“By no means comparable with the feats of a similar character” and “performed an act of daring” and “nay, desperate horsemanship” and “seldom been equaled by man or beast.” All these describe the amazing escape of Major Samuel McColloch in September 1777 during the attack on Fort Henry around where present-day Wheeling, West Virginia.
I first encountered this amazing, daring, and crazy eluding of capture when I took my own, well not as risky, but still a leap, moving to Wheeling to attend university there. Parents were 3,000 miles away in England and I was attempting to juggle basketball, studies, getting re-acclimated to life in the United States, and unknowingly, a left knee that was about to explode. Being a history major, this was one of the first accounts learned in a freshman year seminar class about local history to inspire the incoming students to explore the area outside of campus.
Fort Henry, built in 1774, was originally named Fort Fincastle, one of the titles of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia. When the colonies revolted, the fortification was renamed in honor of Patrick Henry.
In the late summer and early autumn of 1777, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Mingo Native Americans unleashed attacks on American settlers throughout the Ohio Valley. Militia from scattered posts congregated in Fort Henry and vowed to withstand the Native American onslaught. One of the last reinforcing troops was a 40-man contingent under the command of Major Samuel McColloch.
As the gates opened to welcome the reinforcements, McColloch circled to the back of the cavalcade, making sure all his men would be accounted for and taking the post of most danger. With the Native Americans approaching rapidly, McColloch was unable to follow his troops into Fort Henry and the gates closed with him between the walls and the enemy.
Knowing that capture meant certain torture, especially with being well-known as a vigilant and deadly enemy of the Native Americans, McColloch used his expert horsemanship on a dash up a bordering hillside, known as Wheeling Hill. Instead of eluding his pursuers he unexpectedly encountered another band of Native Americans which had effectively hemmed him in.
With the enemy on three sides and a sharp precipice on the fourth, McColloch seemed out of options. Not wanting to face the wrath of being taken prisoner, he took a leap of faith. Grasping the bridle in his left and holding a death-grip on is rifle with the other, he urged the mount toward the edge. He careened off the edge, approximately 300 feet high. Enemy warriors rushed to the edge, believing that they would see a dead McColloch at the base of the hill.
Instead, they saw a mounted McColloch dashing off into the distance. Riding into history and local legendary status.
Now that you know about the famous leap, next time traveling through the northern panhandle of West Virginia, take a small detour and ride past the marker and take a moment to admire this “act of daring” on the western frontier of the American Revolution.