In 1791 the Commonwealth of Virginia chartered a new town in Berkeley County and named it after former 8th Virginia Captain William Darke. He deserved it, but the honor was born of deep personal tragedy. The 55 year-old veteran of three wars would absolutely have forgone the distinction if he could have turned back the clock.
Darke fought in the French & Indian War as a young man and may have been at Braddock’s defeat in 1755. He raised one of the first companies for the 8th Virginia in 1776 and was promoted from captain to major in 1777 shortly before his capture at Germantown. That was followed by three years in British captivity. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel while in enemy hands. He was exchanged late in 1780 and returned home just before Lord Cornwallis invaded Virginia. Darke helped General Daniel Morgan recruit a militia army in the lower Shenandoah Valley and was present for the victory at Yorktown.
A decade later, in 1791, he was appointed by President Washington to lead a regiment of federal troops on short enlistments in an expedition to defeat the Indians in northeast Ohio. The expedition, under the command of General Arthur St. Clair, was a complete disaster. American soldiers ran for their lives as Indians butchered their comrades to pieces in the forest. Hundreds of bodies were left behind, mutilated and frozen, through the winter. It was the greatest victory for an Indian army ever and a major setback for the Washington Administration.
Those who survived, however, made it out alive because Lt. Colonel Darke led one last desperate charge through the Indian line, opening a hole through which the panicking soldiers could flee. Darke himself was wounded in the leg. His son, Captain Joseph Darke, was shot in the head and would die after a month of “unparalleled suffering.” Colonel Darke returned home just in time to witness the death of another of his three sons. (Darke’s last surviving son died five years later, leaving the hero with no one to carry on his name—something that bothered him greatly.)
Many lives were lost at St. Clair’s Defeat. Reputations were ruined as well. Darke, however, survived with his reputation improved. A month after the battle, Virginia created Darkesville to honor him. Two years later, after Virginia reorganized its militia system, Darke was made a general in command of a regional brigade. According to tradition he kept his headquarters in Darkesville, which was 13 miles west of his home south of Shepherdstown. He remained a militia general until his death in 1801.
Darkesville grew into a respectable town, but never prospered to an extent that would have required the destruction of old houses to make room for larger and taller ones. In 1980, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places on the basis of its “45 historical or architecturally important buildings or sites.” As of that date, there were 25 log houses dating from between 1790 and 1810 and another five stone ones built before 1830. Among them was the house believed to be Darke’s headquarters, though it was moved and altered in the 20th century. Near it is another log building known as “the barracks.” Most of these log houses are covered with siding, as they likely were soon after their construction. Still, the logs are visible on houses that have had their siding removed or where it has deteriorated.
I recently stopped in Darkesville (now in West Virginia) to look around. For the casual observer, there is little to distinguish the village from more modern development along the road (Route 11). Even the state historic marker appears to be missing. I wasn’t able to find General Darke’s Headquarters, though I was later able to find its apparent location on a map.
Here at Darkesville, mostly concealed under clapboard or off the main road, is an early American frontier town, complete with log houses and stone fences. It is hiding there barely noticed by the drivers of the cars that whiz by going fifty miles an hour. Many of the houses date to a time when George Washington was in his first term as president and Americans were still fighting with the Shawnee for control of Ohio. Though they have survived for more than two centuries, these structures won’t survive forever. Already, a few appear to have been left to deteriorate. The name of Darkesville was born of tragedy. It would be another tragedy if this unique and special place were to be lost to development or to neglect.
In 1855 an elderly widow named Jane Roberts applied for bounty land for her husband’s service “in the war with the Cherokees & British in the year 1776.” We don’t often think of the Revolution as a two-front war, but it was. Americans fought an Anglo-German army in the east and an Anglo-Indian opponent in the west. Most of the western fighting was against Indians who were fighting as proxies of the Crown. In Virginia’s northwest territory along the Ohio River and beyond, the Shawnee were the most fearsome.
An 8th Virginia soldier like Captain George Slaughter might have seen the Revolution as just one chapter in a six-decade fight with the Indians for control of Kentucky and Ohio. The territories were the scenes of nearly constant bloodshed from the defeat of General Edward Braddock in 1755 to the defeat of Shawnee chief Tecumseh in 1813. After more than two decades of intermittent barbarity, Slaughter and his comrades suffered from no moral anguish when it came to killing Indians. In 1781 he wrote Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson from Kentucky, “The Savages have been very troublesome this Spring; almost every other day we have accounts of some one being either kill’d or Captured; upwards of 40 Men, Women and Children have fallen a prey to them within the County of Jefferson in the course of 2 Months past and we have not had the satisfaction of getting but one of there Scalps.”
George Slaughter was born in Culpeper County, Virginia in 1739. He was a sixth-generation Virginian, descending from John Slaughter who is believed by genealogists to have arrived at Jamestown before 1620. When he was twenty-five years old, George volunteered to help put down a major Indian uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion—which was a sort of postlude to the French and Indian War. Colonel Henry Bouquet led nearly 1500 militiamen out of Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) in 1764 and subdued the Indians in Ohio. Bouquet required the Indians to return 200 white people who had been kidnapped over the years. This liberation combined joy with sorrow: most of the captives had been taken as small children and were fully assimilated into the tribes.
