Yorktown had its origin in the Virginia Port Act of 1691one of the legislative measures by which British colonial authorities and Virginia leaders sought to force urban development in the colony. It specified that 50 acres should be procured for a port to serve York County and that it would be upon "Mr. Benjamin Reads land." This was a part of the Capt. Nicholas Martiau property (originally patented about 1635) which, by 1691, had descended through Martiau's daughter, Elizabeth, and George Read to their son, Benjamin Read. The 50 acres were situated at the point where the York River narrows to about half a mile. There had been a ferry here for many years. Maj. Lawrence Smith was engaged to make the survey, and a plat made by him is still preserved in the official records of York County.
Although Yorktown (variously called Port of York, Borough of York, York, Town of York, and Yorktown) was not established until 1691, the area around Yorktown had been well known to the English for generations. The river itself had been explored, and frequently visited, by Capt. John Smith and his fellow settlers at Jamestown. They came most frequently by water, but it was not until the 163032 period that early Virginians began to push overland from the James River and to establish homes on the banks of the York. Among the men who braved the Indians, the forests, and natural enemies to establish homes on the creeks and tidewaters above and below Yorktown were Capt. John West (who became Governor in 1635), Capt. John Utie, Capt. Robert Felgate, and, a little later, Henry Lee. The Indians before them had seen, and recognized, the strategic value and beauty of this location. Chief Powhatan was residing on the north side of the river, above Gloucester Point, when Smith first saw him in 1607, and the Chiskiack Indians lived on the south side near present-day Yorktown until pressure from the white man caused them to move.
Nicolas Martiau, a French Huguenot, first received a grant of land in the Yorktown area. It was a part of this tract, which originally lay between the holdings of Gov. Sir John Harvey and the estate of Richard Townsend, that in 1691 was acquired and laid out into the original 85 lots of Yorktown. Through the marriages of his descendants, Martiau became the earliest-known American ancestor of George Washington. A granite marker in his honor now stands on Ballard Street.
The earliest settlers on the York pointed the way for others who came in increasing numbers in the years that followed. The population grew to such an extent that in 1634 a county was laid out to embrace the settlements which had been made on the York (those around later Yorktown and those on the Back and Poquoson Rivers some miles to the southeast). Designated Charles River Shire it was one of Virginia's eight original shires (counties). At that time, the York River was known as the Charles, this having replaced the Indian name of Pamunkey. About 1643, the name of the river was changed to York, from which both town and county take their name.
About 2 miles southeast of Yorktown is a tidal inlet, Wormley Creek, named for Christopher Wormley, a local property owner and a member of the council of colonial Virginia. On the west side of this inlet, a little town (perhaps best described as a small settlement) took form. It seemingly grew up around "Yorke Fort," built on the point formed by Wormley Creek and York River. In 1633, "Yorke" was selected as a receiving point, and stores were ordered built to serve this settlement and that of Chiskiack just up the river. "Yorke" was separate and distinct from present Yorktown, but actually a direct antecedent. Early courts convened here, and there were a church and a courthouse with its customary instruments of justice (stocks, a pillory, and a ducking stool). The tomb of Maj. William Gooch here is one of the oldest existing dated tombs in the United States.
In establishing his survey of Yorktown in 1691, Lawrence Smith proceeded to the high bluffs above the river and laid out 85 half-acre lots arranged along a principal street (Main Street) running parallel with the river and seven streets which intersected Main. Many of the original street names still remain, as do original lot lines. In proceeding to the high ground to make the survey, a strip of land, described in 1691 as "a Common Shore of no value," was left between the town and the river. This area actually proved of considerable value. Here, Water Street took form as the second Yorktown street running parallel with the river. Along it developed wharves, loading places, ships, stores, lodging accommodations, and considerable miscellaneous development. It was officially made a part of the town in 1738, but designated a commons until surveyed into lots in 1788.
