YORKTOWN’S FAME PREDATES THE REVOLUTION
Today Yorktown is best known as the site of the decisive battle of the American Revolution and a travel destination. But at its zenith in the 18th century, the town was one of the most important centers of trade and shipping in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay region.
Yorktown was established as a result of an “Act for Ports and Towns” passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1691. The town started to grow in 1697 when a courthouse for the county and a new church for York Parish were built. From the beginning, Yorktown’s success was closely tied to the tobacco trade, and during the first half of the 1700s the town was a thriving port. Large quantities of tobacco and other commodities were exported, and shipments of enslaved people and European goods were imported from across the Atlantic. By 1750 Yorktown consisted of more than 250 buildings and 1,800 inhabitants.
As the center of tobacco production shifted west to the recently settled Piedmont region, changing patterns of trade began to affect the town’s commerce. By the 1750s the York River’s share of commerce had dropped to third place among the Virginia colony’s six naval districts, and by 1776 Yorktown was one of the lesser ports.
Lord Cornwallis’ occupation and fortification of Yorktown in the summer of 1781 began a series of events that resulted in the Yorktown campaign later that year. At the end of the siege on October 19, 1781, the allied American and French army had won a great victory, but more than half of the town had been destroyed.
Although Yorktown survived the Revolution and siege, it never fully recovered. The devastated town gradually became a sleepy hamlet, which according to Benjamin Latrobe in the 1790s, was famous only for the “best fish and oysters, the best tavern in Virginia and hospitality and friendliness of its inhabitants.”