In 1711 Barnwell was chosen to lead a South Carolina expedition against an uprising of the Tuscarora Indians in eastern North Carolina.
Soldier. Barnwell was born in Dublin, Ireland, the son of Alderman Matthew Barnwell and Margaret Carberry. Matthew Barnwell was killed in the Siege of Derry in 1690 as a captain in James II’s Irish Army, which attempted to restore the last Stuart king to the English throne. The family seat, Archerstown in county Meath, was forfeited as a consequence of these events.
John Barnwell immigrated to South Carolina in 1701. He became a protégé of Governor Nathaniel Johnson and Chief Justice Nicholas Trott. Barnwell was appointed deputy surveyor (1703), clerk of the council (1703), and deputy secretary of the council (1704). As a surveyor, he mapped the newly settled Sea Islands around Port Royal Sound. It was there that he staked his claim to 6,500 acres of land. Barnwell became one of the first British settlers of Port Royal Island and an active trader with the nearby Yamassee Indians.
In 1711 Barnwell was chosen to lead a South Carolina expedition against an uprising of the Tuscarora Indians in eastern North Carolina. With a small army of thirty Carolinians and three hundred Native Americans, Barnwell successfully assaulted the Tuscarora town of Narhantes and burned the Tuscarora villages in eastern North Carolina. Though the campaign met with some criticism in North Carolina because Tuscarora had not been completely dislodged, “Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell nevertheless returned to a hero’s welcome in South Carolina.
On April 15, 1715, the Yamassee War erupted suddenly at Pocotaligo, near Beaufort. The initial massacre took the lives of Indian Commissioner Thomas Nairne and most of the British settlers south of the Edisto River. Barnwell and the settlers on Port Royal Island escaped to a British merchant ship at anchor in the Beaufort River. Barnwell led the Port Royal militia in a counterattack that destroyed the principal Yamassee villages south of the Combahee River. The Yamassee warriors retreated to Spanish Florida, from whence they continued to raid the Port Royal area until 1728. During this period Barnwell commanded the “Carolina Scouts,” a waterborne militia force that patrolled the inland passage between Charleston and St. Augustine.
In 1719, after the overthrow of the proprietary regime, the provisional government sent Barnwell to London as its agent to convince the Board of Trade to settle and defend the southern frontier. At this time he presented the “Barnwell Plan” of settlement, which called for a ring of royal garrisons from the coast of Georgia to Tennessee, surrounded by royal grants of free land to attract settlers. Returning in 1720 with Francis Nicholson, the first acting royal governor of South Carolina, and a company of British soldiers, Barnwell was able to construct Fort King George on the Altamaha River at Darien, Georgia. This was the first British settlement (1721) in what was later the royal colony of Georgia.
Barnwell died at Port Royal on May 4, 1724. He was survived by his wife Anne Berners and six children whose descendants formed the core of the sea island planter elite and political leadership until the Civil War.
Barnwell, Stephen B. Story of an American Family. Marquette, Mich., 1969. Edgar, Walter B., and N. Louise Bailey, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 2, The Commons House of Assembly, 1692–1775. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press,
1977. Rowland, Lawrence S., Alexander Moore, and George C. Rogers. The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina. Vol. 1, 1514–1861. Columbia:
University of South Carolina Press, 1996. Salley, Alexander S. “Barnwell of South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 2 (January 1901): 46–88.