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As soon as English colonizers established themselves in Virginia, one of their main concerns was the education of Indigenous people. The education implemented by the English, then later by the Americans, should not be viewed in the same light as modern-day education. The English and Americans hoped that through education, Indigenous practices, spirituality, culture, and language could be wiped out and replaced with Eurocentric or Americentric beliefs and ways of life. During the course of research for the Library of Virginia’s exhibition, Indigenous Perspectives, the Education and Outreach team knew of a couple of Indian schools in the commonwealth. However, by the time the exhibition was ready for the public, the team figured out there were at least fourteen Indian schools in Virginia. In the records at the Library of Virginia and other institutions, the earliest proposed university in the colony was chartered by 1619, with the last Indian school ceasing operation due to the landmark United States Supreme Court decision of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) and Massive Resistance1.

With the arrival of more colonists following the establishment of the settlement of Henrico in 1611 by Sir Thomas Dale, the idea of an institution to educate the Indigenous population was conceived. By 1619, the colonists in Henrico had received a royal charter from the Virginia Company of London to establish a university.2 Boys from the Powhatan Confederacy would be specifically selected to attend the proposed school.3 George Thrope, an investor of the Virginia Company of London, was charged with the construction of the school and Reverend Thomas Bargrave donated his library to the institution. However, the charter was revoked on June 16, 1624, due to the First Anglo-Powhatan War with Chief Opechancanough, the paramount chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, and the school was never built.4

Early Education in Virginia

Because the proposed College of Henricus never opened, formalized education for Indigenous populations in the colony of Virginia did not exist until 1714, when Royal Governor Alexander Spotswood established Fort Christanna. Located in Lawrenceville, Virginia, Fort Christanna was built in hopes to protect the colonists and allied Indigenous groups living east of the fort.5 On the insistence of Governor Spotswood, Fort Christanna included an Indian school and Spotswood personally paid for Charles Griffin to be the schoolmaster.6 The Indigenous students were required to learn the Lord’s Prayer and recite from memory the Anglican catechism. It is believed that over 100 students attended the school before its closure in 1717.7

In the wake of the Fort Christanna school closure, the College of William and Mary took up the task of establishing and operating the Brafferton Indian School.  After the Royal Charter of the College of William and Mary was issued, the colonial government of Virginia made provisions for an Indian school to be built on the campus. Royal Governor Francis Nicholson (1698-1705) encouraged Indigenous tribes to send their children to the school to be educated.8 Among the Virginia tribes, the Pamunkey, Nansemond, Chickahominy, Cheroenhaka Nottoway, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi and the Nottoway sent their sons to be educated at this institution.9 Due to the American Revolution, Brafferton ceased operation in the newly established state of Virginia.

Nansemond Indian School

Courtesy of Nansemond Indian Nation

It was not until the end of the American Civil War and Virginia’s state constitution of 1870 that the Commonwealth of Virginia provided consistent education for Native Virginians. While a statewide public school system had been created, the system had a major flaw: segregation. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, there were white, Black, and Indigenous schools that provided education at various standards. Due to segregation, many Indigenous pupils attended schools on reservations, like the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Indian schools, or attended schools that were close to their ancestral lands like Sharon, Samaria, Tsena Commocko Indian School, Bear Mountain Indian School, and the Nansemond Indian School. Despite lobbying by Chief George L. Nelson, it is unclear whether the General Assembly appropriated funds for tribal citizens of the Rappahannock Tribe to provide a school.10

Continuing Education Beyond Virginia's Border

All of these schools provided Indigenous children with an education up to the 7th– or 8th-grade levels. If the student wished to continue their education, they generally would have to leave the state of Virginia.  Beginning in 1946, the state of Virginia provided train tickets for students to continue their education at Haskell Institute (Kansas), Chilocco Indian Agricultural School (Oklahoma), Bacone Junior College (Oklahoma), Oak Hill Academy (a private school in Grayson County, Va.), Cherokee Boarding School (North Carolina), or High Plains Indian School (North Carolina). This educational practice continued in Virginia until 1954 when the United States Supreme Court rendered their decision in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.  While Virginia had a complex and complicated educational system to educate Indigenous students, the commonwealth also had one federal boarding school that operated from 1878 until 1923. This institution influenced many of the federal boarding schools in the West and Indian schools in the Northeast.

Boarding School Education in Virginia

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, founded by Samuel Chapman Armstrong, opened its doors to educate newly freed African Americans following the American Civil War. The Institute “admitted both men and women, offered basic courses in English, humanities, and the sciences, and prepared African Americans to teach in the new schools. It was a nationally recognized example of successful education of African Americans.”11 Due to Armstrong’s success, Captain Richard Henry Pratt, who fought against Indigenous tribes in the western portion of the United States and served in the Civil War with Armstrong, reached out to see if Hampton Institute would admit Indigenous adults. On November 5, 1878, the first eight Indigenous students, from the Dakota Territory Party, arrived at Hampton.12  Along with Indigenous people from the western portion of the United States, some of Virginia’s Indigenous tribal citizens attended this school.

