Scalping, of course, predated the mid-eighteenth century. Historical records, archaeology, and other sciences strongly indicate the practice originated among certain Native American tribes.1 A French soldier, identified by the initials J. C. B., related in his memoirs that "this horrible custom was practiced by these savages alone, and sprang from their own barbarism, for it seems never to have existed in any other nation, not even among nations, who, like them, have never received any idea of civilized life."2
This soldier also described how the act was executed. "When a war party has captured one or more prisoners that cannot be taken away, it is the usual custom to kill them by breaking their heads with the blows of a tomahawk . . . When he has struck two or three blows, the savage quickly seizes his knife, and makes an incision around the hair from the upper part of the forehead to the back of the neck. Then he puts his foot on the shoulder of the victim, whom he has turned over face down, and pulls the hair off with both hands, from back to front . . . This hasty operation is no sooner finished than the savage fastens the scalp to his belt and goes on his way. This method is only used when the prisoner cannot follow his captor; or when the Indian is pursued . . . He quickly takes the scalp, gives the deathcry, and flees at top speed. Savages always announce their valor by a deathcry, when they have taken a scalp . . . When a savage has taken a scalp, and is not afraid he is be ing pursued, he stops and scrapes the skin to remove the blood and fibres on it. He makes a hoop of green wood, stretches the skin over it like a tambourine, and puts it in the sun to dry a little. The skin is painted red, and the hair on the outside combed. When prepared, the scalp is fastened to the end of a long stick, and carried on his shoulder in triumph to the village or place where he wants to put it. But as he nears each place on his way, he gives as many cries as he has scalps to announce his arrival and show his bravery. Sometimes as many as 15 scalps are fastened on the same stick. When there are too many for one stick, they decorate several sticks with the scalps."3
An English captive, Thomas Gist (son of the famous Christopher Gist), wrote in his journal on September 14, 1758, that his captors "began to scrape the flesh and blood from the scalps, and dry them by the fire, after which they dressed them with feathers and painted them, then tied them on white, red, and black poles, which they made so by pealing the bark and then pain(t)ing them as it suited them."4 Captain John Knox, of the 43rd Regiment, mentioned in his journal finding "a scalp, which I suppose to have been a child's, with fine hair, en papillate; it was about the size of a large saucer stretched on a hoop, and the flesh-side painted" the following year.5
Another Frenchman, Captain Pierre Pouchot, of the Bearn Regiment, and commandant at Fort Niagara most of the war, recounted in his memoirs how the Native American would scalp his foe. "As soon as the man is felled, they run up to him, thrust their knee in between his shoulder blades, seize a tuft of hair in one hand &, with their knife in the other, cut around the skin of the head & pull the whole piece away. The whole thing is done very expeditiously. Then, brandishing the scalp, they utter a whoop which they call the 'death whoop'. . . If they are not under pressure & the victory has cost them lives, they behave in an extremely cruel manner towards those they kill or the dead bodies. They disembowel them & smear their blood all over themselves."6
An account of attack near Lake George, in 1759, illustrates Pouchot's observations. On July 2nd, "16 of the Jersey Blues were sent without the camp to gather a little brush for the General's Baker, but were not an hour gone before they were surprized in sight of the camp by a party of the enemy, consisting of about 240, who killed and scalped six, wounded two, took four prisoners, and only four of the whole party escaped. They shewed themselves plainly to the whole Army after they got the scalps, gave a hollow, and then made off to their Battoes, which were not more than two miles from the Head of the Lake. A large party was ordered out after them, but in vain. They butchered our people in a most shocking manner, by cutting pieces of flesh out of their necks, thighs and legs."7
While Europeans did not originate scalping, they did encourage its spread through the establishment of bounties. J. C. B. writes that "the French and English were accustomed to pay for the scalps, to the amount of thirty francs' worth of trade goods. Their purpose was then to encourage the savages to take as many scalps as they could, and to know the number of the foe who had fallen."8
The French paid virtually nothing for scalps, preferring to purchase prisoners that they would at times send back to their families or utilize for prisoner exchanges. Father Pierre Joseph Antonie Roubaud, missionary to the Abenaki at St. Francis, obtained a scalp from one of his warriors to redeem an infant from a Huron captor. The priest then reunited him with his parents.9
The English, however, passed acts through their colonial assemblies. Even before war was declared, on June 12, 1755, Massachusetts Governor William Shirley offered £40 for Indian male scalps and £20 for female scalps.10 The following year, on April 14, Pennsylvania Governor Robert Hunter Morris "declared war and proclaimed a general bounty for Indian enemy prisoners and for scalps." The bounties to be paid were £130 for a male scalp and £50 for a female scalp.11
