Of the Enemy: Scalping as Culture and Commodity on the North American Frontier

  • James Sandy


In a February 1711 letter home, John Barnwell recounted his campaign’s recent victories in the raging Tuscarora War. Fighting in the western reaches of colonial North Carolina, Barnwell and a group of South Carolina militiamen marched from one Tuscarora village to the next in search of Native American warriors to kill and civilians to harass, enslave, or otherwise brutalize. John “Tuscarora” Barnwell was thorough in his recollection of their campaign, going to great lengths to describe their “valient” task. Barnwell, like many other frontiersmen and militia commanders of his generation, added a flair for the dramatic to his retelling of the colonists’ near mechanical destruction of each Tuscarora site they came across. In one such punchy section, he claimed that he and his men were “Terror to our own heathen friend to behold” and that their war “was Revenge, which we made good by the Execution we made of the Enemy.”(Barnwell 1897) The colonial destruction of the Tuscarora was devastating in both style and scale. Barnwell and his men dehumanized their adversaries, which is obvious in the way his letter quantitatively recounted the outcome of their battles. While specific and descriptive about his own losses, carefully counting and naming those lost and wounded from each company, Barnwell lists the number of people enslaved and the quantity of enemy scalps each company produced, with an aptly titled section: “Of the Enemy.”