In order for the program and school to operate, private funds had to be used in conjunction with federal funds. While fundraising and federal funds were necessary, it did not hinder Samuel Chapman Armstrong from admitting Indigenous students to Hampton.

The Southern Workman, the school’s monthly journal, described the students’ arrival in in an article titled “An Indian Raid on Hampton University”:

“This midnight raid of red men, though something of a surprise, as Indian raids are apt to be, was not altogether unlooked for, and the school forces quickly rallied to receive them – not with powder and ball, but with welcome and hot coffee…[Lone Wolf] says, All the foolishness of the red men he has thrown away, and he has fast hold of God’s road. God’s road belongs to him. The same things are for the red man as for the white man.”13

Later, in a letter to his wife, Armstrong recalled further thoughts about the arrival of the first Indigenous students, stating, “[t]he Indians didn’t harm us last night… They are quite interesting and the teachers are only too glad to teach them.”14

One component of Indigenous education at Hampton Institute included the “outing program.” The ideals and principals of the “outing program” were developed by Captain Richard Henry Pratt.  Pratt believed that “Indians should mingle, live, and compete with productive members of white rather than black society.”15 He thought that this approach would allow the newly assimilated Indigenous men and women to work and thrive in American society. The students that participated in the “outing program” spent their summers in New England with white families where they worked for those families either in the homes or on farms.16 According to Jon L. Brudvig, “approximately half of the school’s American Indian students participated in the outing program at least once during their tenure at the school.” 17

In the 19th century, one moment in Hampton Institute’s history forever altered its Indian program. In the spring of 1891, Samuel Chapman Armstrong suffered from a stroke. Two years later, on May 11, 1893, Armstrong died from his second stroke.18 Due to competition from other boarding schools and reduced federal funding, Hampton Institute ended its boarding school in 1923.19 During the years of 1878 to 1923, “approximately 1,387 Indian students, representing 65 tribes attended the school.”20

Indigenous Perspectives highlights the commonwealth’s Indigenous history and how the tribes remain a vital part of Virginia today.

Dec. 5, 2023–Aug. 17, 2024

Exhibition Gallery | Monday–Saturday, 8:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m.

The exhibition explores the voices and experiences of Virginia’s tribal communities. View excerpts from video interviews with citizens of Virginia’s eleven federally and state-recognized tribes, archival records from the Library’s collection that were collaboratively selected by the tribes and Library staff members, and objects contributed by the tribes that reflect their traditions and culture.

Learn More.


[1] Robert Hunt Land, “Henrico and Its College,” The William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine 18, no. 18 (October 1938): 473.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Henricus and Beyond,” Henricus Historical Park,

[4]  Land, “Henrico and Its College,” 496.

[5] “Fort Christanna Historical Site,” Brunswick County, VA,

The 36 square mile tract of land was supplied by Sapony and Occaneechee Indian tribes. 

[6] Brunswick County, VA, “Fort Christanna Historical Site.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] “The Brafferton Indian School,” Colonial Williamsburg,

[9] Danielle Moretti-Longholtz et al., Building the Brafferton: The Founding, Funding and Legacy of America’s Indian School, (Williamsburg: Muscarelle Museum of Art at William and Mary, 2019), 225.

During the 2023 General Assembly, the Senate issued a joint resolution number 41 commending the Brafferton Indian School.

[10] News Leader, September 15, 1923:——192-en-20–1–txt-txIN-rappahannock+indian+tribe——-

News Leader, February 28, 1922:——192-en-20–1–txt-txIN-rappahannock+indian+tribe——-

News Leader, September 17, 1923:——192-en-20–1–txt-txIN-rappahannock+indian+tribe——-

[11] Brent Tarter, Virginians and Their Histories (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020), 273.

[12] Jon L. Brudvig, “‘Make Haste Slowly’: The Experiences of American Indian Women at Hampton Institute, 1878-1923,” (paper presented at the Sixth Native American Symposium, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, November 10-11, 2005), 5.

[13] “An Indian Raid on Hampton Institute,” Southern Workman 7  (May, 1878): 36.

[14] Mary Lou Hultgren and Paulette Fairbank Molin, To Lead and To Serve: American Indian Education at Hampton Institute, 1878-1923­, (Charlottesville: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 1989), 17-18.

[15] Donal F. Lindsey, Indians at Hampton Institute, 1877-1923, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 37.

[16] Jon L. Brudvig, “Make Haste Slowly,” 11.

[17] Ibid, 12.

[18] Robert Franics Engs, “Samuel Chapman Armstrong, 1839-1893,” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, last modified December 22, 2021,

[19] Mary Lou Hultgren and Paulette Fairbanks Molin, “To Lead and To Serve,” 55.

[20] Ibid, 55.

Header Image Citation

Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer. Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va. – before entering school- seven Indian children of uneducated parents., 1899 [or 1900] Photograph.

Ashley Craig

Community Engagement & Partnerships, Former Community Outreach Specialist

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