The Brafferton school was not the colony’s first attempt at establishing a school for Indigenous people. Around 1619, a school was opened at Henricus to teach Christianity, literacy and trades, but the English had great difficulty recruiting students. The Powhatan were “very loathe upon any tearmes to part with theire children,” according to Gov. George Yeardley. The school was closed in 1622 after the Powhatan coordinated military offensive against the Virginia colonists.
Another Virginia school for Native Americans opened in 1714. Gov. Alexander Spotswood wanted to put the tributary tribes in garrisoned reservations on the frontier and give them an English-style education in the hopes that they would be willing to serve as frontier scouts. Spotswood opened a school at Fort Christanna, just south of what is now Lawrenceville in Brunswick County. It closed in 1718 after the dissolution of the Virginia Indian Company, which had given shareholders exclusive control over trade with the Native tribes in exchange for running the fort and the school. At least 70 students — boys and girls — were educated there, and when it closed, the teacher, the Rev. Charles Griffin, was transferred to the school at William & Mary.
Prior to the construction of the Brafferton, students were housed in town — and according to a 1724 account by Hugh Jones, a mathematics professor at William & Mary, that operation proceeded with some difficulty. “The young Indians, procured from the tributary or foreign Nations with much Difficulty, were formerly boarded and lodged in the Town; where abundance of them used to die, either thro’ Sickness, change of Provision, and way of Life; or as some will have it, often for want of proper Necessaries and due Care taken with them.”
There is evidence of the students being provided with two uniforms (one for the cold season, the other for the warm), shoes, stockings and other supplies, as well as medical receipts for their care. But the quality of care for students may have varied over the 80 years the school was open.
The foreign Native nations may have sent boys to the school as part of a strategy of alliance. The aim may have been to learn about English ways and culture and use that information to improve diplomatic relationships. There was also a desire among some to learn the English language. Several of the students became interpreters between their nations and the English or, later on, the Americans.
The tributary tribes in Virginia likely shared some of these same motivations, but they were slow to act. Eager to assimilate them into English culture, colonial leaders invited all of the tributary tribes to send students, and, for a time, they were met with silence. The Indigenous communities likely had concerns about whether their children would become enslaved or put into some other form of bondage or servitude.
This reluctance held true for other Eastern Woodlands nations, which included a confederation of tribes in upper New York called the Six Nations. When parents from the Six Nations were invited to send some of their children to the Brafferton school in 1744, the Six Nations declined graciously, citing the need for a different kind of educational standard for their children.
“We have had some Experience of it,” Benjamin Franklin recorded the Six Nations’ speaker as saying. “Several of our Young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but when they came back to us they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly; were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, or Counsellors; they were totally good for nothing. We are however not the less oblig’d by your kind Offer, tho’ we decline accepting it; and to show our grateful Sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take great Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them.”
When the initial approach to the tributary tribes was unpersuasive, Gov. Spotswood tried a different approach.
In letters he wrote at the time, Spotswood acknowledged that the Algonquian-speaking tributary parents cited “the breach of a former Compact made long ago by this Government, when instead of their Children receiving the promised education they were transported (as they say) to other Countrys and sold as Slaves.”
To secure the support of the Nottoway tribe and other Virginia tribes during the Tuscarora War in 1711, Spotswood offered to waive the annual tribute paid by the tribe if it would send some of its male children to the college. In 1711, during the Tuscarora War, Spotswood wrote that “for the better assuring us of their future good behaviour, they should deliver two Children of the great men of each town to remain as Hostages, and to be educated at our College.”
In the same letter, Spotswood admitted that so far no students had been sent to the school from the tributary tribes. Instead, school officials had paid large sums of money “buying Indians of remote nations taken in war” to be educated at the school. Once Spotswood waived the tribute for participating Virginia tribes and saw enrollment of students from each one, he declared his plan was successful for both sides, writing that “their parents and others of their Nations [came into Williamsburg] frequently to see them, express[ing] much satisfaction with the care that is taken of them.”
Just because they were satisfied with the care given their children, however, did not mean the tribes wanted to become English. Jones, the William & Mary math professor, recorded some feedback about the school given by a delegation of Native nations that included asking “Leave to be excused from becoming as we are; for they thought it hard, that we should desire them to change their Manners and Customs, since they did not desire us to turn Indians: However, they permitted their Children to be brought up in our Way; and when they were able to judge for themselves, they were to live as the English, or as the Indians, according to their best liking.”
uring the Brafferton’s 80-year tenure, its students likely represented 15 to 20 different Native languages, and perhaps more. At a high enrollment period in 1712, the 24 Indigenous students may have been speaking six or more Indigenous languages.
The European-style Brafferton Indian School, which was characteristic of such schools in North America, had both similarities and differences to the U.S. boarding schools for Native children that followed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Both types of school were formed out of an assumed cultural superiority and an attempted assimilation of Indigenous cultures.
However, the power dynamics shifted dramatically after the American Revolution, particularly during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, who encouraged the westward expansion with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and whose policies would relocate American Indians. Some decades later, the idea of confiscating land was magnified in what came to be known as Manifest Destiny — the belief that white Americans were destined to settle the entire continent of North America.
American government policy increasingly moved toward what became known as allotment and assimilation, including the Indian Removal Act of 1830 in which American Indian tribes were taken from their land, often by force. Between 1831 and 1850, for example, more than 4,000 Cherokee died on what became known as the Trail of Tears, a forced march that began in Appalachia and ended in what is now Oklahoma.
Around the same time, a trio of decisions by John Marshall’s U.S. Supreme Court established the legal framework for defining tribal sovereignty. The U.S. government’s actions, coupled with major population shifts, destabilized American Indian country. The result was an environment in which the American Indian population, which once numbered in the millions, declined to fewer than 300,000 by the turn of the 20th century.
But in the early 18th century, the tactics to educate students at the Brafferton Indian School offered an introduction to English life but not a demand to adopt it. The boys were specifically encouraged to keep their language and cultural ties as a main British objective was to use the alumni as translators, cultural brokers and ministers of the Anglican faith. The students lived in two worlds and attempted to navigate both.
For 2026: Contested Freedoms, Oct. 26–28, is the second of five annual conferences hosted by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, William & Mary and the Omohundro Institute. Indigenous history will be among the session topics for the conference. See colonialwilliamsburg.org/for2026 for more information.