Yorktown's history has been continuous since 1691, although its prosperous era of growth was not destined to extend beyond the colonial period. Soon after its establishment lots were taken up, homes began to appear, and a number of vigorous families settled in the town. Public activities for the county were soon concentrated here. In 1697, the meeting place for York County Court was moved to a building on Lot 24, and this lot still functions for county purposes. About the same time, too, the York Parish Church was erected on Lot 35.
The excellent harbor in the York River, plus restrictive legislation on trade, stimulated the growth of the town as the framers of the Port Act had hoped. It became a tobacco port of first importance as it drew on the crops grown on the plantations round about. None was better known, perhaps, than the famous "E. D." brand grown on the Digges estate (later Bellfield) just above Yorktown. Ships came singly and in fleets to get hogsheads of tobacco which had been duly examined by the inspectors provided through the Colonial Government. Warehouses and wharves were busy with tobacco shipments, and later in the century, with other crops. Incoming freight for the town residents, plantation owners, and others included clothing of latest fashion, wines and liquor, furniture, jewelry and silver plate, riding gear and coaches, swords and firearms, books, and slaves for the fields and kitchens. This was the trade that made Yorktown a thriving business center in the 18th centurya port that led in Chesapeake Bay commerce until it was later outstripped by its rivals.
Yorktown stood overlooking the York River, with the better homes, inns, and public buildings on the bluffs in the town proper. Below the bluffs on the waterfront wharves, warehouses, small stores, and drinking places predominated. Along the water's edge, too, were establishments such as that of Charles Chiswell, who was given a patent for land there on which to build accommodations "for his greater Conveniency in Victualing His Majesties Ships of War according to his Contract."
When fully extended and at peak prosperity, colonial Yorktown must have been a rather pleasant little town. At best, its population very likely never exceeded 3,000a small number by present standards, yet sizeable for that period. An English visitor who stopped here in 1736 wrote of it:
Between 1691 and 1781, fortunes were made at Yorktown in the tobacco trade. But not everyone was a wealthy merchant or prosperous planter. There were men of all types and classes on the streets, in the taverns, and on the wharvesmerchants, planters, planter-merchants, propertied yeomen, unsuccessful merchants, shopkeepers and innkeepers in large number, indentured servants, and slaves. Apprentices rose to become partners, as in the case of Augustine Moore in the Nelson firm. In 1781, he was the owner of the Moore House, where the Articles of Capitulation were drafted.
The more prominent families were united by marriage with all the noted Tidewater families. The most famous son of Yorktown was Thomas Nelson, Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, and commander of the militia at the siege of 1781. His remains rest in the churchyard of Grace Church in Yorktown.
From the point of view of growth and prosperity, Yorktown was at its peak about 1750. The shops continued busy and the wharves full, perhaps for another quarter of a century; yet, even before the Revolution, evidences of decline were discernible. Whatever commercial good fortune may have been expected for the town was rendered difficult by the destruction and waste that came with the siege of 1781. Other forces of decline, however, were also at work. Rival points of trade, because of location, took much of the produce that might have come to Yorktown. The soil of the surrounding country was worn thin, and the center of tobacco culture moved southwest. All in all, it meant that Yorktown would not continue to grow.
The events of September and October 1781 gave Yorktown its position of first rank in the story of the American Revolution, yet its earlier and less publicized history in that war is both interesting and significant. The leaders of opinion in Yorktown were merchants who stood to suffer much as supporters of the patriotic cause. Their losses were heavy in many cases, but they stood behind the Revolution practically to a man.
As early as July 18, 1774, York County had called a meeting "to consider what was to be done in the present distressed and alarming situation of affairs throughout the British Colonies in America." Five months later there was a miniature "tea party" in the Yorktown harbor. In 1775, Thomas Nelson, Jr., and Dudley Digges were named as delegates to the Virginia Convention of that year. In 1776, Nelson went on to the Continental Congress, became a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and in 1781 was elected Governor of Virginia. Other Yorktown personalities prominent on the political scene during the Revolution include David Jameson, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia in 1781; Thomas Everard, a commissioner of accounts from 1776 to 1781; Dudley Digges, councilor and leader; Jaquelin Ambler, a councilor and then, in 1781, State Treasurer; and Thomas Nelson, Sr., made Secretary of the Commonwealth in 1776.
