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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Town Profiles: Yorktown

Hi all!

​​This will the first installment of a series of posts known as 'Town Profiles.' These articles will highlight the main features of these historic towns and my experiences when visiting them. Think of these as the "Yelp Reviews of History." However, in order to really appreciate these places, you'll have to visit them yourself instead of relying on reviews such as these. While these posts describe the major landmarks, the scenery, and the historic significance, they don't cover everything these towns have to offer. So I encourage all who read these to venture out and visit these places for your own experiences. Additionally, I urge those who do visit (or have already visited) these places to reply to the respective posts and talk about your time there. Review local eats, shops and artisans, interesting exhibits, etc. And so, without further ado, here is the Town Profile on Yorktown.

Victory Monument

When driving into Yorktown, the scene is split between Old Town and the battlefield, with the visitor's center smack dab in the middle. I decided to walk into town and make work my way back. The first thing you see crossing the footbridge is the Victory Monument, a prominent feature overlooking the river. This impressive monument was erected on October 18, 1881, eleven days before the centennial of this decisive Revolutionary victory.

Yorktown has many original buildings (and a few reconstructions) still standing from the Revolutionary War Era. The lie all along the main road, each with its own commemorative plaque and historical marker. The first house I encountered was the Dudley Digges House (circa 1760). Digges was a member of the House of Burgesses and was captured during the Raid of Charlottesville in June 1781. Like many homes in Yorktown, the Digges house was badly damaged during the siege and was left abandoned after the dust had settled. However, the building was restored in the 1960s, making it livable once again.

Nelson House

The next, and in my opinion the most beautiful, building was the Nelson House (circa 1730). This magnificent structure presents outstanding 18th century masonry and lovely gardens around it all. Thomas Nelson Jr, the owner of the house at the time of the war, was about as patriotic as you could get. He was a member of the Continental Congress and advocated Virginia's support for independence. Not to mention, he led a raid on British cargo ships in October 1774 known as the Yorktown Tea Party. And to top it all off, Nelson signed the Declaration of Independence. His original house still stands (after being restored in 1968) and is accessible to the public. Across the street is a vacant lot that used to be the site of his brother's house, William Nelson. William was a merchant and entrepreneurs, owning a fair share of shops in Yorktown on the eve of revolution. William also served as acting governor of Virginia in 1770, succeeding Lord Botetourt after his death.

Further down Main Street stands the Custom House (circa 1720), owned and operated by the Ambler family. It's called the Custom House in regards to the 1691 Act for Ports, which stated that collectors had the power to seize, demand, and receive all customs, duties, and imports in an effort to better regulate trade. Richard Ambler served as a "Collector of Ports" in the early-mid 1700s. Ship captains and merchants would convene at Ambler's house to arrange the transport of goods and fill out the necessary paperwork/fees to do so. The outbreak of the Revolution ended the port system and the Amblers relinquished control of the house shortly after. Today, it serves as a museum and exhibits a special collection of goods that would have been regulated under the port system.

Diverting off the main road to Nelson Street, I walked over to a pottery exhibit titled "The Poor Potter of Yorktown." In the early 1700s, William Rogers established one of the biggest potteries in the colonies to serve the needs of the booming commercial town. In addition to its size, Rogers's establishment was one of the first businesses to produce domestic product in defiance of colonial law prohibiting so. While not much is known about Rogers's personal life, he was a man of many titles: brewer, potter, surveyor, financier, and military officer to name a few. The pottery operated on an industrial scale until his death in 1739. Afterwards, the works were abandoned. While no structure presently stands, archaeologists have uncovered a vast array of sites on Rogers's old property. Ruins of kilns, warehouses, and bits of pottery have been and continue to be excavated from this site. Visible today are the remains of the Large Kiln, approximately 310 cubic feet in size.

Bluff-side caves

Back on the main road, I approached the Swan Tavern, which started business around 1722 under the care of Thomas Nelson and Joseph Walker. The establishment was a popular social setting on the waterfront and also served an auction house for imported goods. The tavern itself was destroyed during the Civil War, and what stands today is a reconstruction of what the tavern would have looked like.

Down on the waterfront stands a reconstructed windmill that represents the one built in 1711 by William Buckner, a retired surveyor for Yorktown. The original windmill was located about 100 yards away on a bluff overlooking the waterfront, a prominent fixture of the town during its existence. It stood for nearly two hundred years before being destroyed at the turn of the century.

Walking back toward the battlefield along the waterfront trail, I came across some caves in the sides of the cliffs. These "caves" were actually man-made by some of the early inhabitants of Yorktown who established their homes not on the bluff, but on the coast. Obviously, due to flooding and wartime destruction, those buildings are no longer standing. Only the cave-like dwellings serve as a reminder of their legacy.

Redoubt 10

Finally, I arrived back at the visitor's center and battlefield. Preservationists have made an amazing effort to maintain Yorktown's historic integrity and keep its original battleground in tact. The battlefield is quite expansive. You won't be able to see the whole thing just by walking around. In fact, there are roads and pathways oriented around the grounds for vehicles and bikes to visit the spaced-out landmarks. The first landmark I visited was the British Redoubts 9 and 10. A redoubt is a heavily armed, defensive position designed to stop enemy advances. On October 14, 1781, General George Washington issued a full frontal attack on these positions, complete with heavy bombardment and attack columns. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, under the direction of Marquis de Lafayette, led the assault on Redoubt 10. The 1st Rhode Island Infantry, a predominantly black regiment, headed the attack and secured the position after about ten minutes of hand-to-hand combat. After the siege of Redoubts 9 and 10, Continental artillery forces set up the Grand American Battery, targeting the British inner defense lines around Yorktown.

After my walk around the earthworks, I jumped back into my car to visit the rest of the battlefield. I drove down a quaint, wooded trail around the military encampments and ended up at the Moore House, an 18th-century estate overlooking the river. On October 18, 1781, representatives of Generals Cornwallis and Washington met at this house to negotiate the terms of surrender. The meeting held in this house produced the Articles of Capitulation, denying the British the full honors of war.

Revolutionary mortar cannons

Further down the road, I stumbled upon the site of Washington's headquarters and the French campgrounds adjacent to them. A short drive later, I reached the French artillery "park," basically storage and maintenance operation for cannons and ammunition. Close to the French encampment is a somber monument dedicated to 50 unknown French soldiers who died during the siege of Yorktown. A simple white cross stands above the mass grave of its unknown occupants.

I would definitely recommend visiting Yorktown at some point. The town itself is beautiful and the battlefield is amazing! Not to mention, it is arguably one of the most historic sites in America. Like I said before, I didn't cover everything in this review. Experience Yorktown for yourself and relive the birth of a nation.


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