A Trip to Williamsburg

Today’s post comes from Jim Zeender, Senior Registrar in the National Archives Exhibits Program in Washington, DC. 

In early September I had the pleasure of taking a train to Williamsburg, Virginia.

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Visitors at the Muscarelle Museum of Art Exhibit in Williamsburg, VA, November 7, 2016. (Photo Courtesy of the Muscarelle Museum of Art)

I have taken trains to Philadelphia, New York, and New Haven numerous times. Overseas, I have been on trains in England, France, Austria and Switzerland. However, I had never taken a train in a southerly direction here in my home country.

As we rolled slowly out of Union Station through downtown Washington, DC, and across the Potomac River, we had great views of the monuments.

Our first stop was Alexandria, boyhood home of Robert E.  Lee and location of the first Union soldier killed in the Civil War.

This Amtrak regional train continues on to Williamsburg via Fredericksburg, passing various Civil War battlefields, Richmond (the capital of the Confederacy), and stops in between. Instead of the industrial north, I saw the rolling hills and woods of Virginia, once roamed by the first Americans.

The purpose of the trip was to see the exhibition, “Building the Brafferton: Founding, Funding and Legacy of the American Indian School” at the Muscarelle Museum of Art on the campus of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The exhibition, open through January 8, 2017, features two original documents on loan from the National Archives. One is the 1818 Revolutionary War pension application from Robert Mursh. The other is a list of family names removed from the family Bible which he submitted in support of his pension application.

Mursh was a Pamunkey Indian and attended the Brafferton Indian School as a young boy along with Indians from other tribes. The pension records help document Robert’s service in the Continental Army and his contribution to his country’s history.

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Family record of Robert Mursh, Revolutionary War Pension & Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, National Archives.

The Brafferton was built in 1723 and still stands today, one of the oldest buildings in Williamsburg.

The exhibition is the first to tell the story of the Brafferton within the wider context of trans-Atlantic trade, international politics of church and state, and the developing relationship between English settlers and native peoples.

Part of the college’s 1693 charter referred to the Indian School: “that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God.”

Three decades later, the intent to  “civilize” the indigenous people was made even more explicit when the text: “to teach the Indian boys to read, and write, and vulgar arithmetick … to teach them thoroughly the Catechism and the Principles of the Christian Religion” was added.

The Pamunkey survive today as a small federally recognized tribe, with just over thirty families living on the 1200 acre reservation in King William, Virginia, and others in Richmond and Newport News area.

In addition to the Pamunkey, students came from the Cherokee, Nottoway, and Wyandot tribes.

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Letter from Robert Mursh, Revolutionary War Pension & Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, National Archives.

In a quiet moment during the installation, Brafferton curator Danielle Moretti-Langholtz told me the Mush documents and a handful of archival items from the Library of Congress and Harvard are critical elements in the exhibition because they help personalize the students who went through the Brafferton School.

The exhibition design reinforces the importance of the individual students by highlighting their names on the surrounding walls.

Brafferton alumni, like Robert Mursh, went on to have significant interactions with founding fathers George Washington and Patrick Henry, making untold contributions to the story of the new nation.

This is what the National Archives loan program is all about. There is little chance these items would be used in an exhibition in Washington, but the William and Mary scholars were able to make the connection between a particular Pamunkey Indian represented in the National Archives holdings and the story of the Brafferton School, a landmark in the history of Native Americans.

The loan program helps make this kind of storytelling and access possible.

This journey also allowed me to see Colonial Williamsburg for the first time in 45 years, when I came with my parents. Although I had limited time, I was able to visit with George Washington, George Wythe, and other colonials.

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Photograph of document installation, 2016. (Photo Courtesy of Jim Zeender)

Sitting in the House of Burgesses, I imagined hearing Patrick Henry giving one of his orations, the debate on independence, and George Mason’s  Declaration of Rights.

At the home of the very wealthy Robert Carter (near the Governor’s Palace), a team of archaeologists and historians are conducting a detailed study of its 200-year history.

Consulting tree specialists and testing the wood used to build the house, they have been able to precisely date its construction to 1726-27.

A short shuttle ride (or a long walk) took me to the Colonial Williamsburg Museums, the new home of the Albby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museums.

Here, I unexpectedly ran into one of my 21st-century colleagues, Shawn Morton from Congressional Affairs Office at the National Archives and his wife.

On the train back to Washington, I mused on my two days in 18th century Virginia. In all, my trip to Williamsburg was fun and rewarding. I hope to return soon.

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