The Historic Triangle

Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown

October - November 2001

The Historic Triangle

The Historic Triangle is the area in Virginia from Jamestown, which in 1607 became the first permanent English settlement in the new world, to Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, where men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, took the first steps of Revolution for freedom, to Yorktown, where General Washington defeated General Cornwallis in the final major battle of the American Revolutionary War, October 1781.


Jamestown is a place of many beginnings, of many firsts. It was the beginning of England's successful colonization of America. It was:

  • the First Permanent English Colony on the North American continent
  • the first seat of English government in Virginia and its social and political center for
    92 years
  • where the first English representative government in the New World met in 1619, the foundations of our form of government today
  • at Jamestown that the first arrival of Africans to Virginia was recorded, although they actually landed at Cape Comfort.
In June of 1606, King James I granted a charter to a group of London entrepreneurs, the Virginia Company, to establish a satellite English settlement in the Chesapeake region of North America. By December, 108 settlers sailed from London instructed to settle Virginia, find gold and a water route to the Orient. Some traditional scholars of early Jamestown history believe that those pioneers could not have been more ill-suited for the task. Because Captain John Smith identified about half of the group as "gentlemen", it was logical, indeed, for historians to assume that these gentry knew nothing of or thought it beneath their station to tame a wilderness. Recent historical and archaeological research at the site of Jamestown suggest that at least some of the gentlemen and certainly many of the artisans, craftsmen, and laborers that accompanied them all made every effort to make the colony succeed.

On May 14, 1607, the Virginia Company explorers landed on Jamestown Island, to establish the Virginia English colony on the banks of the James River 60 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. By one account, they landed there because the deep water channel let their ships ride close to shore; close enough, to moor them to the trees. Recent discovery of the exact location of the first settlement and its fort indicates that the actual settlement site was in a more secure place, away from the channel, where Spanish ships, could not fire point blank into the Fort. Almost immediately after landing, the colonists were under attack from what amounted to the on-again off-again enemy, the Algonquian natives. As a result, in a little over a months' time, the newcomers managed to "beare and plant palisadoes" enough to build a wooden fort. Three contemporary accounts and a sketch of the fort agree that its wooden palisaded walls formed a triangle around a storehouse, church, and a number of houses.

While disease, famine and continuing attacks of neighboring Algonquians took a tremendous toll on the population, there were times when the Powhatan Indian trade revived the colony with food for copper and iron implements. It appears that eventual structured leadership of Captain John Smith kept the colony from dissolving. The "starving time" winter followed Smith's departure in 1609 during which only 60 of the original 214 settlers at Jamestown survived. That June, the survivors decided to bury cannon and armor and abandon the town. It was only the arrival of the new governor, Lord De La Ware, and his supply ships that brought the colonists back to the fort and the colony back on its feet. Although the suffering did not totally end at Jamestown for decades, some years of peace and prosperity followed the wedding of Pocahontas, the favored daughter of the Algonquian chief Powhatan, to tobacco entrepreneur John Rolfe.

The first representative assembly in the New World convened in the Jamestown church on July 30, 1619. The General Assembly met in response to orders from the Virginia Company "to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia" which would provide "just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting." The other crucial event that would play a role in the development of America was the arrival of Africans to Jamestown. A Dutch slave trader excanged his cargo of Africans for food in 1619. The Africans became indentured servants, similar in legal position to many poor Englishmen who traded several years labor in exchange for passage to America. The popular conception of a race-based slave system did not fully develop until the 1680's.

The Algonquians eventually became disenchanted and, in 1622, attacked the out plantations killing over 300 of the settlers. Even though a last minute warning spared Jamestown, the attack on the colony and mismanagement of the Virginia Company at home convinced the King that he should revoke the Virginia Company Charter. Virginia became a crown colony in 1624. The fort seems to have existed into the middle of the 1620s, but as Jamestown grew into a "New Town" to the east, written reference to the original fort disappear. Jamestown remained the capital of Virginia until its major statehouse, located on the western end of the APVA property, burned in 1698. The capital was moved to Williamsburg that year and Jamestown began to slowly disappear above ground. By the 1750s the land was owned and heavily cultivated primarily by the Travis and Ambler families.

