More than a century ago Yorktown, which is DeWitt County's oldest incorporated town, was founded by Captain John York and Charles Eckhardt, during the administration of Governor G. L. Wood.
In honor of Captain John York, in whose breast burned the Spirit of Empires, the town was named Yorktown. Captain York was born in Kentucky on July 4, 1800, and came to Austin County, with his parents in 1821. He became a famous Indian fighter and was in command of a company of citizens who, under Ben Milam, defeated General Cos and 1,500 Mexicans in 1835 at the battle of Bexar. For his military services, York received many acres of land in the Coleto Creek area. Being interested in colonizations, he felt he could enhance the value of his property by establishing a settlement of his land. In 1846, two years previous to the founding of the town, Captain York moved to Coleto Creek, a short distance from where the present town is now located. Captain York lost his life in October, 1848, in a battle with Indians who had raided on the settlement of Yorktown. A historical marker designates York's grave only seven miles from town.
Charles Eckhardt, the other founder came from Laasphe Germany in 1832 and started a mercantile business in Indianola which at that time was a major Texas seaport. Eckhardt participated in the Texas War of Independence and may have met Captain York during military service. By 1843, Eckhardt's business was prospering and he had dealing with merchants as far away as San Antonio and New Braunfels. Transportation by carts and wagons was tedious and usually averaged only seventeen miles a day on a rough, crooked trail going through Victoria and Gonzales to New Braunfels. He hoped to find a shorter and better route with water available about every fifteen miles and blacksmith shops available for wagon repairs.
Charles Eckhardt contracted with John A. King, one of the pioneers of West Texas, to survey a road from Indianola through Yorktown to New Braunfels, later known as the Old Indianola Trail. From its inception in February, 1848, this road remained the chief thoroughfare for this part of the State to New Braunfels and San Antonio. This trail shortened the former route by twenty miles and established Yorktown as an important relay station for freighters, prairie schooners, trail drivers, and stage coaches bringing mail and passengers. The trail came through upper town near Dr. W. E. McAda's present Veterinary Clinic on North Riedel Street.
Indianola, which was then the principal seaport of the Southwest, was destroyed by a hurricane in 1875.
Early in 1848, after the founders had the proposed town surveyed, they offered ten acres and the choice of a lot free to the first ten families to settle the townsite. Many German, Bohemian, and Polish families came and soon changed this wilderness into one of the most prosperous sections of the entire state.
In May, 1848, Peter Metz and John Frank built the first house in the settlement of Yorktown for Charles Eckhardt. It was built of logs, twelve by twenty feet, with a back room and chimney. This house was later occupied by a brother, Caesar Eckhardt, who was the founder of C. Eckhardt and Sons Mercantile Company, known for half a century as the leading firm of its kind in western DeWitt County.
A few months later the first house on the new townsite was built by C. G. Hartmann. At this time the country surrounding was a wilderness, where all manner of wild game, as well as wild horses and mustang, roamed at will.
Unfortunately, neither of the founders lived to see the town develop beyond this point. In October 1848, in a battle with Marauding Indians, Captain York and his son-in-law, James Madison Bell, were killed. They were buried in a single hand-made coffin in the Yorktown Cemetery some seven miles east of Yorktown. In 1852, on an inspection of some of his properties in Central America, Eckhardt contracted yellow fever and died at sea on his return trip. He is buried in New Orleans. The Eckhardts did not have any children while the Yorks had ten children.
The town grew in spite of the loss of its founders. The thrifty settlers knew the value of education and erected their first school building in 1853 and the first church building four years later. The Catholics established a church in 1867 and the Lutherans in 1872. The huge oak tree on the lawn of the latter church is one of the oldest in the state.
The nearest neighbors to those hardy pioneers were found in the settlements of Indianola, Victoria, Meyersville, and Clinton to the east, Goliad to the south, Gonzales to the north, and New Braunfels and San Antonio to the northwest. Freight movements in those days from the port of Indianola and Port Lavaca to San Antonio and other trading centers passed through Yorktown. Because of its midway position it became an important relay station for prairie schooners and trail drivers.
The town was incorporated in 1871. Fifteen years later the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway constructed their first line into this territory, thus opening to Yorktown the advantage of rail transportation for both passengers and freight service.
Charles Eckhardt's first store was a tent and the second a log structure. After his death, his brother, Caesar and his sons, conducted the business and built the sandstone-steel structure in 1876 and 1878 in lower town on Main Street. The building now houses the Yorktown Historical Museum. The building has been restored and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also, the Holy Cross Catholic Church has been around for more than 125 years and its existing building is 77 years old. St. Paul Lutheran Church was started in 1872 and its present building was built in 1931.
In the next twenty years many other businesses were established including grist mills, cotton gins, groceries, dry goods, saddleries, millers, blacksmiths, butchers, hotels, saloons and beer agencies, tailors, barbershops, bottling works, dance halls and opera houses, physicians and undertakers, and a drug store, confectionery, stage stop and livery stable, and newspaper. Upon observing its the anniversary in 1898, Yorktown had a list of 63 proprietors in these various categories -- a thriving town, indeed!
By the hundredth anniversary in 1948, there was a small city park in the center of town with a homemade ferris wheel, other playground equipment, a tennis court, a library and a fire station. The city celebrated with a huge parade, crowning of a Centennial Queen and presentation of a colorful pageant depicting highlights of the first century with a cast of over 300 persons.