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Yorktown, VA 23690


Early Yorktown History

CanonYorktown’s proudest claim to national importance is that America won its independence here.  Although the intent was declared at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, it was only after five difficult years of effort and loss of thousands of lives that the ephemeral idea of independence  came to fruition by victory at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

Yorktown’s history considerably precedes 1781.  The present location of the charming town today was occupied by the native-American population for at least 10,000 years prior to European arrival.  It is located at the narrowest crossing point of the York River, and natives likely used this point to travel from "the Peninsula" to the "Middle Peninsula".  Little, however, is documented about these early inhabitants and travelers and no exhibits presently tell their story.


           In 1620, Captain Nicholas Martiau, was sent by King James I to build forts in Virginia, specifically at York, and to complete the great log palisade between College and Queen Creeks.

                    York’s fort was initially built just a short distance down river from the present Yorktown, and a small settlement developed there because of the fort’s guarantee of safety.  This village also became a receiving port and mercantile center for the growing population.  The site is now part of the United States Coast Guard Reserve Training Center .

           Martiau’s early settlement and bringing of other settlers had qualified him to receive several grants of land, one of which is the present location of Yorktown.  Sadly, Martiau did not live to see the town develop on his personal landholdings.  He died in 1657, but his grandson sold 50 acres of the land for the establishment of “York Town” in 1691.  The town's creation established Yorktown as the principal location for securing tobacco, good, wares and other merchandise.  The port, wharves, warehouses and other appropriate buildings for the conduct of commerce were situated at the riverfront.

          Surprisingly, the town’s original 50 acres did not include the land immediately adjacent to the river--land that today features a park, several restaurants, a motel, beaches, a museum, and a few residences.  That land became valuable as the town developed and in 1738 was purchased and added to the town.  This parcel was overseen by the Yorktown Trustees, a board created in 1738 which still administers this land's affairs today.


          The town continued to grow, and by the passage of the Tobacco Inspection act of 1734, nearly all of Yorktown’s 85 town lots had been purchased and development begun.  With high quality Virginia tobacco established as the main money crop and Yorktown named as a tobacco inspection port, the town’s growth potential for the future seemed secure.

         Virginia’s planters who lived in Yorktown or had second homes here, lavished themselves and their homes with luxury and expensive items from England.  In 1764, an English visitor commented that he perceived “a great air of opulence amongst the inhabitants...every considerable man keeps an equipage...very pretty garden spots...avenues...are prodigiously agreeable.  The roads are infinitely superior to most in England...and the planters live in a manner equal to men of the best fortune..”

          Unfortunately, tobacco exhausted the soil and modern fertilization practices had not yet evolved.  As a result, the quality and
quantity of tobacco declined dramatically from mid-century on, and Yorktown’s heavy dependence on the tobacco-based commerce proved to be its downfall.

                    Yorktown’s place in early American history was established by several Yorktown residents who devoted themselves to Virginia’s and the new nation’s service.  Principal among them was certainly Thomas Nelson, signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Additionally, David Jameson, a Scots merchant of Yorktown, served in the Virginia Senate and in the Privy Council and as Lieutenant Governor and , finally, acting governor in 1781.  Cyrus Griffin, last president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, was another prominent Yorktown citizen.

          Clearly, the ultimate historically significant event for Yorktown is the victory of General George Washington’s army over the British army.  Lord CornwallisMain Street surrendered, on ground known today as Surrender Field, October 19, 1781, effectively ending the American Revolution.  The battles of the American Revolution which began in 1776 covered much of the eastern seaboard.  This final major battle was the culmination of numerous back-and-forth movements of the Franco-American forces and of the British.  What caused Cornwallis to dig in for a siege in Yorktown?  How was Washington able to move his massive troops so quickly to Yorktown?  How did the French fleet know to move to its critical location at just the right moment?

          A visit to Yorktown’s many historic sites answers some of those questions and creates even more questions in the minds of the visitor!  Nevertheless, the story of Washington, Cornwallis, Lafayette, De Grasse, and the thousands of soldiers and sailors of the American, British, and French nations is the story of Yorktown.

          The streets of Yorktown today bear little witness to the town’s importance in 1781 and bear little resemblance to its appearance at that time.  In early 1781, Yorktown was still a bustling port and mercantile center---but it’s heyday had clearly passed as other larger more convenient ports became more prominent.  The town, however, still had homes, stores, warehouses, storage buildings, public buildings, and other structures packed tightly along its unpaved main street and side streets.  Along the river, numerous wharves and associated buildings stood as testament to Yorktown’s importance, waning though it was.  Buildings of every nature stood chock-a-block along the town’s short main street with no thought of our present-day zoning concerns, and, in fact, were monuments to the town’s professional, mercantile, and residential prosperity and prominence.

          After October 19, 1781, Yorktown was in a considerably different position after suffering dramatically during the siege, with numerous buildings destroyed or heavily damaged.  Many of its occupants left the town, never to return, and many of those remaining demolished damaged buildings with little thought of rebuilding. Many, of course, repaired their homes and businesses, and life in Yorktown continued.


          In 1814, a second disaster struck Yorktown when a major fire destroyed nearly all the buildings along the waterfront and many "on the hill" in the town as well, including the church and the courthouse.  During this time, the waterfront area was occupied, not by prominent businesses, but by the poorest of the residents of the community.  As time and pride had passed Yorktown by, little was done to rebuild most of the destroyed buildings.  The county Courthouse was completed a few years later, and the church, renamed Grace Episcopal Church, took nearly 30 years to repair its original marl walls.

          Finally, the War Between the States brought Yorktown’s second siege in 1862.  Again its harbor was filled with gunboats, its streets with soldiers, and its reinforced 80 year-old earthworks teemed with armaments of various sizes and strengths.  Following this siege, Yorktown’s future hopes disintegrated, and the final blow of 1863 occurred when both the courthouse and the Swan Tavern across the street were blown to pieces by an enormous explosion of stores of gunpowder.  The community was so devastated by the war that the courthouse was not rebuilt until 1875. Civil War Yorktown

          The celebration of 1881 of the Centennial of the surrender brought national notice to the hamlet, but little but a magnificent monument remained after the celebrants left. 
Yorktown Victory Monument


          Yorktown remained a backwater town with occasional weak efforts to revise its stature attempted until 1931.  The Sesquicentennial prompted purchase of much of the property around town which resulted in the creation of Colonial National Historical Park.


          Strolling Yorktown’s quiet tree-shaded streets today is a delight for all ages, but considerable imagination is required to recreate the appearance of the town at any particular period in its history.  The many early buildings remaining in the town help to recall the 18th century period of prominence and the additional 19th and 20th century buildings and changes expand the visitor’s awareness of the continued existence of Yorktown in modern America.
 A starting place for any tour of the town should probably be at Grace Episcopal Church, the oldest building remaining in the town.  Much altered through the years, Grace Church’s marl walls have stood overlooking the York River since 1697.  Six generations of the Nelson family are buried in its churchyard with the burial place of General Thomas Nelson, Jr., commanding the grounds. 

The CYC intends to provide precise information on this site; however, no express guarantee of accuracy is made.

Please contact linked organizations, government sites, & corporations for updates.

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