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Native History: Greed, Deception and Exile Result in 1756 Scalp Act

This Date in Native History: On April 8, 1756, “The 1756 Scalp Act was the result of close to 40 years of the Penn family lying to Delaware and Shawnees,” Pennsylvania Historian Norman Houser said. The act legalized the taking of scalps for money, paid by the Pennsylvania government. The Scalp Act passed as a means to get rid of the Delaware once and for all.

By the 1700s, the times were changing, unpredictably and rapidly, for the peoples who lived along the Susquehanna River. The area was named De La Warr by the Dutch and the people known as the Lenape became the Delaware Tribe, reported Brice Obermeyer, director of the Delaware Tribe Historic Preservation Office.

“Through the treaties, displaced people were forced into villages where others were speaking similar languages. There they developed into a political organization, moving into territory that was claimed by Iroquois, who had a close affiliation with British.”

When William Penn arrived in 1682, he developed a respectful relationship with all of the local tribes. But after his death, “The Penn Family changed from ‘Let’s work with the Natives’ to ‘This land is ours; now get off of it,’” Houser said.

Atwater-Kent Museum

Portrait of a young William Penn in armor, date and artist unknown.

Houser said there were three treaties that led to the Scalp Act. The Treaty of 1732 removed the Shawnee from the Susquehanna River Valley. “The Shawnee had no say in it,” Houser said. “The treaty was between the Penn family and the Iroquois.”

The Treaty of 1736 was between the colony of Pennsylvania and the Iroquois. “The most significant aspect of the treaty was that this was the first time on record that the Delaware nations had no legal rights to the land. The Six Nations claimed it was theirs,” Houser said.

When William Penn bought lands from the Delaware, he purchased all of the rights but allowed the Delawares to stay on the land. In September 1737, Thomas Penn, William’s son, told the Delaware nations there was a deed for land sold to his father. He produced a forged document that included the names of Indians who had already passed on. Though no elders could remember such a deed, Penn convinced the Delaware to set up an event where they would walk together to map out land. The story is detailed in Publications of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County, Volume 3.

It was called the “Walking Purchase.” On the first day, two colonists walked along with two Indians at a leisurely pace, stopping from time to time for bread, cheese, and wine. They retired at sunset. The next morning, new walkers arrived and little by little, the two Indians and one colonist dropped out from the pace. The last man, a colonist, ran rather than walked, doubling the amount of land the Indians had planned to release.

The map was submitted to Wikimedia Commons and the background map is courtesy of Demis,

The shaded area was acquired by the “Walking Purchase.”

Teedyuscumg, a Delaware chief, complained to the governors until he was allowed to speak at a treaty meeting in November 1756. “This very ground that is under me was my land and inheritance taken from me by fraud… the same thing was done to me in New Jersey over the river,” Teedyuscumg said according to Publications of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County.

Teedyuscumg said he always honored his agreements no matter how shoddy the gifts of payment were and that while the Indians had been more than fair in their pricing of the land, “now, at length, you will not allow us to cut a little wood to make a fire, nay, hinder us from hunting, the only means left us of getting a livelihood.”

Wikimedia Commons/Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

This engraving shows Lenape chief Teedyuscung’s adaptation of European ways in his clothing, boots, and cane. His jewelry and hairstyle reflect his Native American identity.

In Benjamin Franklin’s book, Indian Treaties, Franklin wrote that the “Walking Purchase” had a direct relationship to the warfare of 1755 to 1756. “Scarouady, chief of the Oneida, made a final appeal to the Pennsylvania government to support the western Indians against the French. He came as a proud warrior, representing the Shawnee and the Delawares… His address was made in the State House, before the governor, the council, the assembly, and a large audience… it was in a sense the Declaration of Independence of the Delawares.”

To the assembly Scarouady said: “We do, therefore, once more invite and request you to act like men, and be no longer… pursuing weak measures, that render your names despicable.” To Governor Morris, he said: ‘One word of yours will bring the Delawares to join you.’ That word was not given.”

The exiled tribes allied themselves with the French and began to take revenge. On July 9, 1755, about 10 miles from Fort DuQuesne, in present day Pittsburgh, “there was a lot of bloodshed,” reported Houser, who said it was the Delaware’s first victory. “They became emboldened and thought that if they could defeat this group, maybe they could push the English off the frontier and gain back the land.”

By 1755, “In these conflicts, there were Indians fighting on both sides,” Obermeyer said. “In some cases, people were massacring tribal members. It was such a complicated time period that to say it was all Europeans, was just not the case. They intermarried. Some fought the British, some fought the Americans, and some were just trying to survive.

“It was literally a civil war and people had to make choices that were sometimes based on economics,” Obermeyer said.

By December 1755, there were so many minor attacks that the settlers on the frontier appealed to the Pennsylvania legislature, which set aside $60,000 for forts, Houser said. Instead, the money was set up as a fund to remove the Indians from the border.

On April 8, 1756, Governor Robert Morris enacted the Scalp Act. Anyone who brought in a male scalp above age of 12 would be given 150 pieces of eight, ($150), for females above age of 12 or males under the age of 12, they would be paid $130.

The act turned all the tribes against the Pennsylvania legislature. “This was the turning point for the Delawares,” Houser said. The Scalp Act was renewed in 1757, and the battle with the Delaware lasted until September 1756.