The Church in Yorktown, 1697-1724

        A church, courthouse and jail already existed at the old Town of Yorke (present-day Coast Guard Training Center) in 1691, when the Virginia Assembly enacted a measure that required a new county seat to focus and attract commerce. The new town was laid out in orderly half-acre lots above the bluff; a business sector was concentrated below the bluff. The records show that lot #35 was held for the church until a building could be erected. An empty lot was also held for the York County court house; in 1696, the court ordered a removal to the new site. This circumstance probably served as incentive to erect the new church as well.

        Frances Nicholson, lieutenant governor of the colony, pledged in 1696, "twenty pounds sterl. if within two years they build a brick church (at Yorktown)." [York County Records, Deeds, and Wills, Vol. 10, p. 344.]

        Although Nicholson's pledge was witnessed by the Rev. Stephen Fouace, rector of York Parish, in 1697, the church in Yorktown was in fact built of marl. While Nicholson was credited as a generous patron of the Church, he was involved in several disputes, including one with the College of William & Mary, over building funds pledged in 1691 that had not materialized by 1697.

        In a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dated 22 April 1697, Fouace complains that Nicholson has not come through: "Your Grace's charitable hopes of alteration in him have been frustrated by his steaddy perseverance in his former designs & methods which are such that if we continue much longer under his Government we must...despond at last & give over our endeavors to further what he hinders & uphold what he undermineth with all the craft he is master of." [Fulham Papers in the Lambeth Palace Library, compiled by W.M. Manross, 1965.]

        Early in its history, the Yorktown church began to attract the attention of the wider world. Prominent visitors to the area made the little stone church one of their stopping points. Missionary and theologian George Keith, with his partner, the Reverend John Talbot, made two passes through the Tidewater area. Keith and Talbot (1645-1727), missionaries for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, came to Virginia in 1703, probably at the invitation of Governor Francis Nicholson, an SPG board member and active supporter. Keith records, in his Journal of Travels (1706), that they preached at York and Hampton parishes in April and June of 1703, during their first missionary tour of America.

April 18, 1703. "I preached at York Town, by York River, on Acts 20:24"

Keith was recognized as a great Anglican Church apologist late in his life. The text of his sermon at Yorktown does not survive, but we do have one he preached at Abingdon on June 13, 1703. In it, Keith likens the process of spiritual discernment to a "breeze or gale of wind, filling the sails of a ship that carrieth her to a desired port, the sails answering to our affections, the wind to the divine influences...of the Spirit, blowing and breathing upon our affections. But...the ship needeth not only sails and wind, but compass and cards, with anchors...so in the course of our Christian life through the tempestuous seas of this world...we must take hope for our anchor and the word of God for our compass, and the noble examples of the holy lives of the apostles...and the most holy example of our blessed Savior for our cards."


        Another famous visitor to Yorktown was William Byrd of Westover (1674-1744), a political leader and ancestor of the influential Byrd family. Byrd visited Yorktown in 1709, the year he entered Virginia's Council of State. Byrd's personal diaries give a fascinating depiction of his own life and times and Virginia people and politics. He records, for November 8, 1709: "I rose at 7 o'clock and said a short prayer. I ate chocolate for breakfast. Then we took our leave of Mrs. Berkeley and went in a boat to York where there is a stone church. Then we went...aboard the shallop and sailed down the river with a fair wind." [The Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover, 1709-1712]


        By 1700, York County encompassed three parishes along the York River: Charles Parish, whose church site was near present-day Tabb High School; York Parish, in Yorktown; and Hampton Parish, whose church was often referred to as the Chischiak or "Cheesecake" church, located on the present-day Naval Weapons Station. Each parish also had a glebe, a 100-200 acre farm that provided income for the clergy.


        In 1706, the vestries of York and Hampton parishes petitioned the Council to be allowed to combine, describing themselves as "being so small & poor as not to be able to maintain a minister according to the law." They were given permission to merge, the new parish to be called York-Hampton Parish. The new parish supported one clergyman. In 1713, the church acquired Lot 41 in Yorktown to expand the churchyard. When York-Hampton parish was formed, the silver flagon and chalice, give to the Hampton Parish in 1649, came to the church in Yorktown, where it has been in continuous use ever since. A silver paten, a gift to Martin's Hundred Parish, was probably used at the Yorktown church after Martin's Hundred merged with that parish in 1712. The paten is now in the posession of St. John's Church, Hampton.

"My Parish is about Twenty Miles in Length...there are about 200 Families in it."

        One important surviving source of information about colonial Anglican churches is the 1724 report to the Bishop of London by ministers in Virginia and Maryland. The Reverand Francis Fontaine, minister at York-Hampton Parish from 1721 to 1749, answered 17 queries as to the state of his parish and ministry. From this report, we learn that Fontaine was licensed by the Bishop of London as "a missionary in the government of Virginia." He was not "inducted" by the vestry of the parish, which means that his employment and income remained at the whim of the vestry, since he had no permanent contract. Fontaine reported: "I read prayers and preach twice every Sunday...in the morning at one of my churches, and in the afternoon at the other." About two-thirds of the parishioners attended each Sunday. Holy Communion was administered at Easter, Whitsunday, Michaelmas, and Christmas.

TimeLine of Significant Events

  • 1699 - Capital of Virginia moves to Williamsburg
  • 1700 - Beginning of massive importation of Africans as slaves through Yorktown
  • 1704 - 168 "landowners" on tax rolls in York County
  • 1706 - York and Hampton parishes merge to form York-Hampton Parish
  • 1707 - United Kingdom of Gread Britain created. Results in wave of Scottish immigration to American, including Thomas Nelson
  • 1712 - York-Hampton Parish absorbs Martin's Hundred Parish
  • 1715 - Black slaves comprise 24% of the population of Virginia colony
  • 1724 - 60 communicants at York-Hampton Parish


Last Published: March 5, 2010 10:09 AM
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