The Trailblazer

Week 31:#52 Ancestors – Large

By Eilene Lyon

The person in my tree who looms largest in American history is my cousin, Col. Ebenezer Zane. He could be, and has been, called many things: Frontiersman, Pathfinder, Indian-hunter. Zane was quite literally a trailblazer, helping to open the Midwest to settlement before and after the Revolution.

It’s difficult in this day for us to visualize the violence and brutality of the clashing cultures, white and native, both laying claim to lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. Bloodshed occurred with disturbing regularity and with savage force. Women and children were not spared from butchery, nor did they hesitate to defend themselves. Boldness equated with survival.

home of the pioneer
“Home of the Pioneer” from “Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia” p. 89. (Public domain)
Childhood Family

Ebenezer Zane’s father, William Andrew Zane, started out in the Quaker family bosom in Philadelphia. “Having rendered himself obnoxious to the Society of Friends…by marrying without the pale of that society, he moved to Virginia…”1 He and his wife, Nancy Ann Nolan, known as Ann, relocated to what is now Moorefield, West Virginia, in the 1740s. Here they reared their family of five sons and one daughter, Betty. They saw to it their children were educated.

When Ebenezer was about 15 years old, Indians kidnapped two of his younger brothers, Jonathan and Isaac. The boys were taken to Buffalo, then Detroit. Ann Zane never saw them again, passing away while they were in captivity. After two years, the Wyandots released Jonathan upon receiving a ransom payment.

Chief Tarhe would not release Isaac, however, as he had no male heir and wanted Isaac to be his son. Isaac remained with them until adulthood and later married Tarhe’s half-French daughter, Myeera, with whom he had eight children.

Adopting the culture of his captors, Isaac nevertheless retained a connection with his family and the white world. He is credited with passing intelligence to whites that likely save many lives. For such service, he received a large tract of land in Logan County, Ohio, from the government after the Revolution. This became the site of Zanesfield.2

Moving West

Ebenezer Zane probably had no love for Indians and he killed many of them during his lifetime, but he did not believe in provoking or hunting them like some of his contemporaries. He preferred a peaceful coexistence. That did not keep him from pushing his way westward, however. The Iroquois Nation had ceded land south of the Ohio River, though it was not officially open for settling. Other tribes were not in agreement about this cession.

Allured by tales of lands to the west, Zane, already married with two daughters at 22, set out to find a new home for his family. The scene, as fictionalized and romanticized by his great-grandson, Zane Grey3:

“One bright morning in June, 1769, the figure of a stalwart, broad shouldered man could have been seen standing on the wild and rugged promontory which rears its rocky bluff high above the Ohio river, at a point near the mouth of Wheeling Creek. He was alone save for the companionship of a deerhound that crouched at his feet. As he leaned on a long rifle, contemplating the glorious scene that stretched before him, a smile flashed across his bronzed cheek, and his heart bounded as he forecast the future of that spot. In the river below him lay an island so round and green that it resembled a huge lily pad floating placidly on the water. The fresh green foliage of the trees sparkled with glittering dewdrops. Back of him rose the high ridges, and, in front, as far as eye could reach, extended an unbroken forest…This solitary hunter was Colonel Ebenezer Zane.”

There he claimed his “tomahawk rights” by girdling a ring of trees around a spring and carving his initials into several trunks. Pioneers honored these typically thousand-acre claims, legal or not. A year later, he returned to the site with his family and three brothers, Jonathan, Andrew and Silas.

Last Trail p6
From Zane Grey’s “The Last Trail” (Public Domain)

Ebenezer’s wife, Elizabeth “Bessie” McCulloch, had every bit as much a pioneer spirit and useful frontier skills as her husband. As a community grew up around them, which would eventually become Wheeling, West Virginia, she performed services as a medic, even surgically removing bullets and arrows when necessary. In addition to all the domestic duties required of a frontier wife, she also bore thirteen children, nine of whom survived childhood.

War

Though the 1760s and early 1770s had been an era of relative calm between whites and natives, tensions were heightening. Indians picked off isolated settlers when the opportunity arose. In April 1774, Capt. Michael Cresap and companions set out to murder some Indians. Ebenezer tried to discourage them:

“On our arrival at Wheeling, being informed that there were two Indians with some traders near and above Wheeling, a proposition was made by the then Capt Michael Cresap to waylay and kill the Indians upon the River. This measure I opposed with much violence, alleging that the killing of those Indians might involve the country in a war.”4 He was proven correct.

LOC image of Zane letter p3 - 8-7-20
“I am with much esteem  Yours  Ebenezer Zane”  Closing of Ebenezer Zane’s letter to Senator John Brown in 1800, in which he describes the events leading to Dunmore’s War. (Library of Congress – see note 4)

Known as Dunmore’s War, after the colonial governor of Virginia, the conflict led to the construction of a fort near Ebenezer Zane’s home. Originally called Fort Fincastle for Lord Dunmore’s other title, Viscount Fincastle, Zane renamed it for Patrick Henry two years later after the Declaration of Independence had been signed.

