Inadvertently misspelled, Clarke County was named for George Rogers Clark, a Revolutionary War hero who led the campaign against the British in the Northwest Territory. Clarke County was carved from Frederick County in 1836. One of the few traces of Native American habitation can be seen in the names of Clarke County's main bodies of water, the Shenandoah River (“Daughter of the Stars”) and Opequon Creek.
Most of Clarke County was initially part of a 50,212-acre grant that Robert “King” Carter issued in 1730 to ten of his heirs. Because Carter served as land agent for Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax and proprietor of the Northern Neck, he was able to make such grants in his own interest. Carter's tract included forty-five thousand acres and was, for the most part, settled by Carter's descendants in the late eighteenth century. Their move to the area was prompted by a decline in tobacco profitability and by the devastating effects of malaria in Tidewater, where they had been living. The ethnic, religious, and economic differences between the Carters and the Scots-Irish, the English Quakers, and the Germans who settled the rest of Frederick County were precipitating factors in the separation of Clarke from Frederick County.
The transplanted Tidewater planters brought their slaves with them and it was these enslaved workers who made possible the settlement and production of the large plantations that facilitated the county's transition from tobacco to wheat cultivation. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, mills were established to process the area's bountiful wheat crops. Until replaced by apple growing and processing in the twentieth century, wheat was the county's largest cash crop.
Prosperity in the first half of the nineteenth century encouraged the building of increasingly large houses, often of brick. Most of the labor on their construction was by slaves, who, by 1850, made up approximately half of Clarke County's population. The Civil War brought an abrupt end to construction and economic growth. Several small battles took place in the county and troops regularly passed through the area. Although no widespread destruction took place, some houses, barns, and mills were damaged. Reconstruction came slowly, and there was little building activity in the county until the 1880s.
Early in the twentieth century, a small migration of settlers from New York and New England were drawn to the county for its cheap land and reasonable climate. Many of them bought older houses and restored them. New construction ranged from foursquare houses to larger and grander houses embellished with Colonial Revival details. Today, Clarke County remains primarily rural, with agriculture one of its main sources of income. Berryville is the commercial, governmental, and manufacturing center of the county. Developmental pressures have been great but the county has enacted innovative land-use regulations to limit residential growth in rural areas and focus new housing around the existing residential centers of Berryville, Boyce, and White Post. In addition, the county has encouraged preservation of open space, with nearly 20 percent of Clarke held in conservation easements.
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