Yorktown Custom House
In the early 1700s, Yorktown was as large as Williamsburg with a population of about 3,000.
Lot 43 (where the Custom House currently sits) was first assigned to Captain Daniel Taylor.
As Captain Taylor failed to build on the lot during the first year as provided in the deed, the property was forfeited. The lot was then assigned to a George Burton in 1706, for 160 pounds of tobacco. The lot was then willed to Christopher Haynes and his wife, Mrs. Haynes, who was the daughter of George Burton.
As Yorktown was the largest deep water port between Charleston, SC. and Philadelphia, PA, the British felt it necessary to create a Customs Collector position to collect the taxes on all goods arriving in the colonies.
Richard Ambler was born in England in 1690. Through his marriage to Elizabeth Jaquelin of Jamestown, heiress to a huge tract of land on Jamestown Island, Ambler greatly improved both his wealth and social stature. Ambler, by now a wealthy merchant in Yorktown, was appointed to the position of Collector for the Port of York River. His district included the town of York, Poquoson, Piankatank, Mobjack Bay and other harbors.
In 1720, Richard Ambler purchased Lots 42 and 43 on the corner of Read and Main Streets, paying 30 pounds for the lot on January 11, 1720. The deed for the property lists several buildings but no mention of a brick warehouse. As the requisite for owning a lot was that the property be built on, these buildings were left by previous owners. Sometime after that he built the Custom House. In 1726, Ambler purchased Lots 45 and 46. He and his wife, Elizabeth lived in the wood structure next door, which was connected to the Custom House by a covered walkway. They had nine children, six boys and three girls. Only three of the boys lived to adulthood.
Richard Ambler died in 1766. His sons, John, Edward, and Jaquelin, all, in succession, also became Customs Agents at Yorktown. When Yorktown started to feel the effects of the Revolution, Custom Agent Jaquelin Ambler moved his family to Jamestown. Jaquelin sold the property to Thomas Wyld for 1,000 pounds. Wyld operated an Ordinary in the home and storehouse until the British arrived in Yorktown in 1781.
The Custom House was used as barracks for the British troops until the surrender. Following, the French troops who wintered in Yorktown lived in the Custom House. After the war, the wooden structure reportedly had suffered severe damage. The Virginia Gazette reported that the property consisted of "a very commodious house with four rooms above and four below, as well as a brick warehouse." There was also a kitchen, stable, wash house and a necessary house, and a well cultivated garden.
As Wyld attempted to pay for the property with depreciated currency, Ambler recovered the property through a court suit in 1783. In 1797, Alexander Macauley purchased the property from Jaquelin Ambler, thus ending 77 years of Ambler ownership. Macauley died in 1859.
In 1862 war returned to Yorktown. The Custom House was used by General J.B. Magruder as his headquarters while his troops were in Yorktown during the Civil War. Sometime while the Union Army was in Yorktown, the wooden residence was destroyed by fire. Civil War photographer Matthew Brady photographed the ruins of the home and the Custom House in 1865.
In 1875, an advance guard of reporters and members of the military came to Yorktown in preparation of the 100th Anniversary of the Surrender at Yorktown in 1881. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper of November 1, 1879, shows an aging Custom House with just one side door, no porch and no outbuildings. Soldiers roamed the premises. One reporter wrote "the original door on the south side, a brave bit of oak, still stands, and the cellars are occupied by pigs. It is difficult to anchor the imagination on the fact that through this small dingy dwelling all the entries for the York, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia passed, that this was the Custom House for this enormous continent."
In 1882, the Custom House was sold at public auction to Dr. Daniel McNorton for $980. Dr. McNorton was an African-American who had been trained in New York as a physician. With his brother, Robert, he returned to Yorktown after the war. Dr. McNorton treated African-American clients residing in nearby Slabtown and had his office on the first floor of the Custom House. Dr. McNorton is notable also as he was one of the first African-Americans to be elected to and serve in the Virginia State Senate.
During Dr. McNorton's possession of the building, his daughter taught music lessons on the second floor. The Custom House was also used as a school for African-American children. Later, the building was used as a general store, and then a bank. After the bank closed, a barber shop conducted business on the second floor.
In 1917, the Custom House was once again pressed into wartime service as a home for military personnel. From there the building housed itinerant workers and their families who were working in Yorktown on construction jobs. During that time there was still no electricity, water, or heat in the building. The fireplace was operational and a wood stove was used to cook. Residents had to go to the river to fetch water in buckets, and the outhouse was out back.
Mrs. Emma Leake Chenoweth moved to Yorktown in 1919. She was an early member of DAR and was asked by National to start a chapter in this historic spot. At the age of 61, Mrs. Chenoweth founded the Comte de Grasse Chapter on February 2, 1922. She then set her sights on purchasing the Custom House.
In 1922, Mrs. Adele M. Blow, a descendent of Thomas Nelson, Jr. and a Comte de Grasse charter member, purchased the property from the McNorton heirs for $10,000. The chapter then began an aggressive fundraising campaign to purchase the property from Mrs. Blow.
Funds for the down payment and subsequent payments were raised through solicitation of members of the chapter and other DAR chapters throughout the United States. These early members held bake sales, coordinated a ball, and produced plays to raise money. On April 24, 1924, all the payments had been made and the property was sold to the chapter for $6,000.
The Custom House was in a very dilapidated condition with panes missing from windows, shutters hanging on one hinge, a leaky roof, and no front stoop. In 1929, Mrs. Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans of Hot Springs, Virginia, a relative of our first vice regent, Mrs. Elizabeth Fox Madison, became interested in the renovation project. Mrs. Evans became a member of the chapter and personally financed the renovation project.
Architect Duncan Lee of Richmond and Contractor E.C. Wilkinson were hired to oversee the project. Work on the Custom House began June 1, 1929, and continued until the dedication ceremony on November 15, 1930. The renovation included replicas of the original dependencies, a walled garden, and structure restoration.
The Custom House has been open to the public on Sundays and holidays since 1930.
In 1972, the United States Customs Service designated the Custom House at Yorktown as one of twelve Historic Custom Houses in the United States. In 1988, on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Customs Service, the Commissioner of Customs re-dedicated "this historic structure, which served as a Custom House from 1789 to 1945 (sic) ... in honor and recognition of the two centuries of service by men and women of the U.S. Customs Service, whose contributions and sacrifices have played a significant role in the development of the United States of America and the protection of its citizens."
In 1999, the Custom House was listed in the Virginia Landmark Register, and is included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Maintenance of this historic building is the responsibility of the Comte de Grasse Chapter and is funded through donations, gift shop sales, and chapter dues.