“Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell- Founder of Beaufort, SC

In 1701, thirty-year-old John Barnwell grew restless with his privileged life in Dublin, Ireland, and sailed the Atlantic for the English colony called Charles Town. A family friend from home, alderman John Page, commented about his leaving: “out of a humor to goe and travel but for no other Reasson.”[1] But there was reason enough to settle in the Carolinas: Charles Town was expanding. “The mastery of rice culture by 1695 had given the colony a staple crop which ensured its prosperity. The expansion of Indian trade started the first real penetration into the interior by Englishmen…”[2] Rugged frontiersmen were needed to explore and map the surrounding territory and establish trade with the natives. After gaining the public office of deputy surveyor and exploring the Islands of Port Royal, Barnwell acquired an immense plantation of 6500 acres. He was also able to establish a working relationship with the local natives, giving him an advantage in the forthcoming military expeditions against the Tuscarora Indians.

 

Barnwell Expedition in the Tuscarora War

 

Problems for present-day North Carolina cropped up in 1711, when a small Swiss colony settled on land occupied by the Tuscarora Indians. The natives furiously attacked the white trespassers because they suspected the Europeans had come to kidnap more slaves. Barnwell was commissioned to intervene in 1712, because he was experienced with tracking marauding parties of Native Americans through the wild lands in the Southeast, and he had already established an alliance with the Yemassee Indians: “my brave Yemassees told me they would go wherever I led them. They will live and die with me, and indeed I have that dependence on them that I would not refuse to give battle to the whole Nation of the Tuscaroras with them.” [3]On January 30, 1712, after enduring a 200 mile winter march through unforgiving territory, Barnwell faced the Tuscaroras at their own town of Narhantes between the Cape Fear and Pamlico Rivers. Barnwell’s army consisted of 30 settlers allied with 350 Native Americans of mixed tribes vs. the 1000 Tuscarora warriors who were led by their chief, King Hancock. Approximately 300 Tuscaroras were killed and 100 were taken prisoner as Barnwell stormed six villages. Still more retreated into Fort Hancock (later named Fort Barnwell) at Catechna, dragging their own white captives. The standoff at Ft. Hancock began on February 27 with sporadic fire on both sides and many violent occurrences. Desperate for supplies during the siege, the cornered Tuscaroras sent out prisoners to get water. As white men called out encouragement to the hostages, the provoked Tuscaroras sacrificed a young white girl as a warning to the coastal settlers: “The Indians told John Barnwell they would torture and kill every white person if he let his soldiers take the fort. They said they would torture the children, too.”[4] Barnwell hesitated to attack, but he was low on ammunition, and his soldiers were not dependable. In a last-ditch effort to save the remaining hostages, Barnwell signed a peace treaty. The treaty was controversial, and North Carolina officials were outraged that Barnwell failed in his mission to destroy the Tuscaroras, so he was replaced during the second phase of the campaign by Col. James Moore.

 

Yemassee Indian Wars

 

Deerskin was in high demand in England, so the deer population was exploited by traders in the Lowcountry. When the natives were no longer able to trade for the British goods and supplies that they had become dependent on, they sank deeply into debt. Realizing that the English would demand slaves as payment, the natives attacked on Good Friday, 1715, at Pocotaligo. They tortured and killed up to 90 people with only two men escaping. After being shot in his back and mouth, Seymour Burroughs swam the Broad River and warned Barnwell at his plantation in Seabrook. Barnwell was able to evacuate 300 people from in and around Beaufort before the Indians arrived, and they were able to take refuge on a British merchant ship in the harbor. Shooting at the ship had no effect, so the Indians burned Beaufort and headed back to Pocotaligo. Barnwell and Captain Alexander MacKay rallied 140 men to follow the retreat, and they faced 200 Yemassee at a large fort 4 miles from Pocotaligo. John Palmer and his backup were able to compromise the Indians’ standoff after climbing inside the fort.

 

Sporadic attacks by the Yemassee lasted until about 1728, making South Carolina a formidable place to make a living. Beaufort was largely abandoned for two years after it was burned, but Barnwell and his militia made it impossible for the Yemassee to settle in the Lowcountry again. In 1721, defenses were improved, including the organization of patrol boats for the sea islands which were maintained by Barnwell.

 

Barnwell used his political influence in fighting for the settlement of Port Royal. He went to England appealing to the Board of Trade and laid out a plan for forts to be built in tactical locations so that “South Carolina would become the southern shield of the British colonies in North America, and Port Royal would become a strategic port of empire.”[5] As a buffer between Beaufort and Spanish Florida, Barnwell was able to build one fort on the Altamaha River in Georgia. Though he died in 1724, many of Barnwell’s descendants carried on his work in the Port Royal area, assuming positions of interest and productivity. Barnwell was one of the first people to be buried at the St. Helena Church graveyard as he died the year that the original church was completed, and many people believe that his remains are under the building because it was enlarged twice. However, his metal name plate can be seen on an iron fenced enclosure at the east end of the church. After all of his experiences, Col. John Barnwell was remembered by his son for this brave quote: “Never trust a Spaniard, nor be afraid of an Indian.” Barnwell was instrumental in the survival of our town and was considered to be one of our first founders. He is known locally as “Tuscarora Jack.”

 



[1] Barnwell Stephen B. The Story of an American Family.Marquette: 1969. page 1

[2] Barnwell, The Story of an American Family, 1.

[3] Barnwell, The Story of an American Family, 8.

[4] Federal Writers’ Project Works Progress Administration. Palmetto Pioneers: Six Stories of Early South Carolinians. The Reprint Company:Spartanburg, 1972. page 32

[5] Rowland, The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, 103.