There might not have been an Indian School at William & Mary had it not been for a provision in the will of Sir Robert Boyle, the famous English scientist who died in 1691, two years before W&M was chartered.
In his will, Boyle provided that £4,000 sterling should be employed for "pious and charitable uses." Boyle's executors decided to use the funds to purchase Brafferton Manor in Yorkshire, England, and they designated part of the rents paid by the manor's tenants to be given annually to support the Indian School at William & Mary, while another part would go to the Indian School at Harvard College in Massachusetts.
It was most likely in response to the Boyle bequest that language was added to the Royal Charter to list as one of the William & Mary’s missions "that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God...." In return for annual payments from Boyle's executors, W&M would keep "soe many 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 thought Sufficient to be sent abroad to preach and Convert the Indians."
Royal Governor Francis Nicholson (1698–1705) enthusiastically anticipated that if "any great [Indian] nation will send 3 or 4 of their children thither" they could be trained in British ways and then "sent back to teach the same things to their own people."
In the beginning, classes were held in temporary quarters and later in the Wren Building; the boys lived with families in town until the Brafferton – funded by the Boyle estate – was constructed in 1723. The school continued, frequently with just a handful of students, until the Boyle funds were discontinued at the time of the American Revolution.
The Virginia colonists tried several strategies for recruiting Indian boys. Governor Nicholson instructed colonists who traded with Indian tribes to look for suitable Indian students. Later, Virginia officials negotiating treaties with Indian tribes such as the Tuscarora, Chickahominy and Catawba tried to convince the native leaders to send boys to the school. Students came from both local "tributary" tribes—such as the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, and Nansemond who lived fairly close to Williamsburg and paid tribute to the colony—and more distant tribes, including the Catawba in North Carolina, the Cherokee in the southern Appalachian mountains, and the Delaware and Wyandot of the Ohio River Valley. Enrollment reached a height of 24 students in 1712, but declined to eight in 1754 and stayed at about that level until the school closed.
Some Native American groups sent their sons to be educated in Williamsburg because they wanted to maintain good relations with the colony. Through the deerskin trade, the English colonists provided them with weapons, cloth, and other goods and materials that the Indians could not make themselves. The Indians wanted envoys who could speak English and understand the colonists' culture. Initially, many of the students at William & Mary’s Indian School were purchased from frontier traders, or sent to Williamsburg as diplomatic hostages to ensure peace with potentially hostile tribes.
The Indian Master was frequently a man who had been educated at William & Mary; several had previously been ushers—or assistants to the master—in W&M's classical grammar school. While many of the Indian Masters saw their job only as a stepping stone to greater things, such as a position as minister in a local church, some, such as Emmanuel Jones, held the post for many years. The Indian Master lived with the boys at the Indian School and was permitted to take in white students whom he tutored for a fee.
The Indian School at William & Mary cannot be counted a success by the standards of the Englishman. It failed in the goal of Anglicizing and Christianizing the native populace. As soon as the Indian students left the school, the colonists complained, they abandoned the behaviors they learned at the Brafferton and resumed Indian ways of life. Worse yet, from the colonists' point of view, some Indians used their knowledge of English not to help the Virginians but to defend their tribes' cultures and well-being.
From the Indian perspective, the school may be seen as somewhat more successful. To be sure, many students never returned to their tribes, and a strange diet as well as exposure to European diseases for which they had no immunity sickened and killed several students, especially in the school's early years. But the school's alumni also proved to be invaluable to their native communities. John Nettles, for example, helped his tribe in North Carolina by reading the treaties that the British wrote, and by serving as an interpreter between the Catawba and the British. In the end, the Indian School had the opposite effect to the one intended. Instead of convincing Indians to become good Englishmen, it allowed the Indians to learn enough about British culture to defend their old ways of life.