The Common

Beach scene along the Common

The Towne of Yorke (Yorktown), was established at a port town in 1691 by the Virginia General Assembly.  The “Act of Ports” published in the York County records on June 3, 1691 and the court directed implementation on July 29th, 1691.   On August 18, 1691 the town was surveyed by Lawrence Smith, when Benjamin Read and his wife Lucy conveyed title to the Trustees Ring and Ballard. The deed and the survey were filed and recorded by the York County clerk along with a 2nd plan delineating the 85 half acre lots and streets in the town.   Initially, the waterfront was not part of the town proper, having been excluded from the original survey.  The strip of water front land, approximately 5 acres, different widths along the entire face of the town, about one half miles long.  The waterfront became known as the “Common” when the Assembly later secured this area from the Benjamin Read’s son, Gwyn, for the Trustees, and for the use of the inhabitants of the town.   The water front would prove to be an area of valuable growth to include wharves, piers, landings, and ferry sites.[1]

In 1973, Charles E. Hatch, National Park Service, prepared the historic resource study “York Under the Hill,  Yorktown’s Waterfront”, which has been forgotten by government planners for the most part when creating the “Riverwalk Landing” development.  This study provides a wide range of topics to include: tobacco warehouse, inspection system for tobacco, public wharf and its construction, town batteries, sunken British ships, hurricane damage, trade, Cornwallis’s Cave, and the Yorktown Tea Party.  The study states “Data and conclusion provided by the study will permit sounder management decisions regarding preservation and use here.”  If the study had provided a basis for future development, we would now see a wharf and warehouse theme along the waterfront as well as colonial style buildings.   Read the attachments which express concerns about development along the Commons and the rest of Yorktown: (Sep 21, 2011 and Sep 24, 2011 by Lee Kreps)

Capt. Thomas Mountfort was appointed the surveyor for Yorktown on October 1, 1692.  He was instructed to “take immediate Care” to see there were good and convenient landings along the shore, as well as ways “for Rolling or Carrying up to ye Said Towne any sort of goods whatsoever” that should arrive by water.  By 1697, the County Courthouse was moved here and the parish church established for the York Parish.

In September 1746 the youthful Francis Jerdone arrived in Yorktown, he wrote in his diary later the two primary merchants was William Nelson and Philip Lightfoot.  David Jameson in an advertisement on May 31, 1751, wrote: “Just Arriv’d and now on Sale at York, A Choice parcel of Indented servants, among which are Blacksmith’s, Shoemakers, Taylors, House-carpenters, Caulkers, Sawyers, Barbers, Bricklayers, Painters, Butchers, Bakers, Coopers, Gardeners, and Roap-makers, Coach-men, Waiting-men, Ostlers, Farmers and Husband-men; also some Women and Boys.”  By 1752, the port of York ranked third (77 vessels entering with 7,882 tons and 70 vessels clearing with 6,717 tons) behind Port Hampton and Upper James River, followed by Rappahannock, South Potomac and Accomack.  The sketch of Yorktown by John Gauntlett from a ship clearly showed the Great Valley was the busier area where houses were densely packed into all spaces available.  Some sixteen structures were drawn in this area.

The activities of the “Common” increased greatly and by April, 1757, the Virginia General Assembly stated the “streets and landings” could not be repaired by easily.  This repair would be costly.  It would be necessary in some locations to use brick wall to keep the roads and landings from being washed away by storms.  The York County Court gave authority to secure funding, before August 1st, on the town’s inhabitants and lot owners for funding for these purposes.  These funds went to William Nelson, Thomas Nelson, Dudley Diggs, John Norton, and Edward Ambler who were empowered to carry out the purposes.  The Common was sketched in 1781 by Alexandre Berthier late in that year, showed the water front detailing 45 structures.  The group in the Ballard-Bucker streets section had grown to nine units and that around Read Street and the Great Valley to 7 and 12 respectfully.  The town’s southeast boundary included another 17 units.  In the 1790s there was a report stating the town was not more than one third the size before the war.  There were very little inspections of tobacco and people were cultivating wheat in its place, and only a few fishing huts and storehouses stood at the bottom.

In October 1786, the Virginia General Assembly authorized Yorktown’s incorporation.  There would be an election to select twelve men in March, 1787, composed of voters of freeholders, housekeepers, and inhabitants of the corporation.  Those twelve would organize and choose a mayor, a recorder, and four aldermen, the remaining six “of whom shall be common council.”  The mayor was limited just one year in three while in office.  The first common council was made up of Thomas Nelson, Jr., William Nelson, Jr., Corbin Griffin, William Reynolds, Abraham Archer, William Goosley, Matthew Pope, Hugh Nelson, John Moss, William Cary, John Jameson, and Alexander Macaulay.  Thomas Nelson, Jr., was elected Mayor, William Nelson, Jr., records, and Griffin, Reynolds, Goosley, and Pope as the four aldermen.