A decade later, Slaughter participated in Dunmore’s War. This was another campaign, led by the royal governor of Virginia, to “pacify” the Indians. After a lengthy and bloody battle at Point Pleasant on the Ohio River, the Virginians were victorious. Slaughter’s unit, however, reportedly arrived too late to participate in the fighting. After the campaign ended, Slaughter explored Kentucky for a while and planted corn—perhaps to lay claim to some land.
A year later, in 1775, he recruited one of the first companies for the famous Culpeper Minutemen, which probably means he participated in the Battle of Great Bridge—an early patriot victory in Virginia. The minute battalions were replaced in 1776 by additional full-time regular regiments, including the 8th Virginia. Slaughter recruited a company in Culpeper County, including an unknown number of former minutemen. Slaughter remained with the regiment through Charleston and Brandywine and was then promoted to major of the 12th Virginia just before the Battle of Germantown.
At Valley Forge, in December of 1777, he learned that his family in Culpeper had lost their house in a fire. That, and a smallpox epidemic (against which he, but not his family, had been inoculated), prompted him to request a furlough from General Washington. When the furlough was turned down, he resigned his commission on December 23 and headed home. On February 1, he contritely wrote to Washington begging to be reinstated. “If my reenstation can take place with propriety,” he wrote, “it will afford me great satisfaction; if not, I hope I can Acquiesce without murmuring.” The request was denied.
The next few months of his life are not well documented. Navigating some apparent contradictions among sources suggests that he was a “colonel of volunteers” for a time in 1778 before joining the Illinois Regiment commanded by Col. George Rogers Clark at the rank of major. This was a state regiment (neither Continental nor militia) authorized in January 1778 for the defense of the western frontier. Precisely when he joined is not clear. There is no evidence that he was at Clark’s first victories at Kaskaskia and Vincennes in July. However, an 1897 history by William Hayden English includes a vague and unsourced report that Slaughter was “a colonel of volunteers in 1778.” What this means and where Slaughter was during this time hasn’t been determined.
After Clark’s victories, Maj. John Montgomery returned to Virginia with dispatches. While there, Montgomery was promoted to lieutenant colonel and ordered to recruit additional forces to reinforce Clark. On January 1, 1779, Gov. Patrick Henry drafted orders for Clark based on decisions of the state legislature. “They have directed your battalion to be completed, 100 men to be stationed at the falls of the Ohio under Major Slaughter, and one only of the additional battalions to be completed. Major Slaughter’s men are raised, and will march in a few days, this letter being to go by him. The returns which have been made to me do not enable me to say whether men enough are raised to make up the additional battalion, but I suppose there must be nearly enough. This battalion will march as early in the spring as the weather will admit.”
Montgomery was redirected to help suppress an Indian uprising among the Cherokee in April of 1779, an operation known as Evan Shelby’s Chickamauga Campaign. William Hayden English wrote that Slaughter was along for this campaign, though documents to support this have not been found.
Slaughter’s participation in Shelby’s campaign is circumstantially supported by the fact that he was once again recruiting in Virginia in the fall of 1779. Slaughter recruited 150 men who were sworn into the service in mid-December when they headed west. They made it as far as Redstone Fort in Pennsylvania before getting bogged down by snow. In the spring, they made it to Fort Pitt and boated downstream to the falls of the Ohio River. This site is now Louisville, Kentucky, a city of which Slaughter is considered a founder.
Slaughter joined Clark on a 1780 campaign against the Shawnee in Ohio known as the Battle of Peckuwe (or “Piqua”).
Clark then left for Virginia and left Slaughter in command. Slaughter oversaw the construction of Fort Nelson at Louisville. It was from there that he reported to Jefferson on the dangerous situation with the Indians. Safety was not his only problem. He also reported, “We are here without money, Clothing, or any thing else scarsely to subsist on. By the fault of the Commissaries, Hunters or I cannot tell who upwards of One hundred and Thirty Th[ousan]d weight of meat was intirely spoiled and lost.”
Things improved for Slaughter and his neighbors from there. This can be seen in a letter his old 8th Virginia commander Colonel Abraham Bowman (who moved to Kentucky in 1779) sent home on October 10, 1784. Bowman wrote to a brother that "General Clark has laid off a town on the other side of the Ohio, opposite the falls, at the mouth of Silver creek, and is building a saw and grist mill there." This was Clarksville, in Clark County, Indiana. The same year, Slaughter was elected to the Virginia legislature. In 1792 Kentucky became its own state.
Slaughter eventually followed Clark and moved across the river. This was land that had been set aside for Virginia soldiers who had participated in “the reduction of the British in the Illinois.” Slaughter does not seem to have been one of them. Nevertheless, he moved to Charleston, then the seat of Clark County, in his last years and died there in 1818. No grave marker survives, but (according to a genealogy website) he may be in the Shelby Family Cemetery, better known as the Halcyon Hill Cemetery.
Like many 8th Virginia veterans who were prominent and important in their day, Slaughter has been largely forgotten. It is never too late for Louisville (or Culpeper, or Charleston) to memorialize him.
(Revised and updated, December 22, 2019)
is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
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