Yorktown was established by the Act for Ports of 1691, passed by the General Assembly at Jamestown (Virginia's government seat for almost a century). The legislation was but another in a succession of disputed and unsuccessful efforts by the colonial government to encourage growth of towns in rural Tidewater Virginia. Yorktown, however, succeeded despite initial delays and frustrations.
Fifty acres of land along the York River for the site of Yorktown were purchased from Benjamin Read of Gloucester County (across the York River from Yorktown) for 10,000 pounds of "merchantable sweet scented tobacco and cask." This land had first been patented 60 years earlier by Nicolas Martiau, Benjamin's grandfather. Martiau had carved his home and plantation from forested frontier wilderness.
York County surveyor Lawrence Smith subdivided the town site into 85 lots which county court-appointed town trustees ("feoffees") offered for sale. Smith left the area between the bluff line and the York River (the waterfront) outside the town limits and called it a "Common Shore." Lot prices were 180 pounds of tobacco and sales contracts carried forfeit provisions if the lot was not developed. On the first day of sale, November 24, 1691, 36 lots were recorded. Within a year, 61 had been sold. Three streets connected Main Street on the bluff to Water Street along the river - Buckner (known as "Tobacco Warehouses Hill"), Read and the "Great Valley." Other streets did not extend through to the river.
In a few years the town began to take root. The better homes, inns and public buildings were developed on the river bluff while "York under the hill" (the waterfront) featured wharves, warehouses, small stores, lodging and drinking places. The York County Courthouse was built about 1697, and the York Parish Church (later York-Hampton Parish and today known as Grace Church) was built in 1697, becoming the area's religious center. Both were key institutions in the new community.
The "Common Shore" (waterfront) was highly valuable and strategic property. By Assembly action in 1738, it became part of the town and functioned for public and private business even though it was managed as "Town Commons" until formally surveyed into lots and sold in 1783.
At about the same time that the town was enlarged to the water's edge, there was expansion, too, on the inland side. New acreage was offered for sale in what is known as the Gwyn Read development, named after the seller Gwyn Read.
Yorktown became an important tobacco port, exporting crops from area plantations. At peak prosperity (1740-1770), Yorktown had several hundred buildings and almost 2,000 residents, making it a substantial 18th century community, and rivaling the size of the nearby colonial capital, Williamsburg. There were men of all types and classes along the streets and on the wharves - merchants, planters, prosperous yeomen, shopkeepers, indentured servants and slaves, travelers and seamen. Apprentices rose to become partners, as in the case of Augustine Moore (in 1781, owner of the Moore House where the surrender terms for the British army were negotiated) in the Nelson firm. Prominent families were united by birth and marriage with the wealthy gentry of the region. The most noted citizen of Yorktown was Thomas Nelson, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia and commander of the Virginia Militia at the Siege of 1781.
An English visitor to the town in 1736 wrote:
You perceive a great Air of Opulence amongst the Inhabitants, who have some of them built themselves Houses, equal in Magnificence to many of our superb ones at St. Jame's ... Almost every considerable Man keeps an Equipage ... The Taverns are many here and much frequented ... The Courthouse is the only considerable public Building, and is no unhandsome structure ... The most considerable Houses are of Brick; some handsome ones of Wood, all built in the modern Taste; and the lesser Sort, of Plaister. There are some very pretty Garden spots in the Town.
Between 1691 and 1781, fortunes were made at Yorktown in the tobacco trade. No tobacco was better known, perhaps, than the famous "E.D." brand produced on the Bellfield acres (Digges estate), four miles west of Yorktown. (Bellfield Plantation site is located off the Colonial Parkway.) Ships came from Great Britain to get hogsheads of tobacco, which had been examined by government inspectors. Tobacco, and later in the 1700's more diversified cargoes, went out from the town's warehouses. Incoming freight included clothing, wines and liquor, furniture, jewelry and silver plate, riding gear and coaches, swords, firearms, books and slaves. This trade made Yorktown a thriving business center in the eighteenth century - a port that led in Chesapeake commerce for a number of important decades.
Yorktown's growth and prosperity peaked about 1750, though the shops and wharves were busy for perhaps another quarter of a century. The town's future potential was wiped out by the destruction and waste that came with the Siege of 1781, the "Great Fire" of 1814, and the Civil War's Peninsular Campaign of 1862. The soil of the surrounding country was worn thin, the center of tobacco culture moved southwest, and other points of trade developed.
Some of the visual highlights from Yorktown's past are gone. Gone is the windmill that was a point of reference on the high cliff overlooking Yorktown Creek in the 18th century. This cliff is still known as Windmill Point. The colonial fort in mid-century presided from "Fort Hill" over the waterfront, protecting the town and harbor. "Fort Hill" was the bluff extending towards the river beyond Grace Church on the west side of Read Street. The old town pier, of timber and crib construction, was located down river between Read Street and the Archer House-Cornwallis Cave area.
Many prominent homes have also disappeared. The Lightfoot Mansion, owned by Philip Lightfoot and his family, stood near the corner of Ballard and Main Streets. Of the three large Nelson homes, only Thomas Nelson, Jr.'s remains. Missing is the home of Secretary Thomas Nelson (son of "Scotch Tom" and referred to as Secretary because he held this position on the colonial council) which stood on present-day Zweybrucken Road. Some of its foundations are marked. Lord Cornwallis had his headquarters here at the beginning of the 1781 siege. The home of William Nelson (another son of "Scotch Tom" and father of Thomas Nelson, Jr.) was a large H-shaped structure which stood across Main Street from Thomas Nelson, Jr.'s mansion, and was destroyed in the 1814 fire. Also on Main Street, the home of Richard Ambler (a successful merchant, who by marriage acquired extensive Jamestown holdings) next to the Customhouse garden is gone, having burned during the Civil War.
Many important reminders of Yorktown's 18th century past still exist. On Main Street is the Nelson House, the Georgian Manor style home of Thomas Nelson. Jr.; built by his grandfather, Scotch Tom Nelson in the early 18th century, it is the most prominent of the remaining 18th century structures. Nearby is the Dudley Digges house, built in the mid-18th century by Yorktown lawyer Dudley Digges, who held several important positions in Virginia's colonial and state government. Also along Main Street is the Customhouse. where taxes were collected on imported and exported goods passing through the port, and the Sessions, Pate and Somerwell houses. On nearby streets are Grace Church and the Smith and Ballard houses. Reconstructed 18th century buildings, including the Swan Tavern, also help preserve Yorktown's historical atmosphere.
Surrounding the town are the earthworks that were first built by the British in 1781. In 1861-1862, during the Civil War, Confederate fortifications were constructed over these Revolutionary War earthworks. In the Siege of 1862, Confederate forces in Yorktown held off a larger Union army for over a month. Once the Confederates evacuated the town, Union troops occupied the area through the end of the Civil War.
Though Yorktown no longer appears as it did when it was an important 18th century port city or when the British were trapped within its boundaries during the Siege of 1781, it is still a place of national importance - a place where independence for the United States of America was won.