GRAFTON — There is little doubt that Grafton is the centrifuge of a “locals’ community” in southern York County. This corridor connecting Historic Yorktown to Poquoson, Tabb, and eventually Hampton is full of residents whose families have called this unincorporated town “home” for centuries while also attracting “come heres” who’ve chosen to settle in Grafton for its sense of local connectivity, wonderful schools, and accessibility.
Where did the Grafton name come from? Today, we will explore the origins of this stalwart town’s name.
This part of the Historic Triangle wasn’t always known as Grafton. In fact, it was originally called “Cockletown.” A cockle is a bivalve mollusk which local fishermen sold to customers who would come from as far away as Richmond to purchase. While Cockletown was the generally accepted name for the area (with it referenced as such in newspapers well through the Civil War), this would not be its permanent nomenclature.
Rewind to 1775: Virginia was the home of influential and powerful members of society such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison. Yorktown itself was the home of Thomas Nelson, Jr., who would later be a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
While Yorktown proper was a bustling port town, the land surrounding it supplied exports from its vast swaths of rich farmland.
In 1775, zealous Massachusetts-born Baptist minister, John Leland, arrived in Cockletown to establish a congregation. Known for his passionate sermons, Leland attracted new congregants from around the area. Between November 1779 and July 1780, he is reported to have baptized 130 people. As an ardent advocate of the strict separation of church and state as well as being an outspoken abolitionist, his ideas were radical for southern Virginia; often landing Leland in the crosshairs of some of the more influential members of Virginia society.
Leland returned to Massachusetts in 1791, leaving his congregation safely in this hands of his protégés, including Elder Matthew Wood. Leland later reflected, “The chiefest of my success was in York where Lord Cornwallis and the British army made prisoners in October 1781.”
Elder Wood was able to secure the use of land belonging to Richard Garrett, where the congregation established a meetinghouse on Brick Church Road. Instead of naming the church after York, the congregation decided to honor its founder by chistening it in honor of the town in which Leland was born in Grafton, Mass. Thus was truly born Grafton Baptist Church (now located at 5440 George Washington Memorial Hwy.) in Cockletown.
In a 2000 report compiled by Dr. Lauren C. Archibald, Betty C. Zebooker, and Ronald A. Thomas of MAAR Associates, Inc. and submitted to the York County Planning Department and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, it was noted that Cockletown was the only area in which it appeared to the researchers as a recognizable village in this part of York County in the period prior to 1860.
The Cockletown name persisted through the Civil War, with newspapers on both sides of the war referencing the village as such in various letters and updates that were published.
Cockletown continued to grow in population and visibility, being a popular stopover for businessmen traveling between Yorktown and Hampton. Stores and lodging started appearing along the main thoroughfares of what became Grafton Drive and George Washington Memorial Highway (Route 17).
While there is some debate as to when the unincorporated town officially changed its name from Cockletown to Grafton, the prevailing theory amongst historians is that it happened in 1872 when the town’s post office was established under the name of Grafton.
Familiar families like Wainwright, Hogge, and Green which reach back to the dawn of Cockletown are still the names that grace Grafton’s street signs, businesses, and the families that maintain the history of Grafton. Fishermen continue to sell cockles to locals seeking fresh mollusks for their dining room tables. And Grafton’s “newcomers” are always welcomed with open arms as they, too, claim the identity of “Cockletonians.”
For more “Why Do We Call It…?” and more local history please visit our continuing series, Our Historic Home.