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?
Thomas Nelson, Jr., is one of Yorktown's most famous residents. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, served as Governor of Virginia in 1781, and commanded the Virginia militia during the 1781 siege of his hometown. His home still bears damage from the bombardment during the siege.