1814 Fire

The 200 anniversary of the 1814 is fast approaching and Yorktown should remember the lose that effected the inhabitants and destroyed many 18th century buildings. For many years the story persisted that Yorktown was visited by ‘marauding British soldiers” but there is no record of he British fleet ever coming up the York River.

1814 Yorktown Fire

York, March 4 (1814) — Yesterday about 3:00 P.M. Mrs. Gibbons’ house in this place took fire and together with the county Court-house, the Church, the spacious dwelling of the late President Nelson, and the whole of the town below the hill, except Charlton’s and Grant’s houses, were consumed. The lower town was occupied principally by poor people, who are now thrown upon the world without a shelter or a cent to aid them in procuring one.  Mr. Nathaniel Taylor and Simon Z Block are the principal sufferers in amount there—the former finds the result of more than twenty years honest industry a heap of ruins.  The wind was high and the buildings old—the fire spread of course, like a train of power.  Mr. William Walker, the Rev. Mr. Slater, Dr. Nelson, Capt. Drake, Major Griffin’s home, where they find all the comforts which their distressed situation requires.  The poor will need charity indeed—scarcely anything was saved from the fired buidings.” (Richmond Enquirer, dated March 9, 1814)  (According to Hatch is likely Francis Catlton who is reported to have bought Lot 140 in 1791. Nathanial Taylor likely had his home on Lot 117 or 110 according to Hatch)

There are several more reports providing witness to the fire. A Robert Nelson wrote a letter to Judge St. George Tucker of Williamsburg the day after the fire. He learned of it from a Mr. Bassett who happened to be there during the fire. Here is the portion on the fire: ” …it commenced about three o’clock yesterday in the house of Mrs. Gibbons at the upper end of the Town, which was burnt to the ground. The court House Church, the houses belonging to my uncle Hughs estate, the old Store and Grannery near it are burnt. Almost all the houses on the Water edge are burnt also. My sisters dwelling house are safe. I suppose there must be between twenty and thirty houses destroyed. How the houses on the left side of the street between the court house and my Aunt Nelsons escaped I cannot conceive. I presume the houses and store under the hill must have taken fire from the Church.”[1]  (The church is Grace Church today.  “Uncle Hugh” refers to Hugh Nelson who inherited the home of his grandfather, President William Nelson, as well as two store houses. The houses referred to on the left side of Main Street would include the Thomas Nelson house.)

The Second Courthouse – (1733-1814), a brick structure, contract to Robert Ballard, who completed it about mid-July 1733. Excavations in 1941 found the T-shaped structure was approximately 60 feet and the stem measured 52 feet in length. The sturdy structure had a first floor of wood which was sometime after an order to do in July 1739. The seat of the county continued after the battle in 1781. The British may have used the courthouse as a hospital but it is not known for sure. The French used it for quartering troops after the surrender for over a year. It is known all the windows were destroyed by the British. It was not until 1794 until a listing of material for repair is noted. We know in 1807 the structure was whitewashed. On March 3, 1814 the courthouse was destroyed by the fire that destroyed a considerable part of the town.[2]

The Second Prison (1737-1863) – The second jail on Lot 24 was built by William Rogers for £160 in the summer of 1737. This particular building was to have a long life and to survive both the siege of Yorktown and the fire of 1814 (though repairs followed each disaster). [3]

Grace Church (Old York-Hampton Parish)

The 1697 York-Hampton Parish Church was also destroyed in the 1814 fire. From 1814 until 1848 the church stood as only a shell. Built of marl, the heat hardened from the fire. When Bishop Richard Channing Moore visited Yorktown and preached in the courthouse as well as the Nelson house in 1825. In 1848 the church was rebuilt and renamed Grace Episcopal Church.

