In a 2016 post, I asked, "How close was William Darke to George Washington?" That question was prompted in part by a sword Darke gave the general that is now in the collection of Morristown National Historic Park. Two years of additional research resulted in this essay, just published in the Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society (edited by Jim Glymph). Jefferson County, West Virginia--then part of Berkeley County, Virginia--was Darke's home throughout his adult life.
A Forty Year Bond
William Darke and George Washington
in Politics, Business and War
By Gabriel Neville
When George Washington arrived in Williamsburg in September, 1781 an old associate from Berkeley County approached him, causing a stir. Without being summoned, Lieutenant Colonel William Darke broke protocol by walking right up to the commander-in-chief to initiate a conversation. “I have never been able to account for such a motion,” wrote a junior officer who witnessed it. “I suppose it was the Colonel’s usual fire and rashness…. It was in my opinion an extraordinary and, I think unnecessary temerity.”
Darke lived near Duffields, which is now in Jefferson County. Initiating a conversation with the commander in chief was inappropriate then and would still be today. Darke, however, was no respecter of persons. Moreover, he and the general had known each other for twenty years and would remain connected for twenty more. In his own mind, he did not need anyone’s permission to talk to George Washington.
Darke and Washington had much in common. They both grew up in Virginia on the south bank of the Potomac River in Lord Fairfax’s vast proprietary lands. They were both physically large men and belonged to the same generation, born just four years apart. They were both veterans of the French and Indian War and they both committed themselves to the War for Independence in 1775.
There was much that separated them as well, including seventy-five miles of river between their homes. Wealth, education, social standing, and military rank all put the colonel below the future president. Their personalities were almost opposite—Darke had that “fire and rashness” while Washington was famously patient and reserved. Washington was refined, while Darke was described as having “unpolished manners.” Nevertheless, war, business, and politics bound them together off and on throughout their adult lives.
The French and Indian War
They first encountered each other during the French and Indian War. Washington established his military reputation in Major General Edward Braddock’s disastrous expedition to Fort Duquesne in 1755. Darke’s earliest biographer dedicated nearly a fifth of his 1835 essay to describing the expedition and its outcome, asserting that in “the nineteenth year of his age” Darke “united himself to the army under the ill-fated Braddock.” The biographer, who is identified only as “a Citizen of Frederick County, Maryland” may have known Darke. A Charlestown Free Press account cited in (and published sometime before) an 1858 Harpers New Monthly Magazine article asserted that Darke “was one of the Rangers of 1755 (then nineteen years old), serving under Washington, in Braddock’s ill-managed march toward Fort Duquesne.” The idea that Darke was with Washington under Braddock has been doubted by some, including Shepherdstown historian Danske Dandridge. She, in 1910, acknowledged the tradition but made a point of saying she had “seen no proof.” Supporting the tradition, however, is Darke’s own statement in a 1791 letter to President Washington that he had “bean in the Service of my Country in allmost all the wars Since the year 1755 in one Capassoty or other.”
After Braddocks’ defeat, the western frontier exploded in violence and Washington “retreated” to Winchester where he established Fort Loudoun as a base of operations. We have firmer documentation of Darke’s rank as a corporal in Captain Robert Rutherford’s Rangers in 1758 and 1759, still during the French and Indian War. Governor Robert Dinwiddie authorized Washington to form this unit to patrol the woods with the goal of encouraging settlers to remain on their homesteads. Rutherford thought highly of Darke, who was his neighbor. Three decades later, he wrote to President Washington recommending him for a high-level command.
How much Corporal Darke and Colonel Washington actually interacted with each other during this period of service is hard to say.It is safe to say that Darke was more aware of Washington than vice versa. Washington was in active command at Fort Loudoun until he left at the end of June, 1758 to join the successful Forbes Expedition against Fort Duquesne. His orders to Captain Rutherford as he left were to appoint his 20 “worst” rangers at the fort, while the rest were “to be employ'd in the Ranging Service as they now are, or otherwise, as shall be judg'd most conducive to the safety of the People.”
