The College of William and Mary is one of the most prestigious secondary educational institutions in the United States of America. It also happens to be one of the oldest colleges, dating back to 1693. With its beautiful Wren Building and original portraits of the English monarchy it still exemplifies the regal status it once held when Virginia was the wealthiest colony in English America.
When you tour the original classrooms and high ceiling chapel you get a feel for the days when Thomas Jefferson walked these halls and James Madison lived in the President’s house with his uncle, however, what you may not know is the story of the College’s first donors and how their actions made the school possible.
“A Pirates Life For Me”
Most people are unaware that the original purpose of the English colony in Virginia was piracy. The Spanish galleons laden with gold and treasure making their way back to Spain from their American colonies were very tempting for the English crown, but the English needed a base of operation from which their privateers, licensed pirates, could launch their ships.
A privateer is a sailor licensed by their government to steal from other countries. The difference between a privateer and a pirate is subtle, but at the end of the day it could mean the difference between a return home to a heroes welcome or a noose. By the 1680s the English and Spanish had come to terms and the war was over, but the English privateers who had spent their lives acquiring riches in unsavory ways were not about to give up their lucrative trade thereby transitioning them from once valiant English sailors to the scourge of the sea.
Three of these villains were Lionel Wafer, John Hinson and Edward Davis. They had been very successful in pirating, sailing with some of the more notorious pirates, but then in 1687 they decided it was time to retire. Wafer, Hinson, and Davis decided on Virginia as a quiet enough place to put down roots so they devised an intricate plan to cross over the Eastern Shore of Virginia and make their way into Hampton through the backdoor.
A Confined Retirement
Now, in Tidewater Virginia most people would not give a second glance to a couple of rough looking sailors. In the 1600s this was the economic thoroughfare in the English colonies and sailors were always coming and going, however, these pirates had been incredibly successful at their former trade. So successful that by trying to get their booty through a normal customs point would have caused sensation, but even with all their careful planning they were unable to avoid sensation.
They were caught with a small boat filled to the brim with Spanish gold and sterling. They were immediately arrested and escorted to Jamestown to await sentencing. The magistrates had a problem. These men were not caught in any act of piracy, in fact the court had no idea what ship or pirate captain with whom these men had sailed, so with what do you charge them?
After several years of legal battles they were ordered to London to stand trial for piracy, however, the men refused to leave their treasure behind. By 1691 it looked like this infamous case was never going to end until the desperate Reverend James Blair stepped in. Rev Blair wanted to open a school in Virginia and the colony had been supporting this idea for nearly 60 years, however, with multiple Indian invasions and a lack of funds the school remained simply a nice idea. That is until these three pirates needed an advocate with social standing. Rev Blair convinced the courts to relinquish these men’s treasure back to them, and in return for his help the pirates donated 300 pounds sterling (today nearly $900,000 dollars) to Blair’s school project. That school is William and Mary.
The donated funds went to the building of the Wren Building which still holds classes to this day. The school has been apart of our country’s story from the very beginning. Alma mater to four presidents, it is funny to note that had it not been for a few pirates our nation may look a little different. If you would like to learn more about the monarchy for which William and Mary is named make sure to watch this week’s Exploring Christendom video.