The President William Nelson home, a large H-shaped house, diagonally across from the Customs House was a casualty of the 1814 fire in Yorktown. Robert Nelson reported then that “the house belonging to my Uncle Hugh’s estate the old Store and Grannery near it are all burnt.”[4] There later insurance policies do continue the story of the Cox House and the buildings behind it.[5] The large H-shaped house on lots 46, 47, 84, and 85 across from the Governor Nelson House was the home of William Nelson, President of the Council. The house was lost in an I814 fire that destroyed much of the town. Its foundations remain below ground, and excavation would provide information about its Interesting plan.[6]

The Archer House restored by the National Park Service in 1968

The Archer House, on Lot 107, is currently the only visible structure on the Yorktown waterfront with colonial associations. The fire of 1814 has been assumed to have destroyed the house but shortly afterwards, about 1820, it was rebuilt on its original stone foundations above its basement which was likely filled at that point. The rebuilder of the house could have been Nathanial Taylor, Sr., whose family remained in it until 1840. The National Park Service rebuilt the structure in 1960. From an archaeological study in 1958 by John W. Griffen, we read, “Physically, it [the house] was slightly larger than most of the waterfront buildings, and judging from the surviving details, may have been somewhat more pretentious than the present building. It has been generally assumed that the house burned in the great fire of 1814 leaving only the foundation walls and ….chimney.” The evidence uncovered showed the foundations suffered from a major fire. The foundations are 18th century and unique to Yorktown, possibly deposited here by English ships in colonial days. The stone walls consists of granite, limestone, coral and marl but major portions of river rock, with some brick and slate used for filing holes. The chimney below the 5ft 7 inch level is from the 18th century and the upper portion that which was rebuilt. [7]

The home of Mrs. Gibbons, a leading ordinary in town located on Lot 30, half acre on the north corner of Church and Main Streets, was where justices adjourned to on October 21, 1782, after meeting in the courthouse. The courthouse was in poor condition seeing the French occupied it for six months, using it as a hospital. As noted, Mrs. Gibbons home is where the accidental fire stated in 1814. A Mrs. Mary Gibbons is buried in the Grace Church Cemetery having departed on September 22, 1792 (aged 75 years). Lot 30 development (as of 1748) was full of buildings. The ordinary was two stories high, had at least 5 rooms in addition to a ‘bar room’, a ‘billiard room’ with a ‘loft’ and a ‘cellar.’ In total there were four major buildings, a kitchen, washhouse, an old and new dairy, and two meat houses on the lot. The Revolutionary War took its toll on the buildings to include subdividing the lot to different owners.[8]

There were tensions and fear of attack from the British prior to this devastating fire.  In the Hatch study we hear about a letter from Christopher Tompkins to the governor of Virginia just day before the fire.  “I observe in the newspapers some writer from York represents the enemy to be off the mouth of the York River, and no doubt you have been thus informed, but the fact is, they have never been less than twenty miles of York.  ‘tis true they can see the ships from York, and that is all.  The reports you had of barges being up York River before I left Richmond were totally false.  There were several large canoes passing at that time from this county (Mathews) to Back River taking a cargo from a wreck, which were magnified to large barges, ec.  I also observe that the York Militia are on duty because they see an Enemy’s ship, but they had as well be on duty in Richmond for the good they can do.  There is no temptation for the enemy at York.  I would not give the stock on one farm in the lower part of Gloucester for all in York County.  So far from the enemy lying in the mouth of the York River, their smallest vessels have never been more than a mile from our shore and the largest about two or three, and can come within half a mile whenever they please.”[9]

Tablet behind Grace Church reporting 'Burnt by the British Nav in 1814'

 


[1] York Under the Hill, Chares Hatch, Appendix M, pgs 189-192.

[2] Hatch, “Colonial Yorktown’s Main Street”, 1980, pgs38-40.

[3] Colonial National Historic Park, Yorktowns Main Street Historic Study, Part I, Chapter IV, http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/colo/yorktowns_main_street/chap1-4.htm)

[4] Ibid. York Under the Hill, Charles Hatch.

[5] Mutual Assurance Society Policies Nos. 8619, 17664, and 21359.

[7] Hatch,
“York Under the Hill,” Appendix M. pp. 126-127; Hatch, “York Under the Hill,” Appendix M. pp. 126-17; John W. Griffin, “Archaeological Investigation at or near the Archer cottage Yorktown”, May, 1958, p.4; Nelson, “Architectural Data,

[8] . (Ref: NPS – Yorktown’s Main Street, Appendix G – Yorktown People have some Unpleasantless with the French; also pages 51-53.

[9]Ibid., York under the Hill, Hatch

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