Five Legendary Americans You’ve Never Heard Of
Zane Grey was an author at the turn of the 20th century who wrote about the pioneering of our nation. While he wrote many fabulous tales of adventure, he wrote them about real people. Here are five of those people that lived and fought in the Ohio River Valley around the area of what is now Wheeling, West Virginia around the time of the Revolutionary War. Not all of them were good, especially by today’s standards, and some of them were downright scoundrels. However, they are the people that helped to forge the area of what is now Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Known as “King of the Keelboaters”, Mike Fink was a legendary brawler and boatman on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. While much of what is told about Big Mike Fink, he is known to have been an associate of Davy Crockett of Alamo fame who said that Fink “was half horse and half crocodile”. Fink was also known for his practical jokes and sharpshooting. He and his friends would often shoot mugs of beer from each others heads. His fame came from the many stories and legends written about him in the years following his death up until about the Civil War. He later gained more notoriety when Disney turned him into an antagonist of Davy Crockett’s in the movie, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Fink, in reality, was a bully and hard disciplinarian amongst his men. He is said to have been killed by the friend of an unfortunate who allowed him to shoot a mug of beer from his head while Fink was drunk. He missed…
Known as a renegade and a monster, Simon Girty was a white settler in the Wheeling area that was captured by Indians at an early age and lived with them throughout most of his life. Girty is generally known as a villain because of two reasons: he sided with the British during the American Revolution and he was present at the torture and murder of a Colonel William Crawford – an act that allowed two other white settlers to escape and retell the story. The reality of the story is that Girty was hired by the British during the war and was a Loyalist. He was also a white man who lived and understood the Indians and tried to help in the relations between the early American settlers and the native American tribes. His demonization is primarily through the literature in the day for those who were different than the ideal American.
Major Samuel McColloch is part of the founding families of Wheeling, WV. Although he only lived to the age of thirty, he is known for some amazing deeds. He was an Indian fighter and tracker along the Ohio River from a very young age, who was hated by the local Indians through raids and hunting exhibitions. While not as well known as our number five name, McColloch has gone down in history for one extremely daring act against the Indians in 1777. During the siege of Wheeling, McColloch and 40 of his soldiers tried to relieve the soldiers within Fort Henry from the Indians who were fighting against them. When the men of the Fort saw Major McColloch and his men, thry threw open the gates of the fort to let them in. At this time, the Indians made an assault to enter the fort. McColloch knew that they wanted his scalp, so he got his men into the fort and rode off in a separate direction to keep the Indians away from everyone else. As anticipated, they gave chase after their enemy who rode up Wheeling Hill. Here, he was met by another force of Indians and hopelessly cut off from safety. Rather than face torture and death, McColloch spurred his horse forward over the cliff and into the river below – some two hundred feet. Much to the surprise of the Indians, he survived the fall (although his horse did not) and lived to fight on.
Elizabeth “Betty” Zane
This amazing woman was the aunt of Zane Grey and the title character of one of his novels. She is also a real-life heroine. In 1782, Betty Zane and her family were trapped by British and Indian forces at Fort Henry. During the fight, her father was killed at her feet as she was reloading Kentucky rifles for him. The defenders of the fort began to run low on black gunpowder and Betty knew where her father had stored a supply of the needed materials. She fled the fort and made it back to her home, dumped the gunpowder and ammunition into a tablecloth and snuck back into the fort– being fired upon by the enemy. After the war, Betty Zane and her family settled in southern Ohio where she and her family played a role in making Ohio a state.
Of all of the legends of this time period, no one struck a more daring figure than Lewis Wetzel. When Lewis Wetzel was 13 years old, he and his younger brother Jakob were captured by Wyandot raiders. Lewis had been hit by a grazing shot that took off part of his sternum. Even though wounded, he marched away from his home for three days before escaping the Indians. Most people would have run, but Lewis snuck back into the camp – twice – to recover shoes and his father’s rifle before he and his brother took off for home. From this point on, Lewis Wetzel worked at becoming a forest warrior.
Lewis Wetzel was an amazing athlete. He was extremely fast in the forest, an excellent sharpshooter, a master of the knife and tomahawk, and a scourge to the Indians who often raided the area where he called home. He had the amazing ability to load and prime a rifle while at a full run which served him well on many of his daring escapes. James Fenimore Cooper would later fashion his Natty Bumppo (also known as Hawkeye and Long Rifle from the Last of the Mohicans) character after Wetzel. The Indians feared Wetzel, who they named “Deathwind”. He struck an imposing figure: over six feet tall with dark hair down past his knees, he would wear tassels through split earlobes and homespun woodsman’s clothing. He killed the native Americans with such ferocity that he was imprisoned by the newly formed U.S. military for murder. He escaped them, as well and rumor has it was requested by Lewis and Clark to travel with them on their journey. No one knows what happened to Lewis Wetzel, but it is thought he died in Mississippi around 1808 from Yellow Fever. While some may consider him a mass murderer to the Indian, he was considered a hero amongst the people who lived in the Wheeling area during his lifetime.