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York County Virginia




The York County Courthouse (York-Poquoson Courthouse) is located at 300 Ballard Street, Yorktown, VA 23690; phone: 757-890-3450.

Beginnings [1]

At the time the first English colony was established at Jamestown in 1607, the region was occupied by Algonquin-speaking Powhatan Indians. These natives, whose subsistence was supported by agriculture supplemented by hunting, fishing and foraging, lived in settlements located along the major streams and rivers of the peninsula. It is estimated that over 13,000 Indians inhabited the coastal plain region of Virginia at the beginning of the 17th Century.

Initial amicable relations with the Indians during the first decade of English settlement declined as cultural differences and the English desire for increased land ownership created conflicts. The first English settlements in York County, Chiskiack and Fort York, were established in 1630 to provide a buffer between the existing settlements on the James River and the Indian settlements to the west. Development of these settlements included a palisade between the James and York Rivers, terminating at Chiskiack. In 1633, the fortification settlement was designated as a port of entry for Virginia. Several instances of open warfare between the English and Indians occurred during the middle of the 17th Century, and in 1677 a peace treaty was negotiated between the English and Powhatan nations.

In 1634, the Virginia Assembly organized the Virginia colony into eight shires, or counties, one of which was Charles River Shire (named for King Charles I). In 1643, the name of Charles River Shire was changed to York County (named for James, Duke of York and second son of King Charles I). As the population grew along the York River and new settlements developed, the Counties of Gloucester (1653) and New Kent (1654) were divided out of York County lands, and a portion of the western part of the County was ceded to James City County. York County is the only county on the James-York peninsula with intact court records to this period. The majority of the middle peninsula town and county records were destroyed during the Civil War.

By 1640, the majority of the land east of the palisade had been developed, and by the 1650s, York County was integrated into the plantation system of tobacco cultivation, the main agricultural crop that dominated the economy of the region up until the time of the Civil War. The institution of slavery developed along with the tobacco economy of the region, and York County's initial settlers brought Africans with them to work their plantations as early as the 1630s.

Yorktown was created by the Virginia Assembly in 1691, and during the first half of the eighteenth century the town was the principal port for the tobacco and slave trades serving the Virginia coastal plain region. After 1750, the tobacco trade fell into decline because of drought, depletion of the soil from the nutrient-demanding crop, and the shift of shipping operations to more northerly ports such as Fredericksburg. During the 1760s and 1770s, wheat and grain crops, livestock, and forestry products replaced tobacco as the County's economic base. Tobacco cultivation required a large work force on a year-round basis, while producing these commodities needed a smaller work force during a seasonal time frame. As a result, many African-Americans were sold to plantations in the Deep South during this period.

The Revolutionary War brought great hardship to the County. Much of Yorktown was destroyed, and the country surrounding it was damaged and ransacked by both Colonial and English militia. Yorktown is most noted as the site of the 1781 surrender by Lord Cornwallis to the American, German, and French forces under General George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau.

The County remained rural and agricultural in nature through the 19th Century. The economy was slow during the early part of the century, and little industry was developed. Industrial census figures from this period indicate several gristmills on the larger streams, such as Burwell's Mill (aka Whittaker's Mill) at King's Creek Plantation, and numerous looms for the manufacture of linen and wool textiles. According to the 1850 Census, the County population comprised 1,825 whites, 2,181 African-American slaves and 454 free African-Americans. Almost half of the households in the County listed farming as their principal occupation. Oystering and fishing ranked second to farming as an occupation. Other occupations included storekeepers, retail merchants, carpenters, bricklayers, lawyers, physicians, and clergymen.

The Civil War devastated much of the County. There were several battles fought in and around the County, and in 1862, Yorktown, while occupied by Confederate troops, was held under siege by Union forces. By 1865, numerous farms had been abandoned, and grain and livestock production fell dramatically. With the emancipation of African-American slaves, the plantation system of agriculture ceased to exist. The County, like much of the country, fell into an economic depression, from which it was slow to recover. Many of the large plantations were divided into smaller parcels and sold, leased or worked on shares. By the last quarter of the century, the number of farms in the County increased, while their average size decreased. The 1870 Census indicates that more than two-thirds of the farms in the County contained less than 20 acres. This Census also indicates that only seven manufacturing business existed in the County, including a sawmill and two flour mills, and only 36 people were employed in manufacturing.

The trend of decreasing farm size continued into the early twentieth century. A total of 960 farms were reported in the 1910 Census, more than 80% of which were owner occupied. Grain crops continued to be the primary agriculture product, with livestock, poultry, hay, sorghum, potatoes and peanuts also being produced. This Census reported no manufacturing businesses in the County.

A noticeable change in the development of the County was the establishment of several village centers. The villages were typically located at a crossroads containing a post office, school or church, store, and a few dwellings. The remnants of these communities exist today in Dare, Tabb, Seaford, Yorkville, Hornsbyville, Harris Grove, Dandy, Grove, Lackey, Magruder and Skimino.

During the first half of the twentieth century, industrial and military development greatly changed development patterns in the County. Just prior to World War I, the DuPont Corporation purchased 4,000 acres of farmland on the York River for a dynamite plant and constructed the town of Penniman to house its workers. Before the plant went into production, the Federal Government took over the facility, now known as Cheatham Annex, and developed a shell- loading plant. At the end of the war, the plant was closed and the town of Penniman disappeared. Today the Penniman Road name is all that remains of the original residential development, and the military installation is used as a supply depot.

In 1917, the Navy purchased 12,000 acres of land west of Yorktown and established the Naval Weapons Station. The Atlantic Fleet was based in Yorktown during the war, and the regional fuel oil depot serving the Navy was located on the present-day site of the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center. The Federal Government established Camp Peary in 1942 on the York River between Kings Creek and Queens Creek as a Navy training facility for construction battalions. The facility was used as a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, and many prisoners worked on farms in the area during their internment. The facility continues today as an armed forces experimental training facility. Areas not affected by military activities remained rural in nature during the first half of the 20th century, and farming and shellfish continued to be the main basis of the County's economy. Cash crops included corn, soybeans, truck crops, oysters, crabs and scallops.

Following World War II, the County experienced rapid suburban development. Military bases in the County and in Newport News (Fort Eustis) and Hampton (Langley Air Force Base) used during the war became permanent installations, and personnel stationed at the facilities added to the area population. In addition to housing military personnel, York County has also become a bedroom community for employees of the private sector in Newport News and Hampton.

  1. York County Virginia, Comprehensive Plan: Historic Resources, 2005, www.yorkcounty.gov, accessed April, 2015.
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