Follow the links below for a tour of Jamestown.

Tour of Jamestown

  Jamestown's Old Towne

  Jamestown's New Towne


By the late 17th century, colonists had moved out of marshy Jamestown to land throughout the Tidewater. Several successful planters settled in an area known as Middle Plantation. The spot, located five miles from Jamestown on higher ground between the York and James rivers, had been settled in 1633 as a defense outpost against the Indians. The colonists began to look toward Middle Plantation as a more inviting environment for their capital. In 1699, the royal governor, Francis Nicholson, declared Middle Plantation the site of the colony's new capital, to be called Williamsburg in honor of King William III.

The existing Middle Plantation was relatively undeveloped aside from a parish church and the College of William and Mary, chartered in 1693 by King William and Queen Mary. The site provided the perfect "blank slate" on which to build a new capital city for Virginia, one of the wealthiest and most populous of the British colonies in America at that time.

Williamsburg was most likely planned by Governor Nicholson, who also designed the city of Annapolis. It is organized according to traditional British concepts of how a "city" should function as the center of education, religion, and politics, with the College, Church, and Capitol serving as key landmarks. The main thoroughfare, Duke of Gloucester Street, was constructed over an early horse path along the watershed between the James and York rivers. Spacious public areas around the buildings - the architectural trend in Europe - provided practical meeting areas and impressive urban vistas.

Governor Alexander Spotswood, who led the colony early in the 18th century, proved to be an active expansionist. He claimed the nearby Shenandoah Valley for England and, within Williamsburg's borders, built the Magazine and expanded construction of Bruton Parish Church. Wooden and brick residences surrounded by gardens also sprang up, adding to Williamsburg's attractive urban setting. The period from 1680 to 1730 shaped the colony's Pre-Revolution identity. Black slaves became predominant in the labor force, replacing white indentured servants. The successful colony attracted more women, which resulted in a higher birth rate. The population surge was especially evident in the rural areas surrounding Williamsburg, where the number and size of large family-owned plantations continued to grow steadily. By 1680, the majority of the colony's population was native born.

Though there were never more than 2,000 permanent residents in Williamsburg at one time, the town's population swelled four times a year for "public times" when the colony's courts met (April, June, October, December). The town filled with lawyers, witnesses, plaintiffs, and defendants. Gentlemen arrived with their wives to attend to business or the meeting of the merchants. Night after night, people would pour into the taverns, where they dined, danced to fiddle music, and challenged each other to dice and card games.

During the administration of Governor William Gooch from 1727 to 1749, the colony enjoyed success as a renowned tobacco producer. A "gentry," or elite social class, was already firmly established. As colonial wealth and power increased, elegant plantations such as Carter's Grove were built along the rivers.

By the mid-18th century, the streets of the town of Williamsburg were filled with commercial activity. Fashionable retail shops catered to enthusiastic new consumers, offering local products handcrafted by resident silversmiths and blacksmiths, as well as goods imported from Britain. "Publick" Life

The Virginia colonists grew increasingly proud of their impressive new capital and their status as Britain's most loyal and politically moderate colony. They felt responsible for the colony's success as they had been participants in Virginia's representative government since 1619. The General Assembly, the colony's two-house legislature, was set up with a lower House of Burgesses (with two elected representatives from each county and one each from Jamestown, Williamsburg, Norfolk, and the College of William and Mary) and an upper Council (made up of 12 leading colonists appointed for life by the king).

Only a select few, however, were eligible to elect representatives to the General Assembly. In order to vote in the Virginia colony, one had to be "independent." The colonial definition of independence excluded men without property; slaves, servants; wives, children; and Catholics, who were considered dependent on the Pope in Rome. Furthermore, one had to be in control of one's "own passions," which excluded unmarried women, free blacks, Indians, criminals, and the insane. The result was an electorate reserved for white Protestant males of 21 years or older who possessed sufficient property to make them independent.