In the spring of 1775, Governor Dunmore of Virginia became fearful of the vulnerability of the powder stores in Williamsburg and, during the night of April 2021, he had them moved secretly to the man-of-war, Fowey, anchored off Yorktown. This was the spark that set off the Revolution in Virginia. Then came Patrick Henry's march on Williamsburg and more alarm. At this point Dunmore became greatly disturbed. He sent his family aboard the Fowey, still at Yorktown, and he himself set up headquarters on this warship in the harbor on June 6. The assembly refused to meet in Yorktown, as Dunmore suggested, and proceeded to do business without the governor. It was mid-July before Dunmore finally left Yorktown harbor, thus ending royal government in Virginia.
The enlistment of troops soon got under way in York County. The first move was for two companies of minutemen. The one with Yorktown men was to be captained by William Goosley. The council ordered Yorktown to be garrisoned in June 1776, since the strategic location and value of the port were recognized from the very beginning. These troops were soon sent elsewhere, however, and the barracks at Yorktown were often woefully empty. The garrison apparently continued active until the British occupied the town in 1781. The battery built here and manned, first in 1776, to protect the town and "to command the River," particularly the means of "trade and commerce," suffered varying fortunes, but mostly, it seems, from "too little and too late." In 1777, a troop hospital was set up in the town in time to render service in the smallpox epidemic of that year.
From 1776 to mid1781, Yorktown residents heard the drums roll, became familiar with the tread of marching columns, and witnessed periodic scares of attack and invasion. They contributed supplies, work, money, men, and life. They saw trade decline, "hard times" set in, property wantonly destroyed by thoughtless troops, and received the varying news of war with rejoicing, or with sorrow.
In the winter of 177980, French war vessels used the York River and may have found some comfort in the guns of the Yorktown fort. In March 1781, Lafayette stepped ashore here, after his trip down the bay at the beginning of his operations in Virginia. The raid on Yorktown by Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe and his Queen's Rangers in April of the same year was a foretaste of what was soon to come, as was Cornwallis' preliminary inspection of the post on June 28. There was little active campaigning, however, and the full meaning of conquest and occupation by the enemy was not understood until the advance units of Cornwallis' army entered the town in August 1781.
When the siege of 1781 was over, Yorktown quickly entered upon its decline. The damages of the siege had been devastating, trade fell off, and citizenseven whole familiesmoved away. It quickly became a village with no major commercial or business activity. In this category it has continued. Its history in the 19th century was punctuated by only an occasional significant event or development.
In 1814, a great fire began on the waterfront and swept into the town destroying many of the old buildings, rich in colonial associations. Lafayette visited Yorktown in 1824, and there was a celebration in commemoration of the events of 43 years earlier. By 1840 the sandy beach before the town had begun to attract visitors, as it does today, in increasing numbers. In 1862, there was a second siege of Yorktowna lesser engagement in the Civil War. Many of the fortifications built then still stand. Being much more massive, they are in sharp contrast with the earlier Revolutionary works. In the early 20th century, residential suburban development around Yorktown was begun with a great flourish, but did not take hold.
The Centennial Celebration staged at Yorktown in 1881 once more brought the town into national prominence. Large crowds journeyed to the little village to attend and to participate in exercises which extended over a period of several days. Fifty years later, in 1931, there was the larger Sesquicentennial Celebration. Visitors came from far and near to participate in this extensive observance of the American and French vic tory at Yorktown. Another major observance was in 1957 when York town contributed its part to the year-long activities marking the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, 20 miles away, in 1607.