Betsy Doyle: Myth or Matross?

                Early American history offers a range of heroines from spies to secret soldiers, yet many of their stories are poorly documented or richly embellished.  Historians still debate the existence of Monmouth Courthouse’s Molly Pitcher and the motives of Manhattan’s Mrs. Murray.  Until recently, another heroine, New York State’s own Betsy Doyle, remained an elusive figure from the War of 1812.

                According to 19th century popular historians, Betsy or “Fanny” Doyle bravely served a cannon on the roof of Fort Niagara’s French Castle during a violent and prolonged artillery duel with British-held Fort George.  Betsy reportedly carried red-hot cannonballs to a gun on the Castle’s roof, where they were immediately dispatched  toward the wooden (and combustible) British stronghold.

                Over the years, Betsy’s legend grew, based upon an isolated account by Fort Niagara’s Colonel George McFeely that compared her actions to those of Joan of Arc.  When Fort Niagara was restored between 1929 and 1934, the Daughters of 1812 placed a commemorative plaque near the site of Betsy’s heroic actions identifying her as “Fanny” Doyle.

                Recent research reveals that Betsy Doyle was not only a real person, but lived a harsh existence in the years following her famous November 1812 escapade.  When Fort Niagara fell to British attackers in December 1813, Betsy narrowly escaped capture. With her children in tow, she fled 310 miles through a New York State winter to the United States Army’s East Greenbush Cantonment, where she fell ill with a fever.  Here she remained until her premature death in 1819, brought on perhaps by a lack of pay for her services as a hospital matron.

In honor or Women's History Month, Old Fort Niagara will introduce you to Betsy and three other women of distinction on Saturday, March 21, at 2:00 p.m. at the Fort Niagara Officers Club. More details are available here-

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