Williamsburg became a classic example of a "situation of traditional stability." The colonists and their British overseers fundamentally agreed on socioeconomic and political objectives, so there was little contention. Virginians accepted that the British government would guarantee their liberty to pursue private interests.

A Virginian's individual civic responsibility was held in the highest regard. Entering politics, especially sitting on the governor's Council or in the House of Burgesses, was the most respected and rewarding endeavor to which a man could aspire. The gentry of the Virginia countryside soon held the political power. Among the ranks of the burgesses were some of the country's famous early leaders, including Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.

Organized political parties did not exist, yet two distinct groups of political behavior developed. The dominant style was moderate and stable, exhibited by leaders like Peyton Randolph and George Washington. But also present was an energetic, dramatic style, fueled by a passionate opposition to England. Firebrands like Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson took charge of this camp. The Stamp Act

Virginia's tranquil self-confidence was shaken by the British Parliament's passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, the first attempt by the mother country to tax the colonies for revenue. The act stunned the American colonists, putting them on the defensive as England tried to override what colonists saw as their right to approve any taxation.

The Virginia legislature sent a firm protest to the king and Parliament, but it fell on deaf ears. In May of 1765, the House of Burgesses denounced the Stamp Act as an illegal infringement of Virginians' basic rights as Britons. A series of bold resolutions against the act were introduced by Patrick Henry at the Capitol in his first session in the House. His call for unconditional resistance made Virginia a leader in opposing the act and led to its repeal early in 1766. Underlying tensions remained, but the Stamp Act victory restored confidence to the colonies and encouraged Virginia to assume a leading role in upcoming political events.

In 1768, Britain sent Virginia a new governor, Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt, to administer for the Crown and to bolster its authority in Virginia. The colonists graciously received the prestigious full governor. But although Botetourt was widely respected and well liked, he could not quell the tide of resolutions passed by the burgesses in opposition to additional taxes imposed by the English. He dissolved the House of Burgesses. Undeterred, the legislators assembled privately at the Raleigh Tavern and signed an association against importing a long list of British goods. Lord Botetourt died the following year. John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore, arrived in 1771 to govern the colony. His haughty attitude and unwillingness to associate with the colonists made him unpopular, but no one would have guessed he was to be the last royal governor of Virginia.

Stirrings of independence were spreading throughout the colonies. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry helped set up a Committee of Correspondence to communicate with the other colonies as conflicts with the British escalated.

When Parliament closed the port of Boston in 1774 as a result of the Tea Party, the Virginia burgesses showed their support by observing a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. Governor Dunmore reacted by angrily dissolving the again-active House of Burgesses, which reconvened at the Raleigh Tavern. There, the burgesses agreed to lobby against British imports and decided to form the Continental Congress with the other colonies to give voice to their grievances. The Congress met for the first time that year in Philadelphia. In Virginia, the Virginia Convention effectively replaced the function of the House of Burgesses. It sent seven delegates to represent Virginia in Congress: Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Richard Bland, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Randolph. Because of his experience as Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph was elected first president of the Continental Congress. Together, the colonies resolved not to pay any kind of tax to the British.

Circumstances worsened when the British posted one of their warships, the H.M.S. Fowey, in the York River near Williamsburg. For security, the Virginia Convention moved its meeting place from Williamsburg to St. John's Church in Richmond, where Patrick Henry gave his famous oratory: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

Partly in reaction to Henry's rallying call to arms, Governor Dunmore one night secretly ordered marines from the H.M.S. Magdalen to remove all the public stores of gunpowder that were held in the Magazine for the colony's defense. The scheme was detected, and drums alerted the outraged colonists, who began assembling. Williamsburg's moderate leaders calmed the crowd. A few days later, however, news of battles at Lexington and Concord (outside Boston) added fuel to the fire. Backed by a group of 150 armed volunteers, Patrick Henry began marching toward Williamsburg to demand that Lord Dunmore return the gunpowder or compensate the colony for it. An April 1775 edition of the Virginia Gazette declared, "The Sword is now drawn, and God knows when it will be sheathed." While Henry and his volunteers waited outside Williamsburg, Governor Dunmore promised to reimburse the colony for the gunpowder. But the colonists' trust was lost. Finally, on June 8, 1775, the governor and his family fled to safety aboard a waiting warship - and the colonists' fight for freedom began.

