Yorktown's Main Street
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It has always been rather difficult to arrive at an acceptable figure on the size of Yorktown (both in population and buildings) at its peak period of commerce and trade that came in the two decades just past the midpoint of the 18th century. The same is true in the period of the American Revolution when all was disrupted by war, and more particularly just prior to the time in September and October 1781, when the destructive forces of combat were unleashed. At its peak size it seems that the town boasted some 200 buildings, or structures, of large, medium, and modest sizes. And these, it is estimated, accommodated something less than 1,800 people of all types — white, black, or others; male and female; young and old. [1] This would have been augmented considerably in court times, at church times, and when the ships were in. Then the ordinaries, inns, taverns, and extra spaces, whatever their nature, would have been put to use.

As to geographic extent, Yorktown initially was surveyed as a town of 85 building lots within the confines of a 50-acre tract of land. In 1738 this was augmented officially by the inclusion of the 5-acre waterfront between the town and the river, which had already become, in fact, integrated into the town. [2]

This was about the time, too, when Gwyn Read, who had fallen heir to a hundred acres along the southwestern boundary of the town, between the town and the ravine of Yorktown Creek, [3] began to develop a subdivision here. [4] Read divided much of the area into half-acre lots and offered them for sale. Though the deed records for the lots were largely destroyed, it is clear that sales were brisk. It is not clear whether Read subdivided all of his 100 acres here, but from fragmentary data it seems safe to assume that more than half of it (more than 50 half-acre lots) was so treated. It is evident that a good deal of construction ensued and houses soon dotted this area, many of them homes of tradesmen. Some of the established families bought here as well. Richard Ambler purchased lots for a garden and also built a smith's shop. Capt. John Ballard bought six lots which he built upon and rented. But not all development was slight. Dr. John Payras, a French doctor in Yorktown, had a substantial residence in this subdivision which was described in the Virginia Gazette (issue of June 5, 1752) as a "large well-built Brick House, with three Rooms on a floor, all finish'd, a Kitchen, Dairy, Meat-House, Stable, and other necessary Houses." The development here was substantial, and in 1757, on petition of its inhabitants, the Virginia Assembly authorized its formal inclusion into the town. [5]

Though the record is largely silent on the matter, the high ground (more than 5 acres) between the town's northwestern boundary and Yorktown Creek at Windmill Point, though privately owned, probably functioned as a part of the town, [6] as did the property just adjacent to the southeast boundary where Secretary Nelson built his mansion. [7] Even so, Yorktown was never large geographically, covering less than 150 acres at the most.

As for the population of Yorktown, the earliest census figures that relate specifically to the town are dated 1790. This year probably represents as much recovery from the ravages of the war years as ever was achieved here, limited though it was. [8] Most population figures prior to 1790 were normally given for York County as a whole and usually were expressed in terms only of tithables. [9] Consequently the breakdown by classification types in 1790 is helpful for that date and useful too, perhaps, in projecting to earlier times.

In 1790 the total population for Yorktown was given as 661 persons and for the county as a whole it was 5,233, indicating that some 11% of the people in this general area were in the town community at that time. [10] The classifications were:

Population Percentage of
Population Percentage of
Free white males, 16 and over6810%53010%
Free white males, under 16569%4619%
Free white females14822%112421%
All other free persons173%3587%



Although it cannot be determined specifically, this would indicate that at this time the county had some 2,200 tithables and the town about 250, using the old definitions of tithables. In each instance this represented something more than 40% of the population.

The tabulation below brings together a number of York County population figures. It is well to keep in mind that (1) the percentage of tithables to population fluctuated according to the mix of the population, and perhaps varied between 25 and 40%, averaging a third of the people; (2) Yorktown contained 10% of York County's population in 1790. In earlier times this probably was a bit higher.

York County Population

DateNumber of Tithtables
County Population
1644 [11]609

1666 [12]1,140 (this was out of a population of 3,420 "not counting long shoremen and islanders" of which "Pocoson precinct" had a large number) 3,420
1701 [13]1,208
1702 [14]1,180(61,196 acres of land reported)3,500
1714 [15]1,395(66,709 acres of land reported)4,200
1722 [16]1,439
1723 [17]1,525
1726 [18]1,625
1763 [19]1,109(included 184 taxpayers)3,300
1770 [20]2,541
1773 [21]2,524
1777 [22]2,000
1783 [23]1,600
17902,200 [24]

On his billeting plan of Yorktown, Berthier showed a total of 124 buildings of all shapes and sizes, including the Secretary Nelson House just beyond the southeast limits of town. [25] This plan embraced some 45 structures on the waterfront and 79 in the town proper. Berthier was reflecting the condition that existed just after the siege had passed and after a good many houses and other structures had been destroyed by the British to clear a field of fire on the outer edges and periphery of the town, and after others had been demolished by the allied bombardment. It did not, however, reflect additional damages, and there were some that were due to the French occupation and the later presence of American military units.

When James Thacher visited York just after the siege, he reported that the town then contained "about sixty houses" some of them "elegant," and many of them had been "greatly damaged." [26] Two years later, in 1783, David Jameson reported that "Nearly half of the number of Houses in the Town" were "entirely destroyed" by the British, "by the French Army," and "by our own Soldiers." [27] Using Thacher's estimate of 60 standing, and Jameson's of half destroyed, this would equal 120 before the siege. Such general estimates would probably refer to primary units and not to structures of small size, such as dependencies. This could explain the closeness of this figure to the 124 shown by Berthier, who seemingly showed all structures that survived the British demolition and allied bombardment. If his figure is doubled, on the other hand, as Jameson's comment might suggest, then we have a total structures figure of some 250 buildings prior to the arrival of the British.

When Isaac Weld was in Yorktown in 1796, he noted that the "town of York consists of about seventy houses, an Episcopalian church, and a goal." [28] It was not more than one-third the size it was before the war. This would have made it a town of something more than 200 houses before the siege. It seems to follow from the 1790 census total and the Weld estimate of houses that some 650 people were then housed in 70 units, many probably with supporting dependencies. If the same ratio were applied to a town of 200 useful houses, it would yield a population of some 1,800 people.

It was about a decade later (March 1804) that William T. Barry made an excursion to Yorktown from nearby Williamsburg and offered a statistical note. [29] "There did not appear to be more than ninety or a hundred houses in the place and from what I could gather, not more than four or five hundred inhabitants." This would seem to indicate an increase in housing and a decrease in population from the Weld estimate (1796) and the census figures (1790). In any case, from this point on it was downhill all the way.

It should be noted, of course, that the resident population of Yorktown hit a temporary low while the British and the French and American armies were in contest. Just prior to the siege of 1781, as the forces converged on Yorktown, there was a mass exodus of most of the people who normally lived here. They would return slowly only after the fighting was over.

On July 31 Conrad Doehla noted of his arrival in Yorktown: "We found few inhabitants here, as they had mostly gone with bag and baggage into the country beyond. Also one could get nothing here for fresh provisions." Another German with the British army, Stephan Popp, made a similar comment: "most of the owners of the houses had left them." [30]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010