J. C. B. also mentioned that "to increase the compensation received for scalps, they got the idea of making them of horsehide, which they prepared in the same way as human scalps. The discovery of this fraud was the reason they were more carefully inspected before a payment was made. Consequently, the French and English finished by giving only a trifling amount in the form of presents."12
The employment of bounties posed other problems as well. Edmund Atkins, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern Colonies, wrote a very revealing letter to Maryland Governor Horatio Sharpe from Winchester on June 30, 1757. In it he explains that "large publick Rewards for Scalps given by Provincial Laws to Indians, are attended with very pernicious Consequences to his Majesty's Service."13
Atkins substantiated his remarks by relating "two fresh Instances" that had come to his attention. The first involved a single Chicasaw (an ally to the English) "who was coming up this Way with the Cherokees, was killed by them when asleep; and a single Creek in their Company had like to have shared the same fate. As no Cause of Quarrel is pretended the Motive could only be in their Scalps. Those Cherokees carried the Chicasaw's Scalp with them out to War, towards Fort Du Quesne, & brought it back again; and it is now hanging exposed in publick . . . made into two Scalps, among the Scalps of their Enemies."
The second incident also involved the Cherokees who targeted a Meherrin Indian who they "fixed their Eyes on . . . and determined to kill him for his Scalp." Atkins was "obliged to take Measures to have him guarded safe home. Should he be killed, there would be another National Quarrel with the Tuskeroras."14 Such occurrences jeopardized the Native American alliances with the British Crown.
Another interesting aspect of this lucrative act was also introduced by Atkins; that of dividing single scalps. He also added "the Cherokees in particular have got the Art of making 4 Scalps out of one man killed. Here are now 20 Scalps hanging out to publick View, which are well known to have been made out of 5 Frenchmen killed."15 The French likewise were aware of this. Louis Antoine de Bougainville, aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Montcalm, recorded in his journal under the date of July 24, 1757, that "the English had eleven men killed and four wounded, two of whom since died of their wounds. The Indians, however, brought back thirty-two scalps; they know how to make two or even three out of one."16
Scalps were also used for decoration. Father Roubaud, remarked about the French allied Native Americans "engaged in counting the number of barbarous trophies - that is to say, the English scalps - with which the canoes were decorated" after the massacre of New Jersey soldiers on Lake George in July, 1757.17 It was at St. Francis, two years later, that Major Robert Rogers "found . . . hanging on poles over their doors, etc. about 600 scalps, mostly English."18
Scalps could also be used to replace the dead. Atkins explained that the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Colonies, Sir William Johnson, gave no reward for scalps. "The Warriours fitted out by him to War, deliver to him at their Return all that they bring back; and he afterwards presents them to the Relations of such as lose their Lives in Battle."19 After being presented with four French scalps by a Stockbridge Mohegan in 1758, Johnson offered all of them to replace Indians who had been killed; one being for his friend, the Mohawk chief, King Hendrick killed at the battle of Lake George, September 8, 1755.20 Johnson also wrote in 1772 that the Native Americans considered scalping to be "a National Act and Declaration of War."21
Some military commanders apparently did not endorse scalping. Atkins said he was "well assured Lord Loudoun detests that practice, and that the French General Moncalm in Canada does the same."22 During his 1759 campaign against Quebec, General James Wolfe issued orders at Montmorency, July 27, prohibiting "the inhuman practice of scalping, except when the enemy are Indians, or Canad(ian)s. dressed like Indians."23 In contrast, however, after the capture of an "Indian who murdered John McMichael, a sutler, last January, betwixt Fort Stanwix and Harkiman's" was captured, he "was shot . . . by Order of the General (Amherst), and was afterward scalped."24
The final aspect of scalping that is of interest is that of the large number of persons who actually survived the experience. Many think, as Montcalm wrote in a letter, that it was "an operation from which you usually die, as is (only natural and) proper."25 However, this was not the always the case. Weyman's New York Gazette, for July 30, 1759, carried an article proclaiming that "as a proof that many persons have survived after being scalped, we can assure our readers, that four Highlanders are lately arrived from America, in order for admission into Chelsea Hospital, who had been scalped and left for dead."26 Sir William Johnson's brother, Warren, declared in his journal on April 12, 1761, that "there are many instances of both men and women recovering after being scalped." He also confirmed scalps were pulled "off from the back of the head."27
In closing, I will cite several examples of cases where individuals, both men and women, survived the ordeal. Each case is interesting and gives insight into the horrors faced by these unfortunates, as well as others who did not survive.
