York County is situated on the York River and many tributaries; the county shares land borders with the independent cities of Williamsburg, Newport News and Poquoson, as well as James City County and shares a border along the York River with Gloucester County.
Formed in 1634 as one of the eight original shires (counties) of the Virginia Colony, York County is one of the oldest counties in the U.S. Yorktown is one of the three points of the Historic Triangle of Colonial Virginia, and the location where victory was accomplished in 1781 at the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War to gain independence from Great Britain.
In modern times, the county is home to several important U.S. military installations. There are many miles of waterfront residential and recreational areas. York County adjoins the Busch Gardens Williamsburg theme park and includes within its borders the affiliated Water Country USA water park, Presidents Park, the Yorktown Riverfront area, Yorktown Battlefield and Visitor Center and Yorktown Victory Center. Yorktown is linked by the National Park Service's bucolic Colonial Parkway with Colonial Williamsburg and the Historic Jamestowne and Jamestown Settlement attractions at Jamestown, Virginia. Heritage, tourism to the Historic Triangle draws international visitors and is a major economic activity for the county.
By the late 16th century, much of the coastal plain draining to the Chesapeake Bay of the current Commonwealth of Virginia was called Tenakomakah in Algonquian, meaning ("densely-inhabited Land"). There, a weroance (or chief) named Wahunsunacock (1547–1618) created a powerful empire of eastern-Algonquian language-speaking people known as the Powhatan Confederacy by conquering or affiliating by agreement with approximately 30 tribes. Wahunsunacock was originally from a village known as "Powhatan," near the fall line of the James River. (The Powhatan Hill neighborhood of the current City of Richmond was developed near this site). He was known as Chief Powhatan, and later established a second capital village, known as Werowocomoco, in a centrally located position in Tenakomakah. It was located along the north bank of the York River in present-day Gloucester County (which was subdivided from York County in 1651).
The Chiskiack tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy lived in York County on the south side of the York River until the 1630s, when escalating conflicts with the expanding English colony based at Jamestown caused them to move. The former site of the village of Chiskiack (also sometimes spelled "Kiskiack"), as well as the Cheesecake Road and Cheesecake Cemetery (names also thought to have derived from the Powhatan), were later developed as the present-day Naval Weapons Station Yorktown near Yorktown and are included in the military base.
After Chief Powhatan moved his capital from there in 1609, the site believed to have been Werowocomoco near Purtan Bay was lost to history. Since the early 21st century, however, it has been under continuing archaeological study projects. The discoveries and ongoing research led by the College of William and Mary hold great promise in expanding understanding of the lives of the Native Americans in the area during that era of York County's history.
In 1570, the Ajacán Mission was a failed attempt to establish a mission by Spanish Jesuit priests. They were guided by Don Luis, a Native American who had been taken to Spain, where he converted to Christianity and was christened and educated. When brought to Virginia as a guide for the Jesuits, he returned to his native life. A few months later, he led an attack in which the Europeans were killed.
About 30 years later, English colonists arrived and established Jamestown in 1607 on the opposite side of the Virginia Peninsula in the Colony and Dominion of Virginia. In 1619, the area which is now York County was included in two of the four incorporations (or "citties") of the proprietary Virginia Company of London which were known as Elizabeth Cittie and James Cittie.
In 1634, what is now York County was formed as Charles River Shire, one of the eight original shires of Virginia and named for King Charles I, . Charles River Shire took its name from the younger son of King James I. In the 21st century, it was one of the five original shires considered extant in essentially its same political form, making it one of the oldest counties in the United States.
During the English Civil War, Charles River County and the Charles River (also named for the king) were changed to York County and York River, respectively. The river, county, and town of Yorktown are believed to have been named for York, a city in Northern England.
The first courthouse and jail were located near what is now Yorktown although the community, founded as a port for shipping tobacco to Europe, as variously called Port of York, Borough of York, York, Town of York, until Yorktown was established in 1691, when the House of Burgesses required each county to designate a port of entry and build warehousing. Although never formally incorporated as a town, Yorktown is the county seat of York County. The only town ever incorporated within the county's boundaries was Poquoson, which was incorporated in 1952 and became an independent city in 1975.
It is most famous as the site of the surrender of General Cornwallis to General George Washington in 1781, ending the American Revolutionary War. Yorktown also figured prominently in the American Civil War during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862.
Other communities, boundary changes
The small unincorporated town of Lackey and a nearby area known as "the Reservation" were taken over by the U.S. Navy during World War I in an area now part of the Naval Weapons Station Yorktown. Many of the displaced African American landowners eventually relocated to Grove, located nearby along the York County-James City County border.
During World War II, the sites of three other small York County towns were absorbed into U.S. government reservations. Penniman was the site of a World War I munitions facility operated by the DuPont company, and was made a part of Cheatham Annex) in 1943. To the west of Penniman, which is reported to have had a peak population of 15,000, on land which is now part of Camp Peary, the smaller towns of Magruder, and Bigler's Mill were located. Much of Magruder's population and at least one church were relocated to Grove, adding to that small community's population once again.
In 1949, the county grew by , as land in that amount was ceded to York County by neighboring Warwick County. At the time, the move was part of a successful attempt by Warwick County to block an annexation suit brought by the City of Newport News, with whom Warwick was eventually consolidated by mutual agreement in 1958. (The reduction in size allowed Warwick County to claim an exemption from the proposed annexation at the time).
In 1975, the county lost of land as the incorporated town of Poquoson, which had been within York County, became an independent city, although ties between the county and the new city remained close. Over 30 years later, they continued to share courts, sheriff's office, a jail, and some constitutional services.
York County also adjoins another small independent city, Williamsburg, which was long located within James City County. In the 20th century, some areas of York County adjacent to Williamsburg were lost to the growing small city through annexation.
York County in the late 20th and early 21st centuries
In modern times, York County and Yorktown in particular are part of an important historical area of attractions known as the Historic Triangle of Colonial Virginia, which includes Yorktown, Jamestown and Williamsburg. Yorktown is the northern terminus of the scenic Colonial Parkway operated by the U.S. National Park Service which links the three. In 2005, the county completed Riverwalk Landing, a successful pseudo-colonial waterfront development at Yorktown to revitalize the previously deteriorating beach and town district and complement the 2007 celebration of Jamestown.
Note: Poquoson city, formed from York County (1975); 1970 population 5,441.. Williamsburg city, formed from James City County, but also includes territory from York County. Annexation after 1980 from James City County (1980 population 424).