Archaeological evidence for such practices in North America dates to at least the early 14C in a mass grave containing nearly 500 victims with evidence of scalping, was found near present-day South Dakota. Although historical records from the 16C & 17C do not clarify how widespread the practice of scalping was in North America before colonial contact, it is clear that bounties on scalps, together with aggression between colonizers & indigenous peoples, increased the level of scalping as North America was colonized by Europeans.
Early eyewitness accounts written in English often were difficult to understand. The older English word did not acquire its distinctly American meaning until 1675, when King Philip’s War brought the object renewed prominence in New England. Until then, the expressions were compounds such as “hair-scalp” and “head-skin,” phrases such as “the skin and hair of the scalp of the head,” or the simple but ambiguous word “head.” Likewise, the only meaning of the verb meant “to carve, engrave, scrape, or scratch.” Consequently, English writers were forced to use “skin,” “flay,” or “excoriate” until 1675, when the American meaning became popular. French, Dutch, German, and Swedish speakers were also forced to resort to circumlocutions, until they borrowed the English words in the 18C.
18C French Depiction of Scalping New York Public Library
Europeans were the ones who encouraged and carried out much of the scalping that went on in the history of white/native relations in America. For example, Willem Kieft, governor of the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam, offered bounties to frontiersmen & soldiers for the scalps of enemy Indians. Colonial North America became a place where the scalps of dead men were a currency. White men & natives alike were massacring & mutilating innocent people for a fistful of cash.
In 1535, Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) stopping in the present area of Quebec City, met with a Native American chief named Donnacona. They greeted one another with courtesy. The tribe put on a dance of welcoming for the visiting explorers, & Cartier presented Donnacona with gifts. Then, to impress his new friend, Donnacona showed Cartier his most prized possession of 5 human scalps dried out & stretched across hoops taken from their enemies, the Micmac. After describing the scalps with hoops, the eyewitness account ends with, “After seeing these things, we returned to our ships.”
Not long after the Mayflower anchored, white men started taking scalps. Scalps were claimed during the Pequot War 1636-1638. When a trader named John Oldham (1592-1636) was killed by Native Americans, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Colony started fighting a full-on war with their Native American neighbors. Soon, the governor was promising a reward for any man who could bring home the head of a Native American. Scalps were easier to transport. Puritans started cutting off scalps, filling bags with them, & bringing the scalps home instead.
By 1641, the governor of New Netherlands put out the first official bounty on any & all scalps from a native’s head, promising “10 fathoms of wampum” for every scalp from a member of the Raritan tribe. By 1703, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was offering $60 for each native scalp.
Hannah Duston (1657-1756) was a housewife, the mother of 8 children, & the last person you’d expect to walk into a governor’s office demanding the bounty for her 10 scalps. In 1697, her home in Haverhill, Massachusetts, was attacked by the Abenaki tribe. Her husband, Thomas, fled with 7 of their children, but he left Hannah & their newborn daughter behind. Hannah watched in horror as 27 people in her village were murdered. Then her Abenaki captor pulled her newborn baby girl from her arms & smashed the baby’s head against a tree. The Abenaki dragged Hannah to an island to be their captive, but Hannah spent every second looking for her chance for revenge. She waited until they fell asleep. Then she grabbed a tomahawk & rammed it into the heads of the 10 Abenaki people holding her hostage. She cut off their scalps before she escaped. Then she brought the other hostages to a canoe & rescued them all. Then she showed up at the Massachusett governor’s office with her captors' scalps seeking her reward.
In the early 1700s, some started working as full-time scalp collectors. They would go into the wilderness looking for Native Americans to kill, determined to bring home a bag full of scalps & make a small fortune. One of the most successful was John Lovewell, (1691-1725) who became a minor celebrity for the number of scalps he brought home. Lovewell was a famous Ranger in 18C who lived in present-day Nashua, New Hampshire. He fought in Father Rale's War as a militia captain, leading 3 expeditions against the Abenaki Indians. At one point, he made a wig from the torn scalps of the men he’d killed. Then Lovewell paraded through the streets of Boston wearing the wig on his head. Scalping was profitable. Lovewell wasn’t just famous—he was well-off. He got 100 pounds for every scalp he brought home. His greed spurred him to organize a group of 47 men to take a village of more than 100 Native Americans. But Lovewell was killed in the battle & scalped.
And in 1756, Pennsylvania Governor Morris, in his Declaration of War against the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) people, offered "130 Pieces of Eight [a type of coin], for the Scalp of Every Male Indian Enemy, above the Age of Twelve Years," & "50 Pieces of Eight for the Scalp of Every Indian Woman, produced as evidence of their being killed."
