Thursday 26 November 2015

Brafferton Manor and the Indian School at the College of William and Mary, Virginia

In 1975 a portion of the archive of the Christian Faith Society (CFS) was transferred to the Borthwick Institute from Lambeth Palace.  The transferred records concerned the manor of Brafferton in Yorkshire, which had been purchased in 1694 as a landed endowment by the trustees of what would later become the CFS.  The Brafferton papers contain many of the items you might expect to find in such an archive; deeds, surveys, rentals and other papers detailing the business of the estate and the development of Brafferton village.  However included among them are three documents that highlight a surprising link between this small Yorkshire village and the history of America in the 17th and 18th centuries; one which gave a name to a colonial college building in Virginia and set a legal precedent in a groundbreaking court case following the American Revolution.

The CFS was created through the charitable bequest of Robert Boyle.  Born in Ireland in 1627, Boyle was the youngest son of the Earl of Cork and a celebrated natural philosopher, chemist, and physicist in his own right, with a keen interest in theology.  He financed the publication of an Irish language bible in the 1680s and donated money to various missionary societies working in the East where he himself had interests as a director of the East India Company.

The Shannon Portrait of the Hon. Robert Boyle, F.R.S. (1689).
Reproduced with permission of The Chemical Heritage Foundation
Boyle died in 1691 and in his will he directed that £4,000 from his estate be used for the advancement ‘or propagation of the Christian religion amongst infidels.’  His trustees, which included the Bishop of London, used the bequest to purchase Brafferton and in 1693 a large portion of the annual income of the estate was awarded to the newly founded College of William and Mary in Virginia, America.  

Copy of enrolment of bargain and sale of the manor and advowson of Brafferton,
in trust for the propagation of the Gospel in Virginia, 31 August 1695 (CFS 39)

The choice was not as strange as it might appear.  At this time Virginia was still a British colony under the spiritual authority of the Church of England, as vested in the Bishop of London.  It was his commissary in Virginia, Reverend Doctor James Blair, who travelled to England in 1691 to petition King William III and Queen Mary for the establishment of a college in the colony and there heard of the Boyle legacy.  Blair appealed to the Bishop of London and the money was duly granted to the new College – it was perhaps in deference to the Boyle bequest that the college pledged in its 1693 foundation charter to propagate the Christian faith ‘amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God.’ 

In keeping with this pledge, and Boyle’s wishes, the College established an Indian School where, in return for annual payments from the Brafferton estate, they would keep ‘Indian children in Sicknesse and health, in Meat, drink, Washing, Lodgeing, Cloathes, Medicine, books and Education from the first beginning of Letters till they are ready to receive Orders and be thoughts Sufficient to be sent abroad to preach and Convert the Indians.’  

Excerpt from an appeal to the Lord Chancellor from Masters and Professors of the College of William and Mary, Virginia, against the Bishop of London and Mayor and corporation of the same concerning timber at Brafferton, 1773 (CFS 13)

The governor of the colony enlisted Indian traders to take the news to the local tribes, but they proved resistant to the offer of European education until 1711 when Governor Spotswood offered to remit the tributes they owed if they sent their male children to the school.  As a result of this policy, the Indian School had 20 native boys by the summer of 1722, including members of the local Pamunkey, Nansemond and Chickahominy nations.  The students were taught English reading and writing, arithmetic and catechism, as well as drawing, for which they were said to have a ‘natural’ and ‘excellent genius.’

Initially the boys were housed in the town and their classes were held in temporary quarters, but in 1723 the income from the Yorkshire estate was used to build The Brafferton, a two storey brick ‘House and Apartments for the Indian Master and his Scholars.’  

The Brafferton c.1907.
P1979.1051, University Archives Photograph Collection, Special Collections Research Center,
Swem Library, College of William and Mary

Classes were held downstairs, with the boys sleeping in dormitories on the first floor.   Despite this improved accommodation, student numbers soon dropped again and would remain low for the remainder of the life of the school.  Without coercion, native tribes remained unwilling to part with their children.  In 1744 an Iroquois speaker declined one such invitation to provide students, saying ‘we love our Children too well to send them so great a Way,’ while other children who were sent to the college simply ran away, or completed their education only to return to their own people and take up their previous way of life – to the great frustration of the colonists.   From the 1750s onward the school could only maintain an enrollment of between 3 and 5 students.

The outbreak of war between the American Colonies and the British Crown in the 1770s brought an end to the college’s Indian School and to the Boyle endowment they had enjoyed for some eighty years.  At first the war had merely disrupted payments from Brafferton, but after America declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776 the College attempted to reclaim its lost rents, with the accumulated arrears, prompting  Bielby Porteous, then Bishop of London,  to challenge their claim in the Court of Chancery.  It was a pioneering legal case.  As the bishop himself later wrote, ‘the question was, whether they, being now separated from this kingdom, and become a foreign, independent state, were entitled to the benefit of this charity.  It was the first question of the kind that had occurred in this country since the American revolution, and was therefore in the highest degree curious and important.’ 

Chancery eventually ruled against the College and the income from the Brafferton estate was instead diverted to the conversion and religious instruction of slaves in the British West Indies, a particular cause of Bishop Porteous.  

'The township of Brafferton...the Estate of the Society for the conversion and religious instruction
of the negro slaves in the British West Islands, by John Tuke, 1796' (PR/BRAF/44.1)

With its principle source of income severed, the Indian School had ceased to function by 1777 and in 1785 The Brafferton building was repurposed by the College.   While it is hard to see the Indian School as anything but a failure for its colonial founders, it was not always so for the native students who were sometimes able to use the language skills and the knowledge of British culture they acquired to serve as interpreters between their own people and the colonists.

The Brafferton estate was broken up in the 1950s.  Today the Christian Faith Society continues to direct its income to the training and religious instruction of clergy and laity in the West Indies.  Meanwhile the estate’s namesake, The Brafferton, is still standing.  Having had much of its wooden interiors torn out for firewood and fortifications in the American Civil War, it was extensively restored in the 1930s and is now the second oldest building to have survived at the College of William and Mary, housing the offices of the college president and provost.

The Brafferton today (courtesy of Wikimedia commons)


Helen C. Rountree, ‘Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries’ (Oklahoma, 1990).

Margaret Connell Szasz, ‘Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607-1783’ (Nebraska, 2007).

Irvin Lee Wright, ‘Piety, politics, and profit : American Indian missions in the colonial colleges. A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Education Montana State University’ (Montana 1985).

‘The Indian School at William and Mary’ (