Scalping In America
Indian Country Today
Scalping has long been a sensitive topic in the history of this country. The books, newspapers, magazines and films about Indians have almost always said Indians scalped their victims, but almost never did the whites scalp Indians. The opposite is true; both sides killed and scalped each other. After digging into it for my next book, “Indian Massacres in the U.S.,” I have found something much closer to the truth; both Indians and whites scalped each other, but whites got paid for it. Whites also did it to help the colonial legislature achieve their goal to exterminate all Indians and control their land in the budding United States.
Scalping was over 2,000 years old in Europe. Herodotus wrote in 440 B.C. that the Scythian soldiers scalped their dead enemies, softened them, and used them as napkins. The Scyths lived in the Black Sea area of Europe.
Scalping in England preceded the settlement of North America by at least four centuries. The Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwine, scalped his enemies as early as the 11th century, bringing the scalps back from battle to prove they were dead.
Gov. Charles Lawrence of Canada issued a resolution calling for scalping in 1756 against the Micmac and other Indians. His proclamation said:
And, we do hereby promise, by and with the consent of His Majesty’s Council, a reward of 30 pounds for every live male Indian prisoner, above the age of sixteen years, brought in alive; or for a scalp of such male Indian twenty-five pounds, and twenty-five pounds for every Indian woman or child brought in alive: Such rewards to be paid by the Officer commanding at any of His Majesty’s Forts in this Province, immediately upon receiving the Prisoners or Scalps above mentioned, according to the intent and meaning of this Proclamation.
This proclamation is still on the books. A motion in 2008 to reverse it did not pass. However, the Canadian government says it is not in effect.
Hannah Dustin, the first woman in the United States honored with a statue, was honored for scalping Indians. The statue shows her holding Indian scalps in her left hand and can be seen in Boscawen, New Hampshire.
The Dutch governor of Manhattan, Willem Kieft, offered the first bounty in North America for Indian scalps in 1641, only 21 years after the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock. The Massachusetts Bay Colonyfirst offered $60 per Indian scalp in 1703. The English and the French introduced scalping to Indians. The governors of the colonies instituted scalping as a way for one Indian tribe to help them eliminate another tribe, and to have colonists eliminate as many Indians as possible. In an article for The American Historical Review, Benjamin Madley wrote in 2015, “Policymakers offered bounties for Native American heads or scalps in at least twenty-three states of their colonial, territorial, or Mexican antecedents.”
The New Hampshire legislature authorized scalping Indians in 1724, paying 100 pounds for each male scalp turned in. Women’s scalps typically brought half of what men’s scalps did, and children’s scalps brought half of women’s. But white men got paid for bringing in the scalp of a 10-year-old Indian child. As the most racist killers, Col. John Chivington, said before ordering the attack on peaceful Cheyenne on the banks of Sand Creek: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians. Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”
It was better to kill an Indian child than to let him grow up and kill you.
The infamous Paxton Boys killed and scalped 20 Indians in Pennsylvania in 1763. Even though Benjamin Franklin wrote a broadside attacking them, nothing was ever done to punish the killers. They had killed the last living members of the Conestoga Tribe. Colonials also killed and scalped Indians in Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona, California, New Mexico, and other states. Indians returned the favor, killing and scalping white people in as many states.
Mexico had its own bounty laws on Indian scalps. In 1837, the Mexican state of Chihuahua passed a law offering a bounty on Indian scalps. Indian men brought $100, Indian women brought $50, and Indian children brought $25. A hard working plainsman might work all year and not make $100, so the reward for Indian scalps was high. Apache and Comanche Indians were both popular with scalp hunters. One bounty hunter in 1847 claimed 487 Apache scalps, according to Madley’s article.
John Glanton, an outlaw who made a fortune scalping Indians in Mexico, was caught turning in scalps and ran back to the U.S. before he was caught. He and his outlaw gang had collected over 500 scalps, which in today’s money would make them almost millionaires. The Yuma Indians killed him in 1850, and ironically scalped him.
In 1814, Indians killed seven members of the Moore family in Illinois and scalped all of them. Miner John James Johnson and his companions killed and scalped 20 Apache Indians in 1837 during the Johnson Arizona Massacre. The Mimbres Apache chief Juan Jose Compa was one of those killed. The great Apache chief Mangas Coloradas (“Red Sleeves”) may have been present and it turned his heart against the Americans for the next 30 years. He was captured and placed on a fort in New Mexico and shot and killed when he tried to escape.
John Hart, one of the Fannin County Rangers determined to take Texas from Mexico and make it part of the U.S., killed and scalped three Caddo Indians in Texas in 1838. Major Mark Lewis and his men killed and scalped four Comanche Indians on the Llano River in 1841 and collected the bounty on them from the state of Texas. Indians killed and scalped three men in Kansas during the Fort Mann Massacre in 1847.
Kit Carson, perhaps one of the most famous guides and mountain men, also scalped several Indians in his career, which took him all over the West. He scalped his first Indian when he was 19 years old. But he also married an Arapaho Indian woman, Singing Grass, and had a daughter with her before she died.
My book has dozens of instances of scalping recorded in it, and the book is not yet complete. I estimate it will have information about 2,200 to 2,300 massacres when it is done.
Altogether, the record shows that there were more Indians who scalped white people than there were white people who scalped Indians. But the abomination lies on both sides. There is still a question in my mind about who originated it in the U.S., but I believe it was Europeans who brought it with them.