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,” says 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 says. “I think that’s an extraordinary story.”
THE BRAFFERTON’S ORIGINS
The history of the Brafferton dates back to William & Mary’s founder, the 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.”
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.