How a teenage girl with an ‘apron full of gunpowder’ won the Siege of Fort Henry

You may never have heard of Betty Zane, but the teenage girl saved a fort by dashing through enemy fire in the "gunpowder exploit."
Logan Nye Avatar
"Heroism of Miss Elizabeth Zane" depicts Elizabeth Zane's legendary feat of retrieving powder during the siege of Fort Henry during the American Revolutionary War. Lithograph by Nagel and Weingaertner. Public Domain.

One of the craziest stories of the Revolutionary War took place in modern-day Wheeling, West Virginia. A group of allied British forces and Indian troops held a siege of Fort Henry, Virginia. The approximately 200 attackers outnumbered defenders 10-to-1. But the nearly successful siege failed when a teenage girl rushed from the fort to a nearby cabin and back, carrying an apron full of gunpowder. It became known as the “Gunpowder Exploit.”

The formation of Fort Henry

Painting by J.A. Faris of the Siege of Fort Henry; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fort Henry in Virginia was an illegal settlement on Indian territory where representatives of the British had promised no settlers would move. But, of course, settlers in the 1700s and 1800s routinely violated agreements between their government and native tribes. The settlers of Fort Henry built a fort over 350 feet long and 150 feet wide. Almost the size of a football field, it boasted eight-foot walls, a platform all the way around for defenders to fire from and farms inside to provide food and shelter.

The settlers hunted, fished and farmed. But they knew they were in Native territory illegally. They prepared to defend their squatters’ village when they established it in 1769 and the fort in 1774. And so when the Revolutionary War broke out, they at least were not caught by surprise or flat-footed.

But most of the fighting took place well to the east. At least until George Washington, with great French assistance, led a force that ejected the bulk of the British at the Battle of Yorktown.

Then, British forces had to look for softer targets. And so some reached out to native allies and launched more campaigns west of the Appalachia mountains.

Siege of Fort Henry

And that’s exactly what happened to the settlers at Fort Henry in September 1782. British officers, American loyalists and a large number of Native troops managed to sneak all the way to the fort without triggering the attention of any outside American forces.

Settlers noticed the incoming column and many made it into the fort. But that still left the fort with 20 armed defenders and 27 civilians seeking to hold off over 200 people. As mentioned, the fort had farms and buildings inside the walls, so food was not an immediate problem. But they had insufficient ammo and powder.

So, the attackers and defenders settled into their roles on the siege. The women of the fort quickly got busy melting lead and forming new balls for the defenders. For the first 40 hours, that worked, but not great. The exhausted civilians were keeping up with the ammo, for then, but the rapidly depleting powder was quickly becoming a problem.

The “Gunpowder Exploit”

And so, a teenage girl stepped forward.

Historians have some questions, caused by the late-in-life-testimony of Lydia Boggs Shepherd Cruger, about exactly which teenage girl ran from where to where. But we’re going to use the more generally accepted version: Elizabeth “Betty” Zane, a sister of the fort’s founders, volunteered to run to her father’s cabin and retrieve gunpowder.

Her father’s cabin was approximately 60 yards from the gates of the fort. The defenders, led by Betty’s brother, balked at the idea of sending a woman to grab powder. But she pointed out that they couldn’t spare a man or an ounce of powder.

“You have not one man to spare; a woman will not be missed in the defense of the fort,” she reportedly said.

And she launched what is now known as the “Gunpowder Exploit.” She simply ran out of the front gate and dashed to the cabin.

Spare a thought for the attacking troops who saw a slip of a girl suddenly sprint out of the fort they were attacking and run to the nearby cabin. They reportedly stayed their fire, to their credit, but then regretted it. When Betty sprinted from the cabin a few minutes later, her apron was filled with pounds of powder.

The attackers realized the threat and began firing, but none of their rounds found the girl as she ran.

And so the attackers stayed for a few more hours but soon left. Fort Henry survived the siege. The short siege was one of the last fights in North America in the American Revolution, though France and Spain fought against Britain for a while longer.

Logan was an Army journalist and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. Now, he’s a freelance writer and live-streamer. In addition to covering military and conflict news at WeAreTheMighty, he has an upcoming military literacy channel on