Though Fort Henry belonged to the government, the new governor sent no troops there, so Zane commanded the cadre of local volunteers. He had served as a disbursing agent in Dunmore’s War and he continued his military service on the side of the revolutionaries through the war of independence, repelling several attacks by British and Indians at the fort. For this, he received three bounty-land warrants, each for 640 acres (one square mile).

lossy-page1-631px-Patrick_Henry_speaking_before_the_Virginia_Assembly.tiff
Patrick Henry delivering his famous speech in the Virginia Assembly in 1775. Ebenezer Zane served in the Assembly in the 1780s. (Wikimedia Commons)
Developing The West

After the war, Col. Zane served on the Virginia committee for ratification of the Constitution, having earlier served as a delegate to the Virginia Assembly for several terms (including one with James Madison). By that time, the lands west and north of the Ohio had been ceded by France and then England. Slowly, under pressure, various tribal entities ceded their rights as well.

Col. Zane set his sights on land development, surveying and selling the first lots in Wheeling in 1793. Then he began surveying a path across southern Ohio (then part of the Northwest Territory). What became Zane’s Trace followed various Indian footpaths to connect Wheeling with Limestone (now Maysville), Kentucky, the jumping off point to access the Natchez Trace and New Orleans. This route was the first one built in the new territory.

Zane's_Trace
Route of Zane’s Trace across southern Ohio. (Wikimedia Commons). Portions of the eastern end of the trace were incorporated into the National Road.

The Colonel petitioned the government for rights to build the trace (usable by riders on horseback, but not wagons) in 1796, after he’d begun the work. He also requested that his warrants be redeemed for land at the locations of the ferry crossings for the three major waterways his trail would have to cross: the Muskingum, Hockhocking, and Scioto Rivers.

At the Muskingum, he chose land that included a waterfall, useful for mill power. This land he gave to his brother Jonathan and son-in-law John McIntire in payment for their labor in blazing the route, aided by an Indian guide, Tomepomehala. They created the town of Zanesville, named in Ebenezer’s honor. Ebenezer developed the town of Lancaster on the Hockhocking property. The Scioto land lay on the opposite bank of already-established Chillicothe.

2020-08-07_165400
Ebenezer’s lands on the three river crossings. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Man Himself

One historian undertook to provide a physical description of Ebenezer Zane, though its veracity is doubtful: “dark complexion, piercing black eyes, huge brows, and prominent nose. Not very tall, but uncommonly active and athletic, he was a match for almost any man in the settlement…”5

He also waxed lyrical about the man’s personality: “He was as generous as brave ; strictly honorable to all men, and most jealous of his own rights. He possessed, in an eminent degree, the constituents of a true gentleman—the disposition to render unto all their due—the quick, delicate, accurate perception of others’ rights and others’ claims. His temperament was nervous-bilious—quick, impetuous, and hard to restrain when excited. He was, in short, a plain blunt man, rude of speech but true of heart, knowing nothing of formalities, and caring about little else than his family, his friends, and his country.”6

Clearly, though, despite his rough living style, Col. Zane did know more than a little about formalities as shown by his writings and dealings with the government.

Zane Log Cabin
Postcard published by CLM&TEAD[?] Bros. Co., Wheeling, W. Va. From the Ohio County Public Library’s Archives and Special Collections Wagener Colbert Collection. Provided to Ancestry.com by Christine McDermott

The exploits of Col. Zane, his family and friends, were immortalized in Zane Grey’s first three historical novels – Betty Zane, The Spirit of the Border, and The Last Trail. (Grey claimed to have possession of “the long lost journal of Colonel Ebenezer Zane,” though I have doubts about its existence.)

One of Col. Zane’s uncles initiated the abolition movement in Philadelphia, but the Virginia branch of the family held people in bondage. In the 1810 census, Ebenezer Zane’s household included 10 enslaved persons.7 In her will, Bessie did emancipate some of them, in a fashion…

“1st  I direct that my negro woman slave named Priscilla shall be emancipated and set free immediately after my decease,

2nd  I give and devise to my son Daniel my mulatto boy slave named George for and during the term of seven years after my decease, and I direct that at the expiration of the said seven years the said slave George shall be emancipated and set free,

3d  I give and bequeath to my daughter Hester Woods the female child slave named Hannah to be delivered to my said daughter as soon as she is one year old and in the mean time to remain with her mother Priscilla, but it is to be understood that the said child Hannah is to be taken to the State of Ohio, and is not to be sold or held as a slave.”8

Ebenezer Zane died in Wheeling, (West) Virginia, of jaundice on November 19, 1811 at age 64.9 Bessie followed him to the grave in January 1814. They are buried in Martins Ferry, Ohio, across the river from Wheeling, in a cemetery established by Absalom Martin, one of the very first legal settlers in the region. Many other Zanes and Martins lie with them there.

