Betty Zane for the 10: Wheeling heroine makes sense for the money

By Lee Chottiner

Elizabeth “Betty” Zane never led an army to war.

She didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

And she never held an elected office, let alone President of the United States.

Betty Zane delivering gunpowder to the settlers inside Fort Henry (Library of Congress)

Betty Zane delivering gunpowder to the settlers inside Fort Henry (Library of Congress)

She was just an ordinary teenage girl who, on Sept. 11, 1782, did something very extraordinary. For that, her picture ought to be printed on our currency.

Last week, the Treasury Department announced that a woman would grace the face of the $10 bill when it is redesigned for 2020—the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Alexander Hamilton, a founding father and first secretary of the treasury, won’t be entirely displaced, though his image will be less prominently featured.

The question is, who will the woman be?

Already, the Internet is alive with candidates—Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt to name just a few. And that’s just what the current treasury secretary, Jacob Lew, wants.

You see, Lew, who will decide by the end of the year which woman gets the honor, wants Americans to weigh in with their own ideas and suggestions for the new design. The Treasury Department has even set up a hashtag #thenew10, and a webpage, thenew10.treasury.gov, to spread the word, and Lew will hold a series of town halls and public forums to solicit opinions.

Well, as long as he’s asking, I nominate Zane.

Some of you must be astonished my chutzpah. Where do I get the nerve to suggest that a 17-year-old girl should be pictured on one of the most widely circulated U.S. currency bills, beating out the women I mentioned above and many others who are just as deserving?

Well, before I go any further, let’s recall why Zane is remembered at all:

On Sept. 11, 1782, in what many historians consider the final battle of the American Revolution, British soldiers and their Indian allies surrounded Fort Henry on the site of present-day Wheeling. For the heavily outnumbered settlers inside, the situation was bleak. The gunpowder was almost gone and it wasn’t clear how much longer they could hold on.

There was one thin ray of hope: A stash of gunpowder had been left at a cabin some 60 yards from the fort. To retrieve it though, someone had to dash from the gate, brave enemy gunfire to reach the cabin, then run the same gauntlet on the way back, weighed down by the powder.

It seemed like a suicide mission, but Zane volunteered. According to legend, she said, “I am of no use here in the fort. I cannot fight, but I can bring the powder.”

So the men let her go, perhaps gambling that the British and Indians wouldn’t shoot at a girl. And indeed, they did not.

On her return run, though, the powder wrapped in her apron, the British and Indians realized what she was up to and did fire. A musket ball reportedly tore her dress, yet she reached the fort safely and the settlers held out, winning the final battle of the Revolution. 

Did it really happen that way? Frankly, we’ll never know for sure. There are variations to the story, and some facts remain in dispute, as is the case with many historical moments.

So is there cause enough for Zane to be pictured on the $10 bill? Damn straight! And here’s why:

First, where would Wheeling be had Zane not made her run? Playing the what-if game with history is always uncertain, but what if she hadn’t made it? Would the fort have fallen? Would Wheeling have become the important settlement it became, growing into a great American city? There’s no telling how her dash changed history.

But there’s an even more important reason: Zane was an average American who showed remarkable courage at a critical hour. For that reason, her picture on the 10 could represent thousands of Americans just like her: ordinary privates and seaman who stepped up in the heat of battle when a dose of courage was needed.

But I’m not just talking about time of war. What about police battling crime waves, doctors and nurses battling epidemics, work crews battling mountains, plains and rivers to build the tunnels, railroads and bridges that tie the country together? 

We’ll never know their names, but their contributions, taken together, are why this country is the envy of the free world.        

Zane’s image on the 10 would symbolize all those people, not just herself. That would be something new for our money—maybe for any country’s money.

Finally, there’s one more reason to promote Zane for the 10: A campaign for her is a campaign for Wheeling. This city has gone through rough times over the past 50 years, but a new energy is coursing through the old neighborhoods as young people (and some not so young) return home, or come for the first time, to build and rebuild. Good things are happening here, and we want the rest of the country to know about it.

To that end, Zane can make one more run for Wheeling, this time as a symbol of renewal, a reason to watch our “smoke.” She is a source of our city’s pride. Her story would draw attention to us at a time when we need it most, even if she doesn’t make the final cut for the money.

So I nominate Betty Zane for the 10. Will you?    

Alexander Hamilton will still be pictured on the redesigned $10 bill, though less prominently. 

Alexander Hamilton will still be pictured on the redesigned $10 bill, though less prominently.