Scalping is the act of removing the scalp, or a portion of the scalp, either from a dead body or living person, as a trophy of battle or portable proof of a combatant's prowess in war.
Although scalping in the United States is often associated with frontier warfare in North America, it actually has a historical basis throughout the world long before Christopher Columbus arrived, the earliest known example being in Eurasia in prehistory. There is no precedence of Vikings being scalped when they arrived in the Americas nearly 500 years prior to Columbus. The act of scalping in the modern era was practiced by colonists and frontiersmen, as well as Native Americans, across centuries of violent conflict. Some Mexican (e.g., Sonora and Chihuahua) and American territories (e.g., Arizona) paid bounties for enemy Native American scalps. Scalping was not practiced by all Native Americans.
The Scythian soldier scrapes the scalp clean of flesh and softening it by rubbing between their hands, uses it thenceforth as a napkin. The Scyth is proud of these scalps and hangs them from his bridle rein; the greater the number of such napkins that a man can show, the more highly is he esteemed among them. Many make themselves cloaks by sewing a quantity of these scalps together.
Western and Eastern Europe
Scalps were taken in wars between the Visigoths, the Franks, and the Anglo-Saxons in the 9th century, according to the writings of Abbé Emmanuel H. D. Domenech. His sources included the decalvare of the ancient Germans, the capillos et cutem detrahere of the code of the Visigoths, and the Annals of Flodoard.
Certain tribes of Native Americans practiced scalping, in some instances up until the end of the 19th century. Of the approximately 500 bodies at the Crow Creek massacre site, 90 percent of the skulls show evidence of scalping. The event took place around 1325 AD.
There were six colonial wars with New England and the Iroquois Confederacy fighting New France and the Wabanaki Confederacy over a 75-year period, starting with King William's War in 1688. All sides scalped victims including noncombatants during this Frontier warfare. The most famous captive during this war was Hannah Duston.
Massachusetts created a scalp bounty during King William's War in July 1689. During Queen Anne's War, by 1703, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was offering $60 for each native scalp. During Father Rale's War (1722–1725), on August 8, 1722, Massachusetts put a bounty on native families. Ranger John Lovewell is known to have conducted scalp-hunting expeditions, the most famous being the Battle of Pequawket in New Hampshire.
During King George's War, in response to repeated massacres of British families by the French and their native allies, Governor of Massachusetts William Shirley issued a bounty to be paid to British-allied Indians for the scalps of French-allied Indian men, women, and children (1744). New York passed a Scalp Act in 1747.
During Father Le Loutre's War and the French and Indian War in Nova Scotia and Acadia, French colonists offered payments to Indians for British scalps. In 1749, British Governor Edward Cornwallis offered payment to New England Rangers for Indian scalps. Both the Mi'kmaq people and the British killed combatants and non-combatants (i.e., women, children and infants). During the French and Indian War, Governor of Nova Scotia Charles Lawrence also offered a reward for male Mi'kmaq scalps in 1756.
During the French and Indian War, in June 12, 1755, Lieutenant Governor Spencer Phips of Massachusetts Bay colony was offering a bounty of £40 for a male Indian scalp, and £20 for scalps of females or of children under 12 years old. In 1756, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Robert Morris, in his Declaration of War against the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) people, offered "130 Pieces of Eight, for the Scalp of Every Male Indian Enemy, above the Age of Twelve Years," and "50 Pieces of Eight for the Scalp of Every Indian Woman, produced as evidence of their being killed."
Author and historian Mark van de Logt wrote: "Although military historians tend to reserve the concept of “total war” for conflicts between modern industrial nations, the term nevertheless most closely approaches the state of affairs between the Pawnees and the Sioux and Cheyennes. Noncombatants were legitimate targets. Indeed, the taking of a scalp of a woman or child was considered honorable because it signified that the scalp taker had dared to enter the very heart of the enemy's territory."
