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.
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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