In May 1777, a delegation of approximately 40 Cherokee men and women arrived in Williamsburg to negotiate a peace treaty with Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry. Instrumental to the success of the negotiations was the interpreter, Charles Murphy, an alumnus of William & Mary’s Brafferton Indian School.

Murphy, the son of a Cherokee woman and a Scottish Indian trader, attended William & Mary in the 1750s, where he learned to speak, read and write English.

Murphy’s life is emblematic of the fascinating yet complex history of the Brafferton. 

“The Brafferton Indian School was an instrument of colonial policy for the British, but it also was a place of Native agency,” said Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, the Thomasina E. Jordan Director of W&M’s American Indian Resource Center.

William & Mary is recognizing the 300th anniversary of the opening of the  Brafferton Indian School building on its campus throughout 2023 by unpacking its complex history and exploring the university’s ongoing relationship with Virginia Indian tribes.

In the 18th century, “native people really used the school for their own purposes, trying to situate themselves in a changing political landscape,” she said. “I think that’s an extraordinary story.”

The Brafferton’s origins

The history of the Brafferton dates back to William & Mary’s founder, Rev. James Blair, who secured the 1693 royal charter establishing the university. The charter also directed “that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians” through the establishment of an Indian school.

Blair obtained funding for the school from the executors of the estate of scientist Robert Boyle. In 1695, the estate purchased Brafferton Manor in Yorkshire, England, and the annual income from its agricultural holdings was designated specifically for the education of Native American students. The school thus came to be known as the Brafferton Indian School.

In 1723, William & Mary used funds from the Boyle estate to construct a permanent home for the Indian School — the Brafferton, W&M’s second-oldest building — which Professor of Mathematics Hugh Jones deemed “a good House and Apartments for the Indian Master and his Scholars.”

A person points to a framed map on a wall
At a 2016 exhibit about the Brafferton Indian School at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, Danielle Moretti-Langholtz points to a recently uncovered 1771 map of the Brafferton Estate. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

Enrolled students came primarily from so-called tributary tribes, those having treaties with the Virginia colony with a wide geographical reach. In addition to the Cherokee, these included  the Catawba, Delaware and Wyandot, as well as the Pamunkey, Nottoway, Chickahominy and Nansemond tribes closer to Williamsburg. There were possibly students from 26 different tribal communities.

“Of all of the colonial Indian schools in the British colonial world in the 18th century, the Brafferton Indian School had the greatest impact, the longest timespan and the most students,” said Moretti-Langholtz.

The Revolutionary War disrupted the flow of income from the Boyle estate, and the school permanently closed in 1790 after William & Mary failed to win a lawsuit seeking to reclaim funding from the Brafferton estate.

Surprisingly, given the school’s significance in its own time, the history of the Brafferton’s origins and legacy had been largely forgotten by the 20th century. In 1929, anticipating the Rockefeller restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, W&M president J.A.C. Chandler attempted to rediscover the university’s connections with the Brafferton estate on a trip to England.

Remaining documents about the Indian school were fragmentary and did not focus on the Native students who attended the school.

History lost and found

The process of unearthing the Brafferton’s full story began in the early 2000s with Native American communities themselves, who had retained the memory of their ancestors’ attendance at the school. 

“I started to get phone calls from tribal groups outside of Virginia, saying ‘I think our young people used to be at that school. Can you tell us more?’” Moretti-Langholtz recalled.

Working with descendant communities and fellow scholars, including Buck Woodard Ph.D. ’13 — then director of Colonial Williamsburg’s American Indian Initiative — she undertook a long process of research, delving into historical records on both sides of the Atlantic. The research project gained momentum during restoration work done on the Brafferton building between 2011 and 2013, leading to the creation of the Brafferton Legacy group comprised of contemporary Native American alumni.

Buck Woodard Ph.D. ’13 speaks at a ceremony performed at the Brafferton building in 2011 in advance of its renewal project. (Photo by Suzanne Clavet)

Through this comprehensive work, the lives of 18th-century Brafferton students began to come into focus.

Native American tribes were initially reluctant to enroll their sons at the Indian School, mistrusting colonists’ motives. In 1700, Virginia Gov. Francis Nicholson encouraged them to inspect the school, and promised that an adult chaperone could accompany students “to talk continually with them in their language,” according to historical records.

Enrollments gradually increased, ranging from three or four to a high of 24 in 1712; altogether, 125 students attended the school during the 1700s. Evidence suggests that many of the enrollees were from high-status families. They stayed for several years, following the standard grammar-school curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic, together with study of the Anglican Church catechism.

“Finding the names of some of these young men and the things they did, such as Charles Murphy, it’s simply amazing,” Moretti-Langholtz said. For example, she and Woodard  recognized a treaty document prepared and signed by a Brafferton Indian School student, from the Nottoway tribe, called Robert Scholar.

“The other headmen signed with an X and a thumbprint, but Scholar, using a quill pen, has clearly written his own name,” she noted.

Another Brafferton alumnus, Tom Step played a vital role as translator during the French and Indian War, receiving commendation from a young Lt. Col. George Washington, then fighting on the side of the British.

Looking forward

The year-long commemoration of the Brafferton’s 300th anniversary, launched on Charter Day, offers new opportunities to explore the Indian School’s legacy.  

“We’re supporting a number of faculty who are engaged in research and teaching related to indigenous traditions, histories and cultures, and connected to tribal communities across the commonwealth and beyond,” said Professor Ann Marie Stock, presidential liaison for strategic cultural partnerships.

Chief Lynette Allston of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia offers a reflection on the Brafferton Indian School during W&M’s 2023 Charter Day ceremony. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

“We’re eager to make visible the value we place on the legacy of Native traditions at William & Mary.”

The Brafferton Initiative, which is being led by the Office of Strategic Cultural Partnerships, will include both campus and community events, outreach and partnership with tribal communities, faculty initiatives and a renewed look at how the university can share a more complete history of the Brafferton Indian School.

The commemoration kicked off at W&M’s Charter Day ceremony on Feb. 10. Leaders and representatives from nine tribal communities attended the event, and Chief Lynette Allston of the Nottoway Indian Tribe provided a reflection on the Brafferton Indian School.

“It’s a time of reflection, but also a time to consider the university’s response to this history going forward,” Moretti-Langholtz said. “How do we engage these historically linked communities in substantive ways? That’s what this is about.”

For more information, see Building the Brafferton: the Founding, Funding, and Legacy of America’s Indian School, edited by Danielle Moretti-Langholtz and Buck Woodard, Williamsburg, Va: Muscarelle Museum of Art, 2019.