In the American Revolutionary War, Henry Hamilton, the Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Detroit, was known by American Patriots as the "hair-buyer general" because they believed he encouraged and paid his Native American allies to scalp American settlers. When Hamilton was captured in the war by the colonists, he was treated as a war criminal instead of a prisoner of war because of this. However, American historians have conceded that there was no positive proof that he had ever offered rewards for scalps. It is now assumed that during the American Revolution, no British officer paid for scalps. During the Sullivan Expedition, the September 13, 1779 journal entry of Lieutenant William Barton tells of patriots participating in scalping. Journals of the military expedition of Major General John Sullivan against the Six nations of Indians in 1779, pg. 11
In 1835, the government of Mexican state Sonora put a bounty on the Apache which, over time, evolved into a payment by the government of 100 pesos for each scalp of a male 14 or more years old. In 1837 the Mexican state of Chihuahua also offered a bounty on Apache scalps, 100 pesos per warrior, 50 pesos per woman, and 25 pesos per child. Harris Worcester wrote: "The new policy attracted a diverse group of men, including Anglos, runaway slaves led by Seminole John Horse, and Indians — Kirker used Delawares and Shawnees; others, such as Terrazas, used Tarahumaras; and Seminole Chief Coacoochee led a band of his own people who had fled from Indian Territory."
Some scalping incidents even occurred during the American Civil War. For example, Confederate guerrillas led by Bloody Bill Anderson were well known for decorating their saddles with the scalps of Union soldiers they had killed. Archie Clement had the reputation of being Anderson’s “chief scalper”.
In literature, theatre, and cinema
The act of scalping featured prominently in some Westerns such as the 1966 Burt Reynolds spaghetti western Navajo Joe and the 1990 film Dances with Wolves. The Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian is about a group of mercenaries making a living off Indian scalps and references the activity extensively, and in Karl May's novels the character Sam Hawkins had been scalped by Indian warriors and survived. The first work in the Lonesome Dove series, Dead Man's Walk, features a scalping, as does James Carlos Blake's In the Rogue Blood. Likewise, George Macdonald Fraser's antihero, Harry Flashman, observes scalping and is himself partially scalped in Flashman and the Redskins. Titus Bass, the protagonist of Terry Johnston’s nine historical novels about the Rocky Mountain fur trade, survives being scalped. Even the children's novel Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie features a description of a "Redskin" scalper.
Stories that are not strictly Westerns but feature Native American characters or themes also deal with the practice. For example, the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper shows many acts of scalping throughout the film. In the 1994 film Legends of the Fall Tristan Ludlow (Brad Pitt) scalps many German soldiers in the First World War resulting in his discharge from army service.
The horror genre uses scalping as a violent and sensationalistic act, the most notorious depiction being a sequence in the 1981 slasher film Maniac, featuring shockingly realistic makeup effects by Tom Savini. Later examples include the 2002 film Deathwatch where Pte. Thomas Quinn (Andy Serkis) wears a vest made from German scalps and is seen scalping an executed prisoner in one scene; the 2009 World War II film Inglourious Basterds where American irregulars collect scalps of killed Wehrmacht servicemen, with orders from their commanding officer Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to collect 100 scalps each as a debit for serving under him; the 2007 film Saw IV where a woman named Brenda is put into a scalping chair torture device; and the video game Gun where the player is able to scalp dying enemies after purchasing a special scalping knife. The 2010 film Piranha 3D depicts a woman being extensively scalped (complete with her facial skin also being removed) when her hair is caught in a motorboat propeller; this scene won the "Most Memorable Mutilation" trophy at the 2011 Scream Awards.
Modocs scalping and torturing prisoners, published in May 1873
The remains of dead Crow Indians killed and scalped by Sioux c. 1874
Survivor Robert McGee was scalped as a child in 1864 by Sioux Chief Little Turtle —photo c. 1890.
1864 photo of Californian Seth Kinman displaying an Indian scalp (front left). He collected "Indian artifacts" including scalps.
Native American Big Mouth Spring with decorated scalp lock on right shoulder. 1910 photograph by Edward S. Curtis.
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