Darke’s French and Indian War service evidently concluded in 1759; Washington’s ended the year before. They had both gained valuable military experience. Still in their twenties, they now focused on their domestic lives. Washington married Martha, the widow of Daniel Parke Custis, in January of 1759 and spent the next fifteen years at Mount Vernon. Darke also married a widow, Sarah Deleyea, whose husband had been scalped and killed by Indians while sleeping under an elm tree. Darke and Washington both raised the sons of other men. Unlike the Washingtons, however, the Darkes also had four children of their own. Nothing else is known of Darke’s life in the 1760s other than an unsupported 1888 assertion that he “was engaged in defending the Virginia frontier against the incursions of the savages.”
The Upper Potomac region responded enthusiastically to the call for troops in 1775. Among the first units to be authorized by Congress was Hugh Stephenson’s company of riflemen from Berkeley County, which competed with Daniel Morgan’s Frederick County company in a race to Boston. Two more companies were raised across the river in Frederick County, Maryland. At the same time Virginia organized two regiments of provincial regulars, some independent companies for the defense of the frontier, and a network of minute battalions. When six more regiments were authorized by the Commonwealth in December, Darke was ready to go with a company of men. It became the first newly-created company of the 8thVirginia Regiment of provincial regulars and he was commissioned to be its captain.
The 8th Virginia was commanded by Colonel Peter Muhlenberg, the “fighting parson” who was at the time of his appointment the rector of Beckford Parish, the Anglican Church name for Dunmore County (now Shenandoah County). The regiment was conceived as a “German” one and was mostly recruited west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This region was ethnically, culturally, and religiously distinct from tidewater and piedmont Virginia. The regiment’s original field officers were German but the company officers and enlisted ranks included other ethnicities, notably many Scotch-Irish. The recruitment zone was huge, including all but one of the counties stretching from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh (which was claimed by Virginia). In time, the regiment was transferred into Continental service.
The regiment’s rendezvous point was Suffolk, a choke point in Virginia’s terrain between Williamsburg and Tory-dominated Norfolk. In the spring of 1776, they kept watch over Tories and stopped slaves from joining Governor Dunmore’s army of Loyalists. After the arrival of Major General Charles Lee, commander of the Southern Department, they marched south to protect Charleston, South Carolina. Darke’s men were present for (but probably not directly engaged in) the Battle of Sullivan’s Island on June 28. Other 8thVirginia men helped fend off an enemy landing on the north end of the island but they were not involved in the famous defense of Fort Moultrie at the island’s southern end.
After they fended off the British a greater danger appeared: malaria. Most of Muhlenberg’s men had no resistance to it. As he headed farther south to attack Florida, Lee left a large group of sick men behind in Charleston. The advance never made it past Sunbury, Georgia. According to an 1802 account, “The troops that went to Georgia, suffered exceedingly by sickness; at Sunberry, 14 or 15 were buried every day, till they were sent to the sea Islands, where they recruited a little.” Darke lost nearly half his company to the disease.
Among the first to get sick was 8th Virginia major Peter Helphinstine, who returned home to Winchester and died. On the day the army marched south from Charleston, Lee appointed Captain Richard Campbell to replace Helphinstine. In doing so, he passed over Darke, who was the senior eligible captain. No reason is given in the record, but the best explanation is that Darke was sick, left behind, and perhaps not expected to recover. Congress confirmed Campbell’s new rank.
The promotion became a source of controversy when the regiment returned to Virginia and Campbell began to oversee recruitment for the 1777 campaign. Unable to address the matter himself, Muhlenberg appealed to Washington for help. An aide de camp responded to him, writing, “Congress having confirmed Majr Campbell in his Office, leaves his Excellency no power to remove him, but for the Commission of some Offence.”
