Originally, what is now known as the York River, was called the Pamunkey River, the name of Chief Powhatan's Native American tribe. This name was later changed in favor of the Charles River, and then once again changed to the York River. In 1691 the Virginia Ports Act authorized 15 port towns to be built along several of the major rivers including one town that was to be built on the York River for the purpose of collecting tariffs. That town of course would be called Yorktown after the second Duke of York in England.
Fifty acres of land was purchased for the town which was then divided into 85 lots. In 1691, a half-acre town lot cost 180 pounds of tobacco. In the 17th and 18th centuries, tobacco was the common currency in use. It was used to pay for everything which is why Yorktown became such an important location.
By the 18th century, Yorktown was one of the busiest ports in colonial Virginia. Then the sweet-scented Virginia tobacco grown in the York River basin commanded the highest prices in Europe. This high demand crop made Yorktown the primary shipping point for tobacco.
By 1750 the deep water sea port had a population of around 2,000 inhabitants. Many of them poor farmers with small plots of land no larger than a few acres in size. Tobacco was a labor intensive crop to grow. With the increasing European demand for tobacco, required extremely large farms for the crop to be profitable. That meant larger farms requiring large numbers of laborers to tend the fields. This was the early development of what would later become the plantations of Virginia and the eventual adaptation of slave labor.
The increasing amount of tobacco coming through Yorktown meant those involved in the shipping of the dried plant would see increasing profits and increasing wealth. The local farmers, while they did see some improvement in their lives, was minor in comparison to the shippers and the slave industry being developed. Slave ships were arriving on a regular basis. In fact, it is estimated that more than 14,000 slaves came through Yorktown in just a 20 year period.
The Virginia government used tobacco transfer from the colony to England as an opportunity to generate revenue for the government. With tobacco becoming the prime source of revenue for the colony, the government enacted special laws protecting the value of tobacco. Over time however, as more colonists arrived in America, more and more tobacco was being grown and exported, so much so that there was a glut of tobacco in Europe resulting in a decreased demand and lower prices being paid for the harvest, making it difficult for small farmers to survive.
Also of concern was the decreasing quality of the tobacco. Over-planting fields decade upon decade had so reduced the soil's nutrient levels that the soil could no longer support tobacco farming. Concern for these problems led the Virginia government to establish an inspection system that required every farmer to deliver his crop for an official inspection. The inspectors were authorized to destroy any tobacco products that did not meant accepted standards. This procedure greatly increased the value of Virginia tobacco.
The success of tobacco cultivation brought economic prosperity to many parts of Virginia. In fact, without tobacco the colonists might never had achieved any independence of England. Tobacco was the great equalizer. Nearly anyone could grow "cash" in their backyard that could be used to pay their debts and taxes. This worked as long as the soil held up.
When the soil began to fade, new land was sought. This meant moving away from the Chesapeake, and into the lands still held by Native Americans. Larger plantations meant more wealth. Crops could be rotated on the larger plats of land so the soil could be revitalized. Larger plantations required more labor, which eventually led to the importation of slaves. This meant that while tobacco was good for the Virginians, it also had a high moral price tag that had to be weighed against the immense economic growth.
As the production of tobacco changed and moved further away from Yorktown, Yorktown began to lose its importance as a seaport. The population dwindled down to a few hundred, mostly poor, although a few could still wield influence in high places because of their wealth.
With the revolution brewing throughout the 13 colonies, it was becoming an increasing difficult time for those living in and around Yorktown. The tobacco crops were not providing the same return on investment as in previous years. In 1769, a major hurricane struck the area and destroyed most of the shipping port and a good portion of the town was abandoned and not rebuilt. The town would see another hurricane just 10 years later.
In 1781 General Clinton wanted a deep water port that could easily handle the big ships of the line in the Royal Navy. Clinton wanted to increase British control over Virginia and to do that he needed an easily accessible port that could be defended. Those were the orders he sent Lord Cornwallis and it was Cornwallis's that chose Yorktown as that port.
Many of the smaller buildings and trees were cut down at that time so they could have clear views of sight to defend the position against any possible attacks. Cornwallis also had a large number of ships anchored in the river, so he felt comfortable defending this position. However, with the arrival of the French navy in the Chesapeake Bay just before General Washington's arrival by land made for a difficult position for Cornwallis. At about the same time, a sudden and destructive storm came up that damaged many of his ships. Now Cornwallis was trapped. After a short siege, he surrendered his position, his army and his munitions to the American commander.
In 1814 a fire swept through the city, completely destroying most of the town. Most of it would not be rebuilt until many years later. During the Civil War the town was occupied by both Confederate and Federal troops, both of whom used many of the earthworks that Cornwallis and Washington had constructed almost 100 years before.
In the early 1900s the US Navy established a base here that helped bolster the economy and in the 1930s the historic Yorktown Battlefield was set aside as a national historical park. In 1938 the Colonial Parkway was completed connecting Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown, making the area an important historical site.
After another hurricane severely damaged the area, the new Riverwalk Landing development opened in 2005 with much celebration, creating an attractive waterfront area.