English colonists in Virginia developed plans to establish an Indian School on the Virginia peninsula as early as 1618. Before the school could be established, a raid led by Chief Opechancanough in March 1622 killed over one third of the colony's population.
The charter issued to the College of William and Mary in 1693 explicity stated that one of the College's responsibilities was to see "that the Christian faith may be propogated amongst the Western Indians." To carry out this mission, the College's first President, Rev. James Blair, sought funding for an Indian School. In 1697, Blair signed an agreement with the executors of the estate of the famous English scientist Robert Boyle, who bequeathed 5,400 pounds of his estate for "pious and charitable uses." The executors agreed to invest Boyle's money in a Yorkshire manor named Brafferton and to use its rents to pay the College an annual sum of 90 pounds to support an Indian School.
Blair promised to keep at the College "so man Indian children in sickness and health." He said the College could provide meat, drink, washing, lodging, medicines, books, and a well-rounded education from "the first beginning of letters" until the time when the young men could go back to "preach and convert" other members of their tribe. While Blair initially expressed an interest in the new Indian School, he soon turned his attention to other matters. Virginia Governor Francis Nicholson took an interest in the school and began a campaign to find it pupils. In 1700, Nicholson engaged two Native American traders to persuade local chiefs to send their sons to the College. The traders were instructed to tell the Native Americans "that a great and good man who lately died in England and having great love for the Indians, hath left money enough to the College here in Virginia to keep nine or 10 Indian children at it and to teach them to read, write, and all other arts and sciences, that the best Englishmen's sons do learn." Nicholson suggested tha tht eboys be seven to eight years of age and he invited the chiefs themselves to visit the College.
Although there is no conclusive list of how many Native Americans were enrolled in the school, it appears Nicholson's efforts failed. In the first decade of the 18th century, the College began the practice of buyings its pupils from local Indians who captured the boys during wars with other tribes. Nicholson's successor as governor, Alexander Spotswood, was also concerned about fostering a thriving Indian School. By 1712, he managed to overcome much of th edistrust among local tribal leaders who finally decided to allow their young boys to attend the school. About 20 young boys enrolled in the school. The increased enrollment taxed the school's resources and Gov. Spotswood turned to the House of Burgesses for additional support, which unfortunately for the school was not forthcoming. Enrollment dropped immediately, and by 1721, there was not a single boy enrolled in the school.
In 1723, President Blair raised the needed funds to construct a building to house the Indian School master and his pupils. In honor of the Yorkshire estate, the building was named the Brafferton. Even with the construction of a dedicated building and a schoolmaster, enrollment continued to be small and educational progress slow.
It became apparent that the Indian School was doomed to failure. Separated from their families, the young boys were constantly plagued with homesickness and loneliness. They also proved to be highly susceptible to the illnesses of the colonists, to which they had little resistence. Native American leaders were also reluctant to send boys to a school like the one in Williamsburg as it did not teach them the skills needed in their own communities.
The Indian School closed during the Revolutionary War when funds from the Brafferton Estate in England were cut off in 1775. Legal attempts after the war to resume the flow of funds failed, and the Indian School vanished as a part of the College of William and Mary.
The names of students of the Indian School are included in The Provisional List of Alumni, 1693-1888.
- University Archives Subject File (2007). Indian School. Earl Gregg Swem Library, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.