Mapping Yorktown

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If urban legend is correct, the world turned upside down on October 19, 1781. The Patriots defeated the British at the Siege of Yorktown, paving the way for American Independence and starting an enduring trend for town names.

The end of the Colonial experience began in a dignified Southern town bordering the York River. 

Outside the Virginia tobacco port of Yorktown, Charles Cornwallis signed orders surrendering his British Army to a combined French and American force on October 19, 1781. The pivotal win for George Washington and his American forces eventually led to the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783.

The newly formed United States of America had many new requirements, including map-making. John Wallis was one of the first cartographers to show the new territory of the United States and surrounding territories as defined by the treaty.

Wallis’ map of gently sloping lines punctuated by jagged bumps reveal a land of rivers, mountains and towns, each with its own name. Over 230 years after the U.S. gained its independence, its territories and collection of place names have grown substantially.

The Yorktown known by George Washington may be the best-known town of that name, but there are many other communities in the U.S. that evoke the last major battle of the Revolutionary War. For instance, two cities in Iowa and Texas, two towns in Indiana and New York, two townships in Illinois and North Dakota, and 15 unincorporated places in 12 different states are all named Yorktown. Some communities added their own flair and named themselves Yorktown Heights in New York, Yorktown Woods in Tennessee and Yorktown Colony in Ohio. 

Outline of the U.S. showing places with Yorktown in Name
Places in the U.S. with "Yorktown" in their names. (Public domain)

The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), developed and maintained by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), serves as the official repository for geographic names used by Federal departments and agencies.

The U.S. Geological Survey provides staff to support the BGN. GNIS lists over 2.2 million geographic features, like mountains, valleys and lakes, and provides the official names for geographic and cultural features, which includes schools, churches, cemeteries and parks.   

The GNIS also provides the location of each feature, the name of the USGS topographic map on which it is located, a citation for the name and, if known, any unofficial names for the feature. The BGN’s files have provided one of the base layers for topographic maps for over 125 years.  

The BGN also considers proposals to name unnamed geographic features and to correct existing names, spellings and locations.  In 1950, the BGN voted to approve a request to change the name of Phenix in Lincoln County, Arkansas, to Yorktown to recognize the newly approved post office name. 

Although many renditions of Yorktown have taken hold of the nation, the first-known to the U.S. retains its glory as the site marking the Siege of Yorktown. The USGS mapped Yorktown, Virginia in 1907, and then again as part of The National Map.

Scanned USGS historical map of the Yorktown, Virginia area, circa 1907
Scanned USGS historical map of the Yorktown, Virginia area, circa 1907. Source: Historical Topographic Map Collection. (Public domain.)

 

Snapshot of the Yorktown, Virginia area with current data from The National Map
The National Map viewer image: Snapshot of the Yorktown, Virginia area with current data from The National Map. (Public domain.)