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For other uses, see Scalping (disambiguation).

Scalping is the act of cutting or tearing a part of the human scalp, with hair attached, from the head of an enemy as a trophy.[1] Scalp-taking is considered part of the broader cultural practice of the taking and display of human body parts as trophies, and may have developed as an alternative to the taking of human heads, for scalps were easier to take, transport, and preserve for subsequent display. Scalping independently developed in various cultures in both the Old and New Worlds.[2]

Scalping in Asia, Africa, and Europe[edit]

Georg Frederici noted in Scalping and Similar Warfare Customs in America that “Herodotus provided the only clear and satisfactory portrayal of a scalping people in the old world” in his description of the Scythians, a nomadic people then located to the north and west of the Black Sea.[3]

Herodotus related that Scythian warriors would behead the enemies they defeated in battle, and then present the heads to their king in order to claim their share of the plunder. That done, the warrior “strips the skin off the head by making a circular cut round the ears and shaking out the skull; he then scrapes the flesh off the skin with the rib of an ox, and when it is clean works it with his fingers until it is supple, and fit to be used as a sort of handkerchief. He hangs these handkerchiefs on the bridle of his horse, and is very proud of them. The best man is the man who has the greatest number.”[4] Ammianus Marcellinus noted the taking of scalps by the Alani, a people of Asiatic Scythia, in terms quite similar to those used by Herodotus.[5]

The Abbé Emmanuel H. D. Domenech referenced the decalvare of the ancient Germans and the capillos et cutem detrahere of the code of the Visigoths as examples of scalping in early medieval Europe,[6] though some more recent interpretations of these terms relate them to shaving off the hair of the head as a legal punishment rather than scalping.[7]

The soldier of fortune John Duncan observed, in 1845, what he estimated to be seven hundred scalps taken in warfare and displayed as trophies by a contingent of female soldiers employed by the King of Dahomey (present-day Republic of Benin), noting that these would have been taken and kept over a long period of time and would not have come from a single battle. Although Duncan travelled widely in Dahomey, and described customs such as the taking of heads and the retention of skulls as trophies, nowhere else does he mention scalping.[8]

Scalping in the Americas[edit]

The Technique of Scalping. Specific scalping techniques varied somewhat from place to place, depending on the cultural patterns of the scalper regarding the desired shape, size, and intended use of the severed scalp and on how the victims wore their hair, but the general process of scalping was quite uniform. The scalper firmly grasped the hair of a subdued adversary, made several quick semicircular cuts with a sharp instrument on either side of the area to be taken, and then vigorously yanked at the nearly-severed scalp. The scalp separated from the skull along the plane of the areolar connective tissue, the fourth (and least substantial) of the five layers of the human scalp. Scalping was not in itself fatal, though it was most commonly inflicted on the gravely wounded or the dead. The earliest instruments used in scalping were stone knives crafted of flint, chert, or obsidian, or other materials like reeds or oyster shells that could be worked to carry an edge equal to the task. Collectively, such tools were also used for a variety of everyday tasks like skinning and processing game, but were replaced by metal knives acquired in trade through European contact. The implement often referred to as a “scalping knife” in popular American and European literature was not known as such by Native Americans, a knife being for them just a simple and effective multi-purpose utility tool for which scalping was but one of many uses.[9][10]

Intertribal warfare[edit]

Choctaw American Indians, in warpaint, bearing scalps, Alexandre de Batz, 1732.

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."[11]

Scalping Knife and Sheath, probably Sioux, early 19th century, Brooklyn Museum

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.[12]

Colonial Wars[edit]

Hannah Duston scalps the sleeping Abenaki family who had kidnapped her and murdered her infant after the Raid on Haverhill (1697).

While scalping was used in the Pequot War in the 1630s, scalping did not appear in the laws of the American colonies until the mid-1660s.[13] The Jesuit Relations of 1642-1643, states, in regard to an Iroquois attack on Hurons and French near Montreal, "Three of these they beat to death, — scalping them, and carrying away their hair, — and take the two others captive".[14] In the 1710s and '20s, New France engaged in frontier warfare with the Natchez people and the Meskwaki people, during which both sides would employ the practice.[citation needed]

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.[15] The most famous captive during this war was Hannah Duston.

