History & Culture
Yorktown was established by Virginia's colonial government in 1691 to regulate trade and to collect taxes on both imports and exports for Great Britain. By the early 1700s, Yorktown had emerged as a major Virginia port and economic center. A well-developed waterfront boasted wharves, docks, storehouses and businesses. On the bluff above, stately homes lined Main Street, with taverns and other shops scattered throughout the town. Yorktown had 250 to 300 buildings and a population of almost 2,000 people at the height of its success around 1750. The American Revolution had entered its seventh year when, in 1781, British general Lord Charles Cornwallis brought his army to Yorktown to establish a naval base. In the siege by American and French forces that followed, much of the town was destroyed. By the end of the Revolution, less than 70 buildings remained in Yorktown and the 1790 census recorded only 661 people in town. Yorktown never regained its economic prominence. A fire in 1814 destroyed the waterfront district as well as some homes and the courthouse on Main Street. Additional destruction came during the Civil War Siege of 1862 and the occupation by Union troops that followed.
Did You Know?
During the Civil War, 632 Union dead were buried in the heart of the 1781 battlefield. In 1866 this cemetery became a national cemetery. Within a 50 mile radius, the remains of over 1500 Union soldiers were disinterred from their war burials and honorably placed in the Yorktown National Cemetery.