Controversies related to rank and promotion were common in the Continental Army. Muhlenberg himself was made a brigadier general at this time, which caused problems of its own. Darke’s case was handled delicately. On May 13, Congress gave Washington the authority to look into Darke’s case and resolve it. Explicitly authorized to make the decision, Washington promoted Darke to major. For purposes of seniority, the promotion was made retroactive to January 4, but its effective date was delayed until the end of September. This was evidently Washington’s way of looking out for a trusted soldier and compensating Darke for an injustice. Major Campbell kept his rank but was transferred to another regiment.
While the controversy was sorted out, Darke was put on detached duty, sometimes performing jobs that might have been assigned to a major. In June, Washington put Darke in command of 150 Virginia riflemen alongside General Anthony Wayne and Colonel Daniel Morgan. They harassed the enemy as Howe withdrew from New Jersey and they were centrally engaged in the Battle of Short Hills.
When Howe’s army sailed away, Washington sent Morgan’s Rifles, an elite unit, north to join the forces under Major General Horatio Gates opposing British General John Burgoyne. Howe, however, was headed in the opposite direction. When that was discovered, Washington rushed his army south and on August 28 ordered his brigades to each supply 117 of their most capable men to form a new light infantry force under the command of New Jersey’s General William Maxwell. Specifically, each brigade was to provide“one Field Officer, two Captains, six Subalterns, eight Serjeants and 100 Rank & File.” William Darke was chosen for this service by General Charles Scott, his brigade commander, possibly at Washington’s direction. Maxwell’s Light Infantry was the sole Continental unit at the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge and played an important role on both sides of the river at Brandywine a week later.
Maxwell’s Light Infantry was disbanded late in September. After months of controversy and delay, Darke at last became the major of the 8th Virginia. He was entitled to it by seniority and had earned it through capable service, but he acquired it only through patience—which does not seem to have been his strong suit. Yet, after all it had taken to get the promotion, he served in the role for less than a week. At the Battle of Germantown Major Darke boldly led a forward detachment of men into the thick morning fog and did not return.
Darke spent the next three years in captivity. He was initially kept on a prison ship and was then moved to Long Island, New York in the company of other American officers. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel while a prisoner but would later have to defend the promotion’s validity since he had been unable to perform his duties.
In May of 1780, Darke and other captive officers wrote to Governor Thomas Jefferson asking for financial support. The only thing of real value Virginia could offer them was tobacco, which the prisoners could barter with or sell. Jefferson wrote to Washington, who was encamped near New York, advising him that the Virginia legislature had authorized a shipment of tobacco for the prisoners and asked him to see if the British would allow it. If not, the tobacco was to be sold for hard money, which would then be sent to the men. Washington advised that the latter course would have to be followed. 
The general and the governor were both interested in getting Darke and his comrades home, perhaps on parole (honor bound not to fight) or properly exchanged (free to take up arms again). Jefferson had the necessary leverage. In February, 1779 Virginia state troops had captured Henry Hamilton, the lieutenant governor of Quebec and the Crown’s superintendent of Indian affairs. Based at Fort Detroit, Hamilton had been in command of British military efforts in the northwest and was hated by Virginia frontiersmen. On October 25, 1780 Jefferson played this valuable card. Hamilton and a few other British prisoners were traded for several American officers on Long Island.At last, Darke was free. Washington wrote to Congress that a total of fifteen American officers were on their way home. “The Military Chest being totally exhausted,” he wrote, “they will with difficulty be enabled to get as far as Philada. I must solicit you to procure them a supply there, sufficient to carry them home. Their long and patient sufferings entitle them to attention and to every assistance in getting themselves and Baggage forward.”