The New York Mercury reported that about June 8th, 1759, "two of our battoes were attacked on their way up the Mohawk's River, by a party of the enemy, . . . The same party a day or two after scalped a woman, and carried off a child and a servant that were in company, between Fort Johnson and Schenectady; the woman lived 'til she got into Schenectady, tho' in great agony."28
The same paper, the same year, carried the news that on June 22nd, "about 6 o'Clock, a party of French and Indians appeared at Conagohary, consisting of about 3O; They attacked the house of one Peter Mardil, killed a girl, and carried off two men, two women, and two negroes, prisoners: They were immediately pursued by about 5O of the Militia, who came up with and attacked them 12 miles above Fort Hendrick, when the Indians immediately killed their white prisoners, but the negroes escaped: Our people beat off the Indians, and found one woman, and tho' scalped, is likely to recover."29 Here we note also the practice Atkins spoke of where when under pressure, the Native Americans would execute their prisoners.
A fascinating scalping incident occurred as the siege of the English forts at Oswego, NY, were about to commence. In May, 1756, French allied Indians skulked about the forts to inflict what casualties they could. Stephen Cross, a shipbuilder from Massachusetts, records 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 party the day before and got drunk and could not get in, and 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, and supposed him dead, and taken off his scalp."30 Patrick Mackeller also mentioned the incident in his journal and added "he afterwards recover'd."31
One final remarkable account is found in the New Hampshire Gazette. It relates a scalping incident that occurred on August 8th, 1758, near Fort Anne, NY, involving Rogers' Rangers. The harrowing experience of Lieutenant Peter Wooster of Captain David Baldwin's Company of Colonel Nathan Whiting's Second Connecticut Regiment is reported as follows:
"Lieutenant Wooster of the Connecticut Forces, who was wounded in Rogers' skirmish, is yet alive and likely to recover, no pains being spared to effect it, as the surgeons are extremely fond of making a cure of so extraordinary a case, which is this, he being in the front with Major Putnam, or not far in his rear, the enemy fired upon him, 8 bullets lodged in him, 3 of which are taken out; he had also three wounds by a tomahawk, two of which were on his head, and the other in his elbow, his head was flayed, almost the hair part off. He was sensible all the while the enemy were scalping him, and finding him wounded in so many places he could not run, and the enemy close upon him, he fell on his face and feigned himself dead, and no doubt but the enemy thought he actually was; however they gave him two blows on his head, but not so hard as to deprive him of his senses, and then scalped him, during all which time he made not the least resistance."32
Note: The author wishes to thank René Chartrand for his assistance in preparing this article.
1. James Axtell and William
C. Sturtevant, "The Unkindest Cut, or Who
Invented Scalping?", William and Mary Quarterly,
37 (1980): 451-472 (hereafter cited as Axtell
& Sturtevant); James Axtell, "Who Invented
Scalping?", American Heritage 28 (1977):