling, West Virginia. It consisted of four two story blockhouses and a palisade wall. Within the walls were barracks for the militia, a store house, a commander’s quarters in the center. The main gate was located in the east wall, facing a clearing where some 20 to 30 log homes were located at the base of the hill.

The militia was made up of settlers who were responsible for the defense of the fort at both the siege of 1777 and 1782 as well as the aborted siege of 1781. There were no regular soldiers at any of the sieges. 

On the eve of the American Revolution the fort was renamed Fort Henry in honor of Patrick Henry, the Revolutionary Governor of Virginia.

Siege of 1777

After a summer of nearly continuous Indian raids the first siege of Fort Henry began in the early morning hours of September 1, 1777. Just after dawn, two parties from the fort went out to recover livestock and were attacked near the crest of Wheeling Hill. About two hours later, a substantial part of the garrison was lured into an ambush in the present day area of East Wheeling, where a majority of them were killed. The fort’s defense was conducted under the leadership of Colonel David Shepherd.

The emotional high point of the battle occurred in the afternoon when Major Sam McColloch and two other mounted men attempted to come to the relief of the fort. McColloch tried and failed to force his way past the Indians at the front gate. He was trapped at the top of Wheeling Hill and made his dramatic leap to freedom and subsequent escape back to Van Meter’s Fort. After killing the livestock and burning the cabins outside the fort, the Indians departed sometime after dark.

This was the first large-scale Indian offensive in the upper Ohio Valley since the Battle of Point Pleasant, which occurred in October 1774. The group that conducted the siege was an all Indian force composed primarily of Wyandot Indians under the leadership of their famous chief, Half King. Though the siege of 1777 lasted only one day, it was by far the bloodiest for the frontiersman who incurred between 15 and 18 casualties.1

Siege of 1782

On September 11, 1782, John Linn, who had been scouting across the Ohio River, arrived at Fort Henry with word that a mixed force of roughly 300 enemy were approaching. Upon receiving this intelligence, Captain John Boggs set out immediately for reinforcements, while Colonel Ebenezer Zane, founder of Wheeling, took several sharpshooters with him and occupied his blockhouse, which was located about 60 yards from the southwest corner of the fort. His brother, Silas, was left in command of the fort. Inside the fort were about 40 men and boys who were old enough to handle a rifle, along with some 60 women and children.

In the early afternoon 260 Indian warriors, accompanied by 40 of Butler’s Rangers from Detroit, under the command of Captain Andrew Pratt
2, arrived at the fort and demanded an immediate surrender. Upon Silas Zane’s refusal, the enemy attacked the fort, but, lacking artillery, with little hope of success. The fort on the other hand, was fortunate in having a swivel gun, under the command of John Tait, and this had been placed atop a log “pen” near the front gate. About midnight the Indians attempted to storm the walls of the fort, but were driven back with loss. During the early morning hours before daylight they twice rushed the walls, but both times they were repulsed.

On the second day the fort’s defenders began to run low on gunpowder, and it was then that courageous Betty Zane, the 16-year-old sister of Ebenezer and Silas, made her historic “race for life” from the fort to the Zane cabin, and then returned, under intensive enemy fire, with powder for the fort. That night the enemy made a fourth and final effort to gain the fort; failing in this attempt, with no prospect of better fortune, the enemy withdrew, on the third day of the siege, September 13, only hours before Capt Boggs arrived from Catfish Camp (modern Washington, PA) with reinforcements.

This was the last time that British soldiers and American militia would face each other before the preliminary agreement between Britain and the United States was signed in November, 1782, in Paris, thus ending the Revolutionary War. For this reason the 1782 Siege of Fort Henry is properly known as the“Last Battle of the American Revolution.”

1 - Joe Roxby
2 - New documentation from the Canadian archives shows that Andrew Bradt was actually the Captain’s name.
3 - William Hintzen

website & graphics © 2002 Fort Henry Project