Remembering the story of William and Mary's Brafferton Indian School

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

Twenty five names line the upper perimeter of the gallery.

John Nettles, John Montour, Henry Bawbee, Thomas Step, Charles Murphy, George Sampson, to name a few.

They are Native American students of the Brafferton Indian School, the second oldest building at the College of William and Mary. But before their prominence in the Muscarelle Museum's "Building the Brafferton" exhibit, these names were forgotten to history.

"We have featured known names of Brafferton students who have heretofore been invisible," said curator Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, director of Williams and Mary's American Indian Resource Center.

The students are but one aspect of the Brafferton's history largely forgotten.

Moretti-Langholtz and co-curator Buck Woodard, director of Colonial Williamsburg's American Indian Initiative, wanted to uncover the full story. Ten years of research on both sides of the Atlantic and two years of planning culminated in "Building the Brafferton: The Founding, Funding and Legacy of America's Indian School."

"In the past, the Brafferton has been thought about, what we say, at an event level. It opened. They had some students. It wasn't that successful. It closed," Moretti-Langholtz said. "This exhibition really takes the story of the Brafferton in different directions — foregrounding the native students, their accomplishments where we could find that, as well as setting the story in a larger Atlantic world of trade and commodity change."

The exhibit opened at the Muscarelle in September, on display until January, and the museum will host a day-long symposium related to the exhibit on Thursday, Nov. 3. Free and open to the public, "Reflections on Virginia's Colonial Indian School: The Brafferton at the College of William and Mary" features a series of short lectures from the curators, college faculty and students, Colonial Williamsburg staff and more.

Spanning time and medium, "Building the Brafferton" is not a traditional art exhibit. In addition to fine art, Woodard said the exhibit incorporates ethnographic objects, primary documents and artifacts to tell the Brafferton story from past to present, from founding to funding to legacy.

In the first of three galleries, focused on the Brafferton's founding, the timeline actually ends with William and Mary's 1693 charter, stating "that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God." This first gallery aims more to provide context, examining earlier British attempts at creating schools "to win the hearts and minds" of native populations, Woodard said.

The exhibit's second and main gallery, lined with the 25 names, illuminates interesting aspects of the Brafferton's funding. For one, a never-before-shown parchment drawing from 1771 of the Brafferton Estate in Yorkshire, England, traces the tracts of land whose rent monies funded the college, and thus, the Brafferton. The college also received funds from taxation of many commodities exported from Virginia, goods largely tied to native communities.

The gallery's main focus, though, remains the students.

These were students like Charles Murphy, who became a Cherokee interpreter for Patrick Henry, and Robert Mush, who would go on to fight in the Revolutionary War.

The exhibit also contains a letter written by George Washington to Tuscarora chiefs during the French and Indian War, delivered by liaison Thomas Step, a former Brafferton student, of the Nottoway Tribe — "that tells us he was trusted by Washington. He was literate, he can read it and translate it into Iroquois," Woodard said.

"These are young men at moments, key moments, of history with important historical figures in the history of the emerging United States," Moretti-Langholtz said. "I think it's an extraordinary story, and that's why we called it America's Indian school. This is not (just) a Virginia story, this is a really important story. They've been forgotten."

Though the curators chose to feature four native communities in the exhibit — Cherokee, Nottoway, Pamunkey and Wyandot—dozens more have ties to the Brafferton.

That legacy is explored in the final gallery.

"We didn't want this to just be a story about the past," Moretti-Langholtz said. "We're also looking to native communities for their statement, their feeling about the Brafferton."

Thus, the Muscarelle commissioned four pieces of contemporary artwork, one from each of the featured communities. And visible as soon as you enter the final gallery is a quote on the wall from Annette Saunooke-Clapsaddle, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

"The Brafferton is more than a building," the quote reads. "It's about relationships between peoples, built with the tools and implements of learning from each other, honoring wisdom and knowledge in its varied forms. It's about reconnecting our communities to the College and our collective history."

When she walks through the galleries, Moretti-Langholtz sees invisible threads, connecting the pieces and the stories. She doesn't know what visitors will see, but she hopes they feel the scope and the depth of the Brafferton story.

"We're saying this is an amazing story and a complicated story, and it deserves to be remembered," she said.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Want to go?

Brafferton symposium to occur from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Nov. 3, at the Muscarelle. To see the complete schedule, visit muscarelle.org.

Native American dancers from Oklahoma to perform traditional Stomp Dancing outside the Muscarelle from 6-8 p.m., Nov. 4.

Regular Muscarelle hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Friday and 12-4 p.m., Saturday-Sunday.

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