Darke returned home just as the British were making their first forays into Virginia. The war had shifted to the south and the British saw an invasion of Virginia as necessary to keep the Old Dominion from sending supplies into the Carolinas. An initial invasion under British General Alexander Leslie was recalled after the patriot victory at King’s Mountain on October 7. Then, on December 30, just a few weeks after Darke arrived at his home in Berkeley County, the traitor Benedict Arnold (now a British general) arrived with 1800 troops on thirty ships with orders to control the mouth of the Chesapeake and to make forays up the James River toward Richmond. Arnold sacked Richmond, the new state capitol, in January. An army of mostly inexperienced Virginia militia was defeated near Petersburg in April.
Things escalated significantly in May when Lord Charles Cornwallis invaded Virginia and occupied Richmond with a large army. The Virginia legislature fled to Charlottesville, but was pursued by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarlton’s dragoons. The alarmed legislature appealed to the recently-promoted General Daniel Morgan for help. The hero of the Battle of Cowpens (January 17, 1781) had returned home to Winchester suffering from sciatica and other ailments. Governor Jefferson wrote to him on June 2, urging him to raise an army in the Shenandoah Valley and come to the commonwealth’s rescue. Morgan agreed, but found men reticent to leave home as the harvest season approached. This led him to “call on the best aid I could possibly get” in convening a group of “Gentlemen who I esteem of most influence.” This group met on June 15 to plan and prepare. Among them were General Gates, Lieutenant Colonel Darke, and a handful of other prominent military men from Frederick and Berkeley counties. 
They set about recruiting men to defend the Commonwealth, urging the legislature to “provide some decisive measure for procuring the number necessary.” Properly equipping the recruits also proved challenging. At last, Morgan and Darke arrived with reinforcements on July 7, the day after the Battle of Green Spring. Morgan’s health, however, soon forced him to return home again. For the time being, the Americans remained in camp near Williamsburg while Cornwallis established a base at Yorktown. Meanwhile, the French persuaded Washington that there was an opportunity in Virginia, and they proceeded south with the main army from New York.
Washington arrived in Williamsburg on September 14. The troops formed up so he could review them. Many or most of these soldiers had never seen the great general before. The following day the officers lined up to greet Washington at a reception. It may have been at this event that Darke inappropriately “made the first motion” to the commander-in-chief. It was George Bedinger, one of Darke’s captains, who wrote, “I have never been able to account for such a motion. I suppose it was the Colonel’s usual fire and rashness,and, that Washington perhaps had a desire to know what the enemy would do on such an occasion. It was in my opinion an extraordinary and, I think unnecessary temerity.” Darke may simply have been eager to express his gratitude for his freedom.
“A few days after the review,” remembered one of Darke’s soldiers, “we started for Little York and there joined the main American Army under the command of Ge[nera]l Washington. After we joined the army, we went to entrenching. …The British kept up a Cannonading on us, and while we were entrenching every now and then a man was killed. One man was killed a rod or two from me.” Once again in a malarial region, many of Darke’s men predictably contracted the disease and were sent home. Captain Bedinger was hauled home in a wagon. Darke, however, was present for the history-making surrender of the British on October 19.
Business and Politics
After the war, Colonel Darke focused on his home and his family. He and his wife raised their own four children, an older son from Sarah’s first marriage, and a local orphan. In addition to whatever farming he engaged in, Darke made forays into both business and politics. He was now a man of stature in his community.
He became deeply involved in America’s first interstate public works project, working closely with (and for) Washington. As the Kentucky country filled up with settlers, it became apparent that there were economic, political, and strategic imperatives for connecting the Ohio watershed with the east. For Kentuckians, it was significantly easier to transport goods down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Spanish New Orleans than it was to transport them upstream and overland to ports on the Atlantic coast. To counteract this, there was intense interest in creating a junction between the Ohio and Potomac Rivers via the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers. Success would keep Kentucky tied to the United States and keep the value of its produce headed east.