On July 21, 1788, the York County Court created an additional 64 lots, or small lots and varying shapes for sale to individuals.  This left only streets and ways and shore areas, now designated “Water Street” in public ownership and control.  The Town trustees remained the agents to make the conveyances.

The fire of 1814 devastated the Common and in particular the Great Valley area.  Some construction was noted by 1821, a dozen structures with some substance, several of two stories.  The major areas were that again of the Great Valley and in the Buckner-Ballard street areas.  By 1834, the town’s population dropped to 282.    In 1837, there was an effort to promote the town as a summer resort.  In January, 1837, Richard Randolph took the opportunity and petitioned the General Assembly to finance the development of “an extensive Hotel and bathery establishment, for the accommodation of the Publick, during the summer.”  Benson J. Lossing toured Yorktown in 1848 reported the town as the most flourishing town on the peninsula.  By 1880 the waterfront had less development than in 1866.  The population dropped to 250, of which 87 were white and 163 black.  The 1880 plan of the Yorktown battlefield showed two piers, one at or near the end of Ballard Street and the other at the old Buckner Street site.

The 1933 hurricane and massive tides and high winds left the entire beach area in considerable wreckage.  Much of the construction after this period has been built up as a result.  The National Park Service was instructed, working along with various Federal agencies in the mid-1930s, constructed a passenger building and freight warehouse constructed in 1936 on the former wharf site which reverted to the town on August 1, 1957.  The southernmost area, a swimming beach, was developed and has been converted into a picnic area.  All that remains today of the colonial times is the “Cornwallis’ Cave and the reconstructed Archer house.


It would appear the first development along the “Common” occurred below the Great Valley, with a deed of June 5, 1704 between two merchants, John Martin and John Penton.  The sale concerned two houses, called “the Store and the Store house and Still house.”  These buildings were actually constructed by an earlier owner, Robert Snead, “in the Valley neare-Adjacent to the said two Lots of Land [town lots Nos. 56 and 57] on the Wast Land as [at] high Water mark Comonley Called Sessions Land.”  Robert Snead, in 1701, had succeeded Thomas Sessions as the owner and added a store and storehouse or still house “under the Hill.”  It was like not far from Lot 107(survey 1788) and likely the Archer House.  Time after time the structures are also referred as “under the Bank.”   There is yet another mention of Martin’s Store “under the Bank”, sold by John Martin to Cole Diggs before 1714.  On June 18, 1714, in a John Wills and one John Cook mentioning “One Storehouse, or Warehouse Scituate and being in York Town aforesaid upon the bank or Shoar of York River abutting North upon the said River, East upon the Storehouse of Mr. Thos. Nelson & West upon the Storehouse of Mr. Cole Diggs.  John Cook on January 15, 1715 sold his waterfront development to Edward Powers, an innkeeper.  It was described as a “Now Dwelling house on the shoar of York River.”  So we see a number of storehouses tucked along the shore and Great Valley, neighbors close to neighbors, owning the river front.  There appeared some difficulty with this close ownership and rights to the waterfront.  The need for special patents for particular purposes to afford security for the merchants.  On October 17, 1716, Charles Chiswell of the Council of Virginia granted “a parcel of Land lying within the highwater Mark at Yorke Town” a 100 feet long and 80 feet wide “for Erecting thereon a Storehouse and Wharf.”   In the late 1720s, there was petitioning for 80 foot square along the beach for building warehouses and wharfs.


The town continued to grow and there was increasing needs for the public.  The riverfront was where the town’s defense battery was set up.  The pubic warehouses for tobacco were here supporting ship landings along the wharf.  There was the York ferry landing and across the York at Gloucester Point, first called Tindall’s Point and then Gloucester Town.  On February 24, 1690, Robert Read mentions in a grant license a ferry on the south side of the river.  In January, 1690, the mention of the “Yorke Ferry.”  There was a deed in 1839 covering in the area of Lot 148 and noted the property was near the Ferry landing…opposite Gloucester Town.  The ferry generally remained here until the service was discontinued in 1952 with the construction of the Coleman Memorial Bridge.

