Established in 1691, Yorktown had grown to be one of Virginia’s busiest seaports by the middle of the 18th century. The prosperity of the town depended on commerce and the tobacco trade with Great Britain. Consequently, the dominant figures in the town were the wealthy merchants who owned the stores, warehouses and wharves where business was conducted. Merchants stood to lose a great deal as growing colonial resistance to British taxes began to interfere with trade. Around Norfolk, merchants with close connections to English or Scottish firms frequently opposed the colonial cause or were only lukewarm patriots. In Yorktown, however, the mercantile community gave its support to the Revolution, perhaps because of the influence exerted by the ardently patriotic Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Beginning in May 1774 when news arrived that the British Parliament had passed the Boston Port Bill, closing the port to all trade as punishment for the Boston Tea Party, Virginia’s more radical political leaders began pressing for active resistance to arbitrary British authority. After Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, dismissed the General Assembly for supporting the Bostonians, many of the elected county representatives issued a call for an unauthorized convention to be held in August.
Nelson opened a public meeting of York County citizens on July 18, 1774, for the purpose of electing two representatives to this convention. In his address Nelson warned that “we must make those who are endeavoring to oppress us feel the Effect of their mistaken,… arbitrary Policy; for not until then can we expect Justice from them.” He went on to urge the people to prepare to become self-sufficient and less dependent on British goods. The assembled citizens responded by electing Nelson and Dudley Digges as their delegates to the August convention and by passing a series of resolutions expressing their opposition to taxation without representative consent, support of the people of Boston, and a call for industry and frugality. Their actions may have had a greater influence than they realized, since an account of the meeting was published in colonial newspapers as far away as New York. When the convention met later that summer, Nelson and Digges supported sending delegates to the Continental Congress and voted for an agreement to stop importing all British goods after the first of November.
On November 4, 1774, the ship Virginia, commanded by Captain Howard Esten, arrived at Yorktown carrying 154 pounds of tea, sent by the London firm of John Norton and Sons for Williamsburg merchant John Prentis. Both Norton, a friend of the Nelson family, and Prentis must have misjudged the temper of Yorktown’s residents if they thought even so small a shipment of the detested drink, which still bore a small but symbolic tax, would be overlooked. On the morning of November 7, the York County committee charged with enforcing nonimportation openly went aboard the Virginia and threw the tea into the river without damaging the ship or any other part of the cargo. The York and Gloucester county committees passed resolutions condemning both Norton and Prentis for this “daring insult upon the People of this Colony.” Both merchants subsequently issued statements explaining their actions and disclaiming any intention to give offense to the people.
In March of 1775, the second Virginia convention, meeting in Richmond, began debating Patrick Henry’s proposal to establish a military force for self-defense. The moderates, led by Edmund Pendleton, opposed the measure. Nelson, however, swayed many delegates when he declared that “if any British troops should be landed within” York County, he “would wait for no orders, and would obey none” that should forbid him to summon his militia, and “repel the invaders at the water’s edge.” Nelson’s strong support of Henry’s motion won enough votes to ensure the passage, by a narrow margin, of the resolution.
Alarmed by the actions of the convention, Lord Dunmore set into motion a fateful chain of events on the night of April 20-21, 1775, when he ordered British marines to secretly remove some of the colony’s gunpowder from the public magazine at Williamsburg. As news of his action and of the bloodshed in Massachusetts spread through Virginia, armed volunteer companies began to assemble to march on the capital. In response, Dunmore began fortifying the governor’s palace and sent his wife and children on board the H.M.S. Fowey, a British warship anchored off Yorktown for safekeeping.
The captain of the Fowey threatened to bombard Yorktown if the colonists interfered with his plans to reinforce the governor. The York County committee was shocked at the realization that the British navy was ready to fire upon the “defenseless town” and treat the inhabitants like a foreign enemy. For a few weeks the governor tried to seek grounds for reconciliation, but on June 8 he quietly slipped out of Williamsburg and sought refuge on the Fowey. Dunmore was never to return to the capital and for the next month watched from aboard the ship as armed patriots paraded along the shore of Yorktown. Finally, in the middle of July 1775, Dunmore sailed down the river to Portsmouth. With his departure, royal government in Virginia came to an end.
Yorktown’s citizens had only begun to play their part in the struggle for independence, and few were to make such an outstanding contribution as Thomas Nelson, Jr. As a delegate to the Continental Congress, Nelson signed the Declaration of Independence. In 1777 he was put in command of the Virginia state forces, and finally, in 1781 was elected governor of the state during its deepest period of crisis. Yorktown’s most ardent patriot, Nelson was to ruin his health and sacrifice much of his fortune to support the Revolutionary cause in Virginia. Nelson must have taken great satisfaction that his efforts contributed to securing the decisive victory in October 1781, a victory that was won at his doorstep.