The view of Yorktown from York River has been pronounced by an English traveller as not dissimilar to that of Dover, seen from the English Channel. Its long line of cliffs, however, are composed of reddish rock marl, and not white chalk as are those of Dover. The view, both up and down the river, is stimulating. Save where the river narrows at York-town to a mile, the width for a stretch of twenty-seven miles to West Point is set down at less than three miles, and not far below the town the river expands rapidly till the waters, as they enter Chesapeake Bay or twelve miles distant at Toa’s Point, acquire a width of from five to six miles.
At the time of the arrival of the whites the region about the present town on the south side of the river was ruled by the Chiskiack Indians. In 1612 the chief of these Indians was known as Ottahotin. They called the river Pamunkey, but the English, at their coming, gave it the name of Charles River in honor of Prince Charles, afterwards King Charles I. The name Pamunkey was not lost, however, and became attached to the south branch above West Point, while Charles River became York River.
The settlement of this region took place under an order of the Council, dated October 8, 1630. The site of Yorktown was occupied by Captain Nicholas Martian, a Frenchman, who obtained his denization in England before coming to Virginia. When he died in 1657 he was succeeded at the site of York-town by his son-in-law Colonel George Reade, who became Deputy Secretary of State and a Councillor. After his death in 1671, the land, including the present Yorktown, fell to his son Benjamin Reade, who sold fifty acres in 1691 to the Colony for a town. Previous to this the courthouse had been at a place called York, three miles below Yorktown, and when that settlement apparently was burnt in Bacon’s Rebellion, Thomas Hansford’s home, midway between Williamsburg and York-town, was seized and used for that purpose until a new courthouse was built in 1680, at the French Ordinary, not far distant on the same road.
But from the very beginning nature appears to have pointed out Martian’s or Reade’s Plantation as the permanent place for the capital of the county, if not of the Colony. In all the disturbances which have distracted Virginia it has proven to be a great strategic point. In 1635 this region was the center of opposition to the governor of the Colony of Virginia, Sir John Harvey. By his favoring the tobacco monopoly demanded by the King of England, and encouraging the purpose of Lord Baltimore to cut Maryland from Virginia, of which it was originally a part, he was looked upon by the people of the Colony as a traitor. Captain Nicholas Martian was the leading spirit of the times, and at a meeting at William Warren’s house, a short distance from his own, he and several other conspiring patriots drew up a protest. Sir John Harvey had them all arrested, and was about to put them to death when the Council of State intervened; released the culprits and deposed Harvey from his government. In May, 1635, an Assembly was convened which confirmed the action of the Council and conferred the government upon John West, the brother of Lord Delaware. Harvey returned to England, where he appealed to King Charles, who ordered his reinstatement as governor. But the deposition of John Harvey was the first vindication on the American continent of the right of “self-determination.”
Forty years later this region became involved in the throes of another rebellion even more extensive than that which ousted Sir John Harvey. Another royal governor, Sir William Berkeley, was deposed by Nathaniel Bacon, Jr., who claimed the right to command by “consent of the people.” Colonel Reade’s house at Yorktown was seized by a party of rebels under Major Thomas Hansford, and as long as Bacon lived the rebel cause was triumphant. But Bacon soon died, and Berkeley, like Harvey, was restored to his government. Hans-ford was surprised at Colonel Reade’s house and carried over to the governor at Arlington, in Northampton County, where he was duly executed as a rebel, “being the first Virginian born ever hanged on the gallows.” Then after a hundred years arose another rebellion, and Yorktown was again the strategic point after six years of warfare. On October 19, 1781, the army of Lord Cornwallis surrendered here to the combined forces of America and France.
It is interesting to note that William Warren’s house, in which Captain Martian and his associates held their meetings in 1635, was only a few hundred yards from the Moore house in which the articles of Cornwallis’s surrender were signed, and that Martian himself, chief actor at the first rebellion, the first owner and patentee of Yorktown, was an ancestor of George Washington, who was in 1781 the chief actor in the overthrow of English authority at the same place.
The strategic character of Yorktown was again recognized in the great War Between the States, at which time it was the key of the fortifications of the Confederates across the Peninsula, unassailable until threatened in the rear by a Federal army which managed to pass by water up York River. Finally, during the World War the waters off Yorktown was the resting place of the United States warships which found here a safe harborage from the apprehended designs of the German submarine craft. Thus baptized through the centuries in the strife of five wars the little hamlet of Yorktown glories in her past, but dreams also of a future of peace, happiness and prosperity:
“When war drums throb no longer and the Battle Flags are furled, In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the world.”