Fort Hill

Mentioned was the fact a fort or battery (first site) was located at Yorktown.  The earliest fort was at Tindall’s Point.  In 1710-11, Governor Spottswood led a decision to build four forts, mounting 70 cannons, for the protection of the colony.  Two, one a Tindall’s Point and another in Yorktown.  Overseer of the Yorktown work was Edward Powers, who likely employed a large number of slaves in this major indeveavor.  In 1721, the fort in Yorktown has 11 guns “under the Bank at York”.  It would appear tidal flooding and or poor drainage led to the relocation of the fort.  A council repair order on May 6, 1731 as the battery was in extreme disrepair.  A second site was chosen in front of Lots 34 and 40, between Read and Church Street.  It was well underway in September, 1734, with twelve guns ordered.  This location was known as “Fort Hill.”  In 1743, Governor Gooch reported the Virginia coastal batteries were weak.  In July 1756, John Blair reported on the state of the Colonial defense, wrote the Town of York fort had eleven guns of 18 and 9 pounders, and 10 small guns of a pound and a half.  He said the large guns were not fit for service.  In 1762, the inventory consisted of four 18-pounders, two 12’s, five 6’s, and 12 one pounders.  Twelve were reported in good shape and the rest not.  It was on August 20, 1762, council records recorded: “William Nelson Esqur inform’d the Board that there were some carriage Guns lying at York, which might prove of use, if renovated; whereupon it was recommended to him to signify to the County Lieutenant, that he was requir’d by the Board to put the Town of York in as defensible a State as possible and to keep the Militia of the County on the most respectable Footing.”  The British in their September 1781 occupation enlarged the old battery on the slope of “Fort Hill.”  Under the hill, Cornwallis’s Cave was converted into a magazine with protective works in front of it.


The number of wharves and landing places jetting out from the shoreline at Yorktown during the Colonial period is uncertain, and even so there would likely been a number of them.  For the public wharves, William Buckner, the official tobacco agent, was appointed to build on February 15, 1714.  It was built to handle tobacco delivered to the port for shipping.   In 1715 in a listing of “Public Storehouses and Wharfs built”, “Buckners’ Landing York Co” is included and stated to have two storehouse.  The Buckner family performed the management of the facilities until 1746.  The Buckner operation, from all indications was in front of Lots 1 and 4, which was part of Buckner’s operations.  The landing or wharf, were likely what is now Buckner Street, and which was referred as the road down “Tobacco Warehouse Hill.”  Over the years there were many reports of the poor condition of the wharves, and repairs needed.  According to Virginia Gazette and Deeds, according to Hatch, there is reason to believe a wharf was located at some point between Read Street and the “Great Valley.”  This area is confirmed by 1781 from maps.  On May 26, 1861, it was reported there were two wharves in Yorktown and between stood a couple buildings, tenantless and unoccupied, where high tide washed around them.  Even by 1941, the wharf remains could be seen.  It was concluded these wharf remains go back to colonial times.  The remains located 265 downstream from Read Street and extended ¾ of the 200 foot length.  It seemed the wharf was 12-14 feet across.  It was also referred to in 1866 as the “Stone Warf” as it was backfilled with stone to keep the timbers in place.

Tobacco Warehouses

In 1712, the Virginia Assembly’s Act for appointing rolling-houses.  There houses were the destinations on “rolling roads” as for routes over which tobacco moved, in cylindrically shaped hogsheads, to go to market.  They were necessary for public inspection of tobacco and in point the compulsory control system set up by the Virginia Assembly Act of 1730.  The official inspectors examined the product, stamped it, and issued certificates on amount and certified quality.  The certificates basically became currency within the next several decades.  It was William Buckner, mentioned above, was responsible for erecting the warehouses with suitable landing and wharf.  He erected two warehouses in 1714.  As noted earlier, the Buckner family continued with the support to the wharf and warehouses for thirty years.  In 1746, a new warehouse was ordered and the next year, John Harvey was paid to build it apparently just below Read Street.  Decades following there were repairs and construction of warehouses mentioned.  The siege of Yorktown by the British and resulting fight led to damages along the Common.  Property owners claim for damages to warehouses and homes.  The decaying scuttled ships in 1783 were still in evidence in the harbor.   In 1783, Lawrence Smith gave bond to build  warehouses for the County.  In 1784 Yorktown’s inspector Philip Dedman reported inspecting hogsheads and a quantity of transfer tobacco.  In 1790, David Jameson was permitted to remove the Tobacco Warehouses commonly called the “York Warehouses”, across the Valley, on the Lands of the late Secretary Nelson, on the waterfront on the southeast line of the town limits.  It is believed to be on the 1848 survey plat as the “Old Tobacco Warehouse.”

[1] “York Under the Hill” Yorktown’s Waterfront, by Charles E. Hatch, Jr., Historic Preservation Team, historic resource study, c- March 1973.  All paragraphs area extracted and reworded to the most part from the Hatch study.

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