In 1785, the Potomac Company was formed, with George Washington as president and William Darke as the company’s key upriver agent at Shepherdstown. An essential first step in the plan was making the upper Potomac navigable, which meant clearing it of rocks and debris and digging canals around its waterfalls. The location of Darke’s home near the mouth of the Shenandoah put him in a position to personally profit from the project. Washington and Darke worked together, meeting at least three times between 1786 and 1790 to plan and coordinate.
In 1789, the river was sufficiently clear for Darke to make news in Richmond’s Virginia Gazette and Weekly Advertiser.
We cannot but congratulate our readers on the fair prospect of Patowmack, becoming soon the common channel of conveyance for the produce of the fertile country through which it runs. The water carriage is already so far established, that five wagons are kept constantly plying between waters’s branch, the common landing, of George-Town. Colonel Darlk’s boat last week, brought down a load of 262 barrels of flour from Shepherds-Town, in Virginia, and passed Shanandoah and Seneca Falls, with safety and ease.
Ultimately, the project was unsuccessful. Dry weather left the river impassible while too much rain flooded the bypass “canals.” The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was later built to replace it (on the other side of the river). Even that canal never connected the Potomac and Ohio rivers.
Washington’s other great project during this period was the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution. The proposal was controversial in Virginia, with leading figures like Patrick Henry and George Mason opposed to it. A convention was called to ratify (or reject) the document and Darke was elected to be one of two delegates from Berkeley County. His partner was retired Major General Adam Stephen, who had ordered Darke into the fog at Germantown. Both of them supported the Constitution, prevailing in an 89 to 79 vote.
Washington was elected President in 1789. At his inauguration in New York City, he wore a sword that had been given to him by Darke and is believed to have been the President’s favorite. It was not a gentleman’s ornamental sword, but rather a type of smallsword known as a spadroon--double-bladed and designed to be lethal in battle. A tradition that the sword was used “to kill Indians” has been discounted as romantic but is in fact entirely plausible.
After taking office, President Washington signed legislation authorizing the location of a new capital city on the Potomac River “at some place between the mouths of the Eastern-Branch and Conogocheague.” In other words: somewhere between Georgetown (then in Maryland) and Williamsport (still in Maryland), an 85-mile stretch of river. In October of 1790, Washington visited Shepherdstown and met with Darke and other locals to discuss the possibility of locating the capital at Sharpsburg—just across the river. He also visited Hagerstown and Williamsport, but ultimately selected the Georgetown location.
War with the Indians
In 1791, Darke was elected to the Virginia General Assembly. His time in that office was short, however, because Washington had other plans for him. Rapid settlement of Kentucky had enraged Indians in Ohio who used Kentucky as their hunting grounds. By one account, as many as 1,500 settlers were killed over a period of just a few years. A campaign against the Indians in 1790, led by Brigadier General Josiah Harmar, had been a failure. An earlier campaign under Colonel William Crawford had resulted only in the colonel’s capture, brutal torture, and execution. Shortly after Darke’s election, he received a letter from President Washington asking him to lead a regiment of “levies” in a major new campaign. Levies were federal soldiers on short-term (six month) enlistments. Washington asked Darke to “appoint from among the Gentlemen that are known to you, and who you would recommend as proper characters, and think likely to recruit their men, three persons as Captains, three as Lieutenants, and three as Ensigns in the Battalion of levies to be raised in the State of Virginia, for the service of the United States.”
The army that ventured into the Ohio wilderness was composed of two regiments of full-time, professional troops (though one was new), two regiments of levies, a company of dragoons, and militiamen from Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Darke commanded the 1st U.S. Levy Regiment, which included three battalions of Maryland, Virginia, and “overmountain” men from the frontier. Darke reported to Major General Richard Butler, who had command of all the levies. The entire force was commanded by Major General Arthur St. Clair, a Pennsylvanian who was also governor of the Northwest Territory. George Bedinger served again under Darke, this time as the regiment’s major. Darke’s son, Joseph, was a company captain in the Virginia battalion.
The advance looked much like General Braddock’s march of 1755, and concluded much th