Yorktown's Main Street
Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo



One of the more prominent features of the 18th century "skyline" of Yorktown as seen from the York River, or from the west side of the Yorktown Creek, was the windmill. This structure, built about 1711, was a landmark in the area for nearly 150 years. It, seemingly from the beginning, gave the name Windmill Point to that steep marl bluff that projects toward Yorktown Creek a little distance from the initial western boundary of Yorktown. It was adjacent, but up the hill, from the road that extended Main Street westward to its crossing (by bridge) of Yorktown Creek.

The tract of land here adjacent to the west side of the town, in 1711 was owned by John Lewis, Esquire, and his wife, "Madam Elizabeth." On July 16 of that year they agreed with William Buckner, a prominent merchant in Yorktown and a town trustee, to allow him the use of one acre of ground "for to build a Windmill upon." [1] The tract was bounded thusly: "beginning at a point on York River side Just below a Small Creek formerly known by the name of Townshens [Townshend's] Creek & Sometime it is called in the Ancient Patents Martues [Martiau's] Creek but now it is Called Yorktown Creek from the sd point South 61d East Eight Chain & one half to a Ston [stone] Sett Just on the Edge of the bank & from the said Stone South West by a Cedar tree five & one half Chains to the old Road thence down the old Road to the Small Creek before mencond thence down the said Creek to the beginning place."

Evidently William Buckner's intent was to build a merchant, or custom (toll), mill which he would operate as another of his business enterprises. Mills for grinding corn into meal and/or wheat into flour (whether powered by wind or water) constituted an important part of the Virginia economy both on the plantations, or at points well suited to trade, as Yorktown. In the case of the merchant, mill grinding for export or ship supply was perhaps of more concern than for local consumption. Profit came from grinding one's own grain as well as grinding that brought in by others in the vicinity. In the latter case a toll, as fixed by law and custom, was exacted by the mill operator. [2]

In the case of Buckner, he agreed with Lewis that he would build a mill and keep it in good repair for a period of at least seven years or forfeit any right in the acre of land. A further consideration, the principal one in fact, was that he obligated himself to grind 12 barrels of Indian corn each year for Lewis free of toll or other charge. [3] Presumably William Buckner performed all of the requirements of the agreement in good order and eventually came into full possession of the mill development. At his death it passed to his son, John, and when John Buckner died in 1748 he bequeathed this "wind Mill with the Lot of Ground it stands on" to his nephew, Griffin Stith. [4]

No account of the actual construction of the Buckner windmill seems to have survived and it is not possible to be specific about its initial type. When John Gauntlett in 1755 sketched Yorktown from shipboard in the river he did clearly show a windmill on the proper site. [5] Though he pinched his perspective on each end of his "View of the Town of York" (and the windmill was on the right extremity) he seems to have detailed a "smock" mill, a variant of the earlier post mill design. [6] Some of the 1781 siege maps also suggest this type. [7] It may be significant, however, that when James Willson Peale painted The Generals at Yorktown he sketched in some detail what seems clearly to have been a full tower windmill of some size. [8] A half century after Peale and when in ruins, the full tower is clearly shown with its wood construction and its octagonal shape. [9] In 1801 it was specifically referred to as the "old Tower Windmill." This language may suggest that the mill was even then inoperative. [10]

In an analysis of a body of 1781 siege maps and map variants, it was noted that six of them have a sketch of a windmill as standing here at the time of the battle. [11] Some 20 others give the more simple building symbol, some using a circular shaped symbol rather than the more conventional square or rectangular block. At the time of the siege, the mill came to have company on the point.

Evidently the British erected an earthwork here, presumably a battery, on the very tip of the bluff. In some instances the work was delineated alone, sometimes in association with the windmill. This point militarily was a strategic one overlooking Yorktown Creek. It was close enough to offer some artillery cover to the otherwise exposed and detached Fusiliers Redoubt just across the creek.

There are at least two engraved views of the old Yorktown Windmill Tower as it stood as a decaying landmark into the 19th century. Both seem to have a common ancestry and may in truth stem from a single plate or sketch. One appeared as part of a scene, "Yorktown Virginia," in The Family Magazine. [12] The other was a plate in Robert Sears, A Pictorial Description of the United States which appeared in 1857. [13] It was captioned "View of Yorktown, from the old Windmill at Yorktown, Standing about 1850." Actually it seems the 1850 date is a little too late in time for the old tower to have still been standing. When a survey of the "Lands of Washington Rowe Esq called Wind Mill point" was made in 1850, it delineated, among other things, the "Site of Old Wind Mill" showing it on the high ground overlooking the York River a little distance downriver from the tip of the point. [14] Evidently the life of the Yorktown windmill, or windmills (if it was rebuilt), on this site had run its course, but its name stayed on. [15]

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Jan-2010