In May of 1776, the fifth Virginia Convention (which fully replaced the discontinued House of Burgesses) met at the Capitol in Williamsburg and produced a resolution calling on the Continental Congress to declare the American colonies free and independent from England. The resolution, once passed, led to the writing of the Declaration of Independence, which was penned primarily by Thomas Jefferson. It was adopted unanimously by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia. Back in Virginia, the Virginia Convention had adopted a Declaration of Rights and drafted a plan for state government that evolved into one of the first state constitutions. The Convention elected Patrick Henry the first governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He moved into the Governor's Palace after a public auction was held to dispose of Lord Dunmore's possessions. The first General Assembly under the new constitution met in October 1776 in Williamsburg.

Follow the links below for a tour of Williamsburg.

Tour of Williamsburg

  Waller and Francis Back Streets

  The Capitol and its Surroundings

  Duke of Gloucester Street from the Capitol to Botetourt Street

  Duke of Gloucester Street from Botetourt Street to Market Square

  Market Square and its Surroundings

  Duke of Gloucester Street from Market Square to Nassau Street

  Palace Street and the Governor's Palace

  North England and Nicholson Back Streets


The Siege of Yorktown

In the spring of 1781, the American War of Independence entered its seventh year. Having practically abandoned their efforts to re-conquer the northern states, the British still had hopes of subjugating the South. By trying to do so, they unwittingly set in motion a train of events that would give independence to their colonies and change the history of the world.

In May 1781, British General Charles, Lord Cornwallis moved his army into Virginia from North Carolina after an arduous and costly southern campaign, believing that if Virginia could be subdued the states south of it would readily return to British allegiance. In June he received instructions from Sir Henry Clinton, his superior officer in New York, to establish a naval base somewhere in the lower Chesapeake Bay area. The Marquis de Lafayette, operating with a small American force, shadowed Cornwallis’ movements. Lafayette clashed with the British army near Jamestown, in the Battle of Green Spring on July 6. After the Americans withdrew, Cornwallis continued toward the bay and, on the advice of his engineers, chose the port of Yorktown for his base. Early in August he transferred his army there and began to fortify the town and Gloucester Point across the York River.

Meanwhile, a large French fleet under Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, had sailed up from the West Indies for combined operations with the allied French and American armies and proceeded to blockade the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, cutting off Cornwallis from help or escape by sea. At the same time, General George Washington began moving the Allied Army, consisting of his own forces near New York City and the French army under General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, in Rhode Island, toward Virginia to attack Cornwallis by land.

Following his victory over Admiral Thomas Graves and the British fleet in the Battle of the Capes on September 5, de Grasse maintained a strict blockade by sea while the Allied army, numbering more than 17,000 men, gathered in Williamsburg. On September 28 they marched to Yorktown to face Cornwallis’ 8,300-man garrison. After a week of laying out camps and preparing for a siege, the Allied army constructed its first siege line on October 6 and three days later commenced bombarding the British positions.

After capturing British redoubts 9 and 10 on the night of October 14, a second siege line, designed to bring Allied artillery to within point blank range, was completed the morning of October 17. That same day, after nine days of intense, round-the-clock bombardment that wrecked the town, and a failed attempt to escape across the York River, Cornwallis requested a cease fire to discuss surrender terms. Two days later, on October 19, 1781, he formally surrendered his army. When Lord North, the British prime minister, learned of Cornwallis’ defeat, he is reported to have cried, ‘Oh God! It is all over!’