Although scalping existed prior to the French & Indian War 1754-1760, the British encouraged it as a war tactic by paying Indians bounties for their enemy’s scalps. On June 12, 1755, the governor of Massachusetts declared that the colony would pay ₤40 for male Indian scalps & ₤20 for female Indian scalps. Every citizen, the governor declared, was called upon to “embrace all opportunities of pursuing, capturing, killing, & destroying all & any of the aforesaid Indians.” Although the French paid Indians less, their Indian allies also scalped enemies during the war. In theory, only the dead were scalped but several people survived the experience. In May 1756, French allied Indians near Fort Oswego, New York, attempted to kill British colonists who ventured outside the fort. One man, Stephen Cross, wrote on May 25th that “one of our soldiers came in from the edge of the woods, where it seems he had lain all night having been out on the evening the day before & got drunk & could not get in, & not being missed, but on seeing him found he had lost his scalp, but he could not tell how nor when, having no others around. We supposed the Indians had stumbled over him in the dark, & supposed him dead, & taken off his scalp.” The man recovered. The French and Indian War climaxed in 1759 with the most significant battle occurring at Québec where the British devastated the French ranks, ending French power in North America.
The Native Americans were pulled into warfare against white settlers by rival European factions in America. During the American Revolution, a British military officer Henry Hamilton (1734-1796) earned the nickname “The Hair-Buyer General.” He was in charge of getting Native American tribes to help Britain beat down the American Revolutionaries-and he did it by buying scalps. Hamilton wrote about the Native Americans as “savages,” arguing that Britain should take advantage of their “natural propensity . . . for blood.” He paid the Native Americans for every white man’s scalp they could bring home, only telling them not to “redden your axe with the blood of women & children.” Hamilton provided the natives with scalping knives & kept records of how many scalps they brought in. He recieved 129 American scalps in a single day.
The next time that the United States & Britain went to war, some Americans had embraced the idea of scalping their enemies. By the time the War of 1812 had begun, a militia group from Kentucky had gone savage. The Kentucky Militia would daub themselves with red war paint before attacking British & Native American camps. The militia murdered every person they could find & tore off their scalps. There was no cash reward for doing it—they just wanted a memento of their massacres. One officer from Pennsylvania wrote in his journal that he’d been sitting next to a soldier from Kentucky when, without warning, the Kentuckian “ripped open his waistband, fleshed them with his knife, salted them, & set them in hoops.” The British called Kentuckians “the most barbarous, illiterate beings in America.” But the Kentuckians didn’t care. One young soldier wrote that he’d sent a scalp home to his parents the first chance he got. “Daddy & Mamma,” the soldierwrote, “thought I had done about right.”
During the Mexican-American War, Texas Ranger John Joel Glanton (1819-1850) began collecting scalps from the Apache tribe. Some of the Apache had become involved in the fighting, & the American Army wanted them out of the way. So they paid handsomely for every scalp that Glanton could bring in. This made Glanton fine money. But fairly soon, he started running out of Apaches to kill. The US Army, though, wasn’t really checking where his scalps came from. So he started killing Mexican civilians instead & passing them off as Apaches. Glanton & his gang stole a river ferry from some members of the Yuma tribe & invited people to ride in his boat. Once the people were trapped in the middle of the water, Glanton & his men would massacre them—whether they were Mexicans or Americans—to loot their dead bodies. The Chihuahua government put a bounty on his head, but it was the Yuma who got him. While he was sleeping, the Yuma tribe sneaked into his camp. They killed his cohorts & slit Glanton’s throat while he was sleeping.
When the Civil War 1861-1865 began, some soldiers got sidetracked over a dispute with the local Cheyenne tribe. They had been accused of stealing livestock, & the Union troops wouldn’t stand for it. In retaliation, a group led by Colonel John Chivington (1821-1894) started burning down Cheyenne camps. The Cheyenne didn’t want any trouble. Their chief, Black Kettle, came to Chivington begging for peace, saying, “We want to take good tidings home to our people, that they may sleep in peace.” Chivington told Black Kettle that he wasn’t authorized to make peace—and then made plans to massacre the village of Sand Creek. “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians,” Chivington declared. “Kill & scalp all, big & little; nits make lice.” A white man named John Smith had a son in the camp who died with the others. He went in to claim his dead & saw the horrifying scene firsthand. “I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces,” he reported. They had been scalped & brutalized, with their children killed & unborn babies ripped out of wombs.
Scalping varied by region. Some Native Americans in the Southeast took scalps to achieve the status of warrior & to placate the spirits of the dead. On the other hand, most members of Northeastern tribes valued taking of captives over scalps. Among Plains Indians scalps were taken for war trophies, often from live victims.
As a challenge to their enemies, some Native Americans shaved their heads. The scalp was sometimes offered as a ritual sacrifice or preserved & carried by women in a triumphal scalp dance, later to be retained as a pendant by the warrior, used as tribal medicine, or discarded.
Ceremonial Scalp Dances Developed Among Native American Tribes