For the first time in any recent history, college students this spring, including those at the local College of William & Mary, took classes online and sadly missed spring activities on campus. College seniors lament celebrating their May graduations while college officials work on steps going forward. Roughly 400 years ago, Virginia Company officials also had college on their minds, not necessarily for the same reasons. Company leaders wanted to establish a university in Virginia and planned to start with a college specifically to teach Virginia’s first people, members of the Powhatan Indian chiefdom. This venture would serve as an early seed for one of the roots planted at the College of William & Mary in 1693.
King James I showed interest in Christianizing and converting Virginia’s indigenous people in his first charter to the Virginia Company, but not much had been tried in the colony’s early, difficult years. Yet in 1616, following the successful conversion of Pocahontas and her marriage to tobacco planter John Rolfe, Rolfe promised to “set forward the business of building a college in Virginia for the training up” of Indian children. The Company also encouraged colonists to house and teach Indian children Christianity and English culture, reasoning that young Indians learn quicker than adults. Curiously, the English couldn’t grasp that Indian parents didn’t want to give up their children for any reason, let alone for learning English religion and culture.
In 1618, the Company pressed the idea when its new leader, Sir Edwin Sandys, sought funds to develop public lands for raising a diversity of money-making crops other than tobacco, and to create new industries. Concurrently some ardent Company members wanted to educate both English and Virginia Indian boys so the Company’s 1618 Great Charter mandated “a University . . . in time to come, and that in the mean time . . . the building of the said College for the Children of the Infidels.” With the approval of the king, Sandys put out a call in 1619 to Church of England bishops to collect funds specifically for the College project.
The appeal raised more than 2,000 pounds sterling to be invested in Virginia property called the College Land. Tenants would work the land, plant grapevines and work in trades such as winemaking, blacksmithing, carpentry, brick making and pottery production. Half of the profits from product sales would create an endowment for the college and the tenants could keep the other half. More gifts came in. In July 1619, fired with enthusiasm for supporting the project, an anonymous donor bequeathed “a Communion Cupp with the Cover and case; a Trencher plate for the Bread; a Carpett of Crimson Velvett; a Linnen Damaske table cloth,” citing it as the “pledge of my devotion.”
Another anonymous donor, woefully self-named “Dust and Ashes,” generously contributed the sum of 550 pounds sterling for teaching young Indians and training them in a trade. “Dust and Ashes” passionately emphasized that his/her intent was the “erectinge of some schoole . . . [for] the Children of the Virginians.” Other gifts included books, Bibles and prayer books. Nicholas Ferrar, a Company officer, promised 300 pounds sterling once the College had recruited 10 students and until then, 24 pounds sterling per year to teach three Indian children.
Newly appointed Governor George Yeardley arrived in Virginia in April 1619. He called for Virginia’s first General Assembly and began to lay out both private and public lands. At the Assembly’s August meeting, members confirmed the program “for. . . the conversion of the Indians to Christian religion” directing local officials to recruit “by just meanes a certain number of the natives children to be educated . . . in true religion and a civile course of life.” Certain boys would be selected for early education; those with “witt” would advance to college, while others would learn a trade. They would then hopefully convert their own people. The Company asked Powhatan leader Opechancanough to prevent the boys’ parents from fetching them home until they completed their schooling.
Under the College mandate, Governor Yeardley chose 10,000 acres north of Henrico, a community south of today’s Richmond, Va., for the future University, with 1,000 acres dedicated to the more imminent College, on land once inhabited by the Arrohattock Indian tribe of the Powhatan chiefdom. The Company sent 50 men in August 1619 to work on the College Land but since they arrived in late fall, only 25 went on to the property under William Weldon. The following spring of 1620, Weldon wrote the Company asking for more men and supplies.
Whether or not Weldon got what he needed, the Company next appointed George Thorpe as project deputy. Thorpe, a member of King James’s Council for Virginia, invested in the Society of Berkeley Hundred, which established a private plantation, Berkeley Hundred, in 1619. Thorpe sailed to Virginia in early 1620, shortly was named to the Virginia Council of State, and co-governed Berkeley Hundred. Serving as College deputy, he oversaw the work of the College tenants, including the cultivation of vineyards. Thorpe hoped to convert the Indians and encouraged peace with Powhatan leaders. In 1621, he even had a house built for Opechancanough with a door complete with lock and key.
Presumably the tenant farmers and tradesmen were steadily working at their projects through 1620, but by June 1621, Governor Yeardley complained that the College project had become too expensive. William Weldon angrily wanted to be released from his Company contract. The bulk of the College funds had basically dried up and the project seemed uncertain.
A blow hit the project when Powhatan Indian warriors attacked the colony in March 1622, killing 18 on the College lands. George Thorpe died at Berkeley Hundred. The Company evacuated the College tenants downriver under the charge of George Sandys, brother to Sir Edwin. They returned to the property in spring 1623 and planted corn, tobacco and orchards, tended silkworms and vineyards, or worked their trades. Brick makers worked to ensure that bricks were ready “when opportunitie shal be for the erecting of the fabricke of the Colledge.” A 1624 census showed 29 people living at the College Land; 22 lived there in 1625. But in 1624 the death knell rang for the College project when King James I revoked the Virginia Company’s charter and dissolved the Company due to mismanagement of Company finances, lost investments and lost lives.
Fast forward 60-some years—the colony revived the idea of formally educating young Virginia Indians when the famed English chemist, Robert Boyle, left a large sum in his will for “pious and charitable uses.” At his death in 1691, his executors invested the funds in “Brafferton,” a manor in Yorkshire, England. Some of Brafferton’s profits went specifically to instruct Virginia Indian boys at the College of William and Mary, newly established in 1693. The students initially lived with Williamsburg residents and took classes in the Christopher Wren building. In 1723, the College built “The Brafferton” on the campus to continue its efforts in teaching the “children of the Virginians.”
Nancy Egloff is a historian at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
Martha McCartney, Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary. Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007
Susan Myra Kingsbury, The Records of the Virginia Company of London, volumes 1 & 3. U. S. Government Printing Office, 1906, 1933.
Edward Neill, The History of Education in Virginia During the Seventeenth Century. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1867
Edward Neill, History of the Virginia Company of London. NY: Burt Franklin, 1869 (1968)