The American victory at Yorktown, the last major battle of the American Revolution, secured independence for the United States and significantly changed the course of world history. After the British surrender, the French forces remained in the Yorktown area during the winter while Washington and most of the American troops, expecting the war to continue, returned to New York. In the summer of 1782, General Rochambeau and his troops departed for New England and left for France in December. Washington kept the American army intact for two more years, until the Treaty of Paris officially ended hostilities in September 1783.

With the end of the war came the end of the British claim to what had become the United States of America. The once loyal colonists were now Americans, faced with the responsibility of leading their nation into the future.


  • September 28, 1781 - Allied army leaves Williamsburg, marches to Yorktown, and begins to invest the British works.

  • September 29, 1781 - Cornwallis, believing that Clinton's arrival is imminent, evacuates his outer works.

  • September 30, 1781 - As allied engineers begin to decide on the layout of siege lines, troops begin construction of gabions, fascines and other items for siege warfare. British artillery attempts to disrupt the allied efforts.

  • October 3, 1781 - Allied forces in Gloucester defeat Tarleton, forcing the British back within their lines at Gloucester Point. This is particularly important in that it cuts off British supplies of fresh food and fodder for British horses. Cornwallis will soon order many of his horses to be killed, to prevent them from starving to death.

  • October 6, 1781 - Allies begin digging the first siege line. Several days of rain have softened the ground, making digging quick, easy and quiet. The line goes up in one night.

  • October 9, 1781 - Artillery batteries are completed. The French open fire at 3:00 p.m. from the French Trench opposite the Fusilier's Redoubt. Washington fires the first American gun at around 5:00 p.m. Soon, more batteries open fire. French hot shot ignites H.M.S Charon, which quickly burns and sinks.

  • October 10, 1781 - Clinton sends word that he will arrive in 2-3 weeks with reinforcements.

  • October 11, 1781 - Allies begin to dig the Second Parallel.

  • October 14, 1781 - Allies storm and capture Redoubts 9 and 10, then complete Second Siege Line and advance the artillery.

  • October 16, 1781 - British sortie attempts to spike allied guns, but the raid is ineffective.

  • October 16-17, 1781 - With allied artillery firing point-blank into his works, destroying his fortifications, and causing high casualties, Cornwallis realizes Clinton will not arrive in time. Cornwallis decides to escape from Yorktown. About midnight, Cornwallis moves his able bodied troops to the waterfront and begins to ferry them across the river to Gloucester Point. After some are evacuated, a sudden storm arrives in such intensity that the evacuation must be abandoned.

    Cornwallis is running out of heavy ammunition and lacks transportation for his equipment. Many of his guns are disabled, his troops are reduced to eating "rancid meat and wormy biscuits" and dysentery and smallpox have broken out in his army. Clinton is weeks away. Cornwallis decides that the only human thing to do is to seek terms of surrender.

  • October 17, 1781 - An officer with a flag of truce appears on the British parapet, accompanied by a drummer beating a "parley." Cornwallis seeks a cease-fire so commissioners can negotiate surrender terms.

  • October 18, 1781 - Commissioners meet at the Moore House. The British send Lt. Col. Thomas Dundas and Major Alexander Ross. The allies send the Viscomte do Noilles (Lafayette's brother-in-law) and Colonel John Laurens. The British argue the terms for many hours, but to no avail.

  • October 19, 1781 - In the afternoon, the British garrison at Yorktown marches to Surrender Field to lay down their arms. One hour later, the garrison at Gloucester Point undergoes similar ceremonies. This action surrenders one third of all British forces in North America, and is a devastating military disaster.

    Clinton and the British Navy leave New York, heading for Yorktown. When they arrive off the Virginia coast five days later, they find they are too late, and sail back to New York.

Follow the links below for a tour of the Yorktown Battlefield.

Tour of the Yorktown Battlefield

  Grand French Battery, Second Allied Siege Line, Augustine Moore House

  Allied Encampment, British Inner Defense Line, Yorktown Victory Monument

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