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In 1769, Ebenezer Zane scouted land along the Ohio River near present-day Wheeling for the purpose of settlement. The following year, Zane led a party of settlers into the region, including Dutch immigrant John Wetzel and his family. Wetzel built a small, stockaded home twelve miles south of Wheeling in present-day Marshall County. Encroaching on Native land, Wetzel's family was subject to multiple Indian attacks. In 1786, John Wetzel was killed in such an attack, sparking a hateful vengeance against Native Americans among his sons, most notably Lewis Wetzel who became a notorious Indian fighter and killer.

Fort Wetzel Historical Marker

Fort Wetzel Historical Marker

In 1769, Ebenezer Zane ventured west in search of a possible new homestead in the fertile Ohio Valley region. Deciding to settle in the area, Zane returned to his home on the Potomac River and gathered a group of like-minded settlers to accompany him westward permanently. In 1770, Zane and a party of colonials returned to the Ohio Valley and made their way along Wheeling Creek towards the Ohio River.

Among the settlers accompanying Zane was John Wetzel. Born in 1733 in Holland, the Wetzels emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1747. John Wetzel lived both in Pennsylvania and Virginia and married Mary Bonnett in 1756. John and Mary had seven children, including sons Marin, George, Lewis, Jacob, and John, Jr. Wetzel hoped to find a new home for his burgeoning family west of the Allegheny Mountains.

During the journey, John Wetzel's saddle broke. While he repaired the saddle, the rest of the party continued onward along Wheeling Creek towards the Ohio. Zane and the other settlers staked out claims along the creek and the river. Wetzel, hoping to catch up with his party, accidentally took off in the wrong direction, moving up the creek rather than down it. The mishap proved a fortunate one, however, as Wetzel discovered "some fine bottom land above the forks of the creek and took up and improved a claim."[1] Their new home was roughly twelve miles south of modern day Wheeling in the northern section of present-day Marshall County.

The Wetzels built a small stockade fort, indicative of the threat poised by various Native American groups who increasingly viewed the arrival of white settlers into the Ohio Country as a threat to their lands, livelihoods, and sovereignty. Relatively little is known about the fort itself, but it probably consisted of a wooden, blockhouse with a small stockade around it.

In 1778, Lewis and Jacob Wetzel (sons of John) were tending to corn around their home when Wyandot Indians struck. Lewis was grazed by musket shot, and the two boys were quickly captured and carried westward across the Ohio River. On their second night of captivity, Lewis and Jacob managed to escape and fled to back to the banks of the Ohio. Crafting a simple raft, they floated across to Fort Henry (now Wheeling) and successfully made their way home. John Wetzel and his sons clashed again with Indians in September 1782 when they defended Fort Henry from a joint British and Indian incursion during the American Revolution.

On June 19, 1786, John Wetzel took his sons on a hunting trip. While in a canoe, the Wetzel men were ambushed by Indians. Refusing to surrender, Lewis Wetzel steered the canoe away from the attackers, but his father John and brother George were mortally wounded. It's not clear when use of the Wetzel's fortified home in Marshall County ceased, but it may have been after John Wetzel's death.

John Wetzel's sons, particularly Lewis Wetzel, harbored deep anger over their father's death, and as biographer Clarence Allman claimed, from that moment on, "he [Lewis] and his brothers now hunted for sport and vengeance."[3] Lewis Wetzel gained notoriety as an Indian fighter and killer. Lewis Wetzel killed Native Americans indiscriminately, often provoking great anger among American officials. He claimed to have taken 27 scalps in his life, though the number of killings may have been higher. Lewis Wetzel eventually moved to Louisiana, was imprisoned for several years counterfeiting, and died in 1808. His body lies in Wheeling, and Wetzel County (established in 1847) is named for Lewis Wetzel, and his exploits were romaniticized in a number of 20th century Western novels.

1. Scott Powell. History of Marshall County from Forest to Field. Moundsville, WV: 1925. Digitized.

2. Philip Sturm. "Lewis Wetzel." December 9, 2015. e-WV: West Virginia Encyclopedia. Web. Accessed August 6, 2020.

3. George Carroll. "Lewis Wetzel: Warfare Tactics on the Frontier." West Virginia History. Vol. 50 (1991): 79-90. Digitized.

4. Roy Bird Cook. "Virginia Frontier Defenses, 1719-1795." West Virginia History. Vol. 1, No. 2 (January, 1940): 119-130. Digitized via West Virginia Archives and History.

5. C.B. Allman. The Life and Times of Lewis Wetzel. 2nd edition. Nappanee, IN: E.V. Publishing, 1939. Digitized.

6. Andrea Null. "Wetzel County." June 4, 2013. e-WV: West Virginia Encyclopedia. Web. Accessed August 12, 2020.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

J.J. Prats,