Feature image: The Fort Henry Bridge in Wheeling, connecting to the “lily pad” island. (E. Lyon 2017)

Ebenezer Zane on Ancestry.com


  1. Withers, Alexander Scott. 1912. Chronicles of Border Warfare, edited and annotated by Reuben Gold Thwaites. Stewart and Kidd Co., Cincinnati, note 1, p. 124. 
  2. Many versions of the kidnapping of the Zane children (sometimes including the father) have been published over the past two centuries, much of it clearly fanciful and romanticized. I’ve selected the most likely “facts” here. Isaac Zane, as an adult, did spend some time with his wife and children in Virginia in 1788 as established by a notation in a census-related record. “Yesterday a White man of the name of Zane [Isaac] who was taken prisoner when young, and has lived with the Wyandots for many years came here with his whole family–He intends to quit, I believe the savage life and returning to his friends in Virginia who are respectable–One of his brothers [Ebenezer] lives upon the Ohio at Wheeling, and was a member of the late Convention of that State.” Mentioned in letter, 17 Aug 1788, from Governor St. Clair to the Secretary at War [pages 140-143]. Document: Territorial Papers of the US; Volume Number: Vol 2; Page Number: 142; Family Number: 2 – via Ancestry.com. 
  3. Grey, Zane. 1903. Betty Zane. Prologue pp. ix-x. 
  4. Ebenezer Zane to John Brown, February 4. -02-04, 1800. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/mtjbib009286
  5. De Hass, Wills. 1851. History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia. H. Hoblitzell, Wheeling, and King & Baird, Philadelphia, p. 335. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Ebenezer Zane. Year: 1810; Census Place: Wheeling, Ohio, Virginia; Roll: 70; Page: 1033; Image: 00356; Family History Library Film: 0181430 – via Ancestry.com. 
  8. Elizabeth Zane. West Virginia, Wills and Probate Records, 1724-1985>Ohio>Settlements of Estates, 1806-1834>image 13. Ancestry.com. West Virginia, Wills and Probate Records, 1724-1985 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Transcribed by E. Lyon August 7, 2020. 
  9. See note 5, p. 336. Some sources indicate a death year of 1812. However, his will and codicil (dated in 1811) were entered into probate in early 1812. A burial record incorrectly gives the year as 1812, but the November 19th date is consistent with other sources. 

31 thoughts on “The Trailblazer

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  1. That’s quite an amazing life your ancestor lived. His life could be the basis of a great historical novel.

    What we did to the native American people is unforgivable. We pushed them off their land without compensation, oppressed them and denied them basic human rights, deprived them of their livelihoods and treated them like savages when in fact their culture was in many ways more civilized than ours. Even today they live as second class citizens in the US.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. What I find most confounding is the thought of what our country would have done if we had been invaded by a steady stream of armed men hellbent on taking our land away from us and displacing us to wherever to fend for ourselves.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Zane Grey beat me to the novels.😁 Not that I have much talent for fiction. I agree that European settlers treated Native Americans very badly, for the most part. Some Quakers were much better, but certainly that wasn’t universal. But we can’t change the past – ugly stuff happened and continues to happen. Sigh. Will we ever learn?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! Have you ever browsed through the “Friends Intelligencer”? Its free on google books, but daunting to find what you want. The interactions with the natives really piques my interest, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a fascinating piece of your family history! I suppose it is the romanticizing that does sell a greater number of books! We used to get a fare number of Zane Grey books into our used book store, popular author. I’ve never read any. Is there a connection between him and your ancestors?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only read one of his books, Betty Zane. I’ve downloaded the other two and will eventually get to them. I think he is my 4th cousin, 4 times removed. I believe all the Zane’s in the U. S. are related to one another. There’s rumors of Danish origins, but I’ve only gotten back to Devin, England. The immigrant ancestors, Robert Zane and his son, Nathaniel, came from Dublin, but were English.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. There are some rather romantic versions of Isaac’s story out there. He was not unique in being kidnapped and adopted into a tribe, but the fact that he did reconnect with his family and dealt with the white community as he did was unusual.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember Zane’s Trace because as a child my parents decided we’d drive through that part of the state to see it. Most Boring Childhood Vacation Ever. As an adult however, it’s amazing what this man accomplished in his lifetime. I wonder if the weaselly-worded emancipation details were a way to do your moral duty before God, while not irritating their neighbors in the process?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL. Funny what we can’t appreciate as a child we do (sometimes) as an adult. I think they really sort of wanted to hold on to the slaves, at least Bessie sure did – why not just emancipate them while she was still living?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve always thought the accounts of white settlers who were captured and taken in by Native Americans were fascinating, and the story of Isaac is no exception! I don’t blame him for staying – I would have done the same, especially as a woman. There seems to have been much more freedom for women in many indigenous cultures than there was in Western society at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I’ve certainly heard of cases where captives were tortured or treated as slaves, but in a scenario like Isaac’s, where you would have been adopted and treated as a member of the family, I could definitely see how it could have been more appealing than returning to your own family!

        Liked by 1 person

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