Massachusetts created a scalp bounty during King William's War in July 1689.[16] During Queen Anne's War, by 1703, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was offering $60 for each native scalp.[17] During Father Rale's War (1722–1725), on August 8, 1722, Massachusetts put a bounty on native families.[18] Ranger John Lovewell is known to have conducted scalp-hunting expeditions, the most famous being the Battle of Pequawket in New Hampshire.[citation needed]

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).[19] New York passed a Scalp Act in 1747.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22] (In 2000, some Mi'kmaq argued that this proclamation was still legal in Nova Scotia. Government officials argued that it was no longer legal because the bounty was superseded by later treaties - see the Burying the Hatchet ceremony).[23]

During the French and Indian War, in June 12, 1755, Governor William Shirley 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.[17][24] 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."[17][25]

American Revolution[edit]

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.[26] It is now assumed that during the American Revolution, no British officer paid for scalps.[27] During the Sullivan Expedition, the September 13, 1779 journal entry of Lieutenant William Barton tells of patriots participating in scalping.[28] 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[citation needed]. 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.[29][not in citation given] 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."[30]

Civil War[edit]

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.[31] Archie Clement had the reputation of being Anderson’s “chief scalper”.

In Literature, Theatre, and Cinema[edit]

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 final few minutes of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom features a brief, though graphic, scalping scene.

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.

Image gallery[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Griffin, Anastasia M. (2008). Georg Friederici's (1906) "Scalping and Similar Warfare Customs in America" with a Critical Introduction. ProQuest. ISBN 9780549562092 p.18.
  2. ^ ′′Human Trophy Taking in Eastern North America During the Archaic Period: The Relationship to Warfare and Social Complexity′′ by Robert P. Mensforth, in ′′The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians′′ edited by Richard J. Chacon and David H. Dye, Springer Science + Business Media, 2007, p. 225
  3. ^ Griffin, Anastasia M. (2008). Georg Frederici's (1906) "Scalping and Similar Warfare Customs in America" with a Critical Introduction. ProQuest. ISBN 9780549562092 p.180.
  4. ^ Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. Penguin Books: London, 2003, pp. 260-261.
  5. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History. London: Bohn, 1862.Book XXXI, II, 22. Trans. By C. D. Yonge
  6. ^ Abbe Emmanuel Domenech, Seven Years’ Residence in the Great Deserts of North America, Vol. 2, London: Longman Green, 1860, p. 358.
  7. ^ Jace Crouch, “The Judicial Punishment of Delcavatio in Visigothic Spain: A Proposed Solution based on Isidore of Seville and the Lex Visigothorum” Abstract and pp. 1-5.
  8. ^ Travels in Western Africa in 1845 & 1846, Comprising a Journey from Whydah, through the Kingdom of Dahomey, to Adofoodia, in the Interior. Vol. 1. by John Duncan. London: Richard Bentley, 1847, pp. 233-234, and Vol. II, same publisher, same year, pp. 274-275.
  9. ^ Richard F. Burton Anthropological Review Vol. 2, No. 4 (Feb., 1864), pp. 50-51.
  10. ^ Griffin, Anastasia M. (2008). Georg Friederici's (1906) "Scalping and Similar Warfare Customs in America" with a Critical Introduction. ProQuest. ISBN 9780549562092. pp. 63-70
  11. ^ van de Logt, Mark (2012). War Party in Blue: Pawnee Scouts in the U.S. Army. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 35. ISBN 0806184396. 
  12. ^ Hall Steckel, Richard; R. Haines, Michael (2000). A population history of North America. Cambridge University Press. p. 68. ISBN 0-521-49666-7. 
  13. ^ Grenier. 2005. p.39
  14. ^
  15. ^ MacLellan. Louisbourg. Appendix: Scalping  ; John Grenier. The first way of war: American war making on the frontier, 1607-1814 Cambridge University Press. 2005.
  16. ^ John Grenier. First Way of War. p. 39
  17. ^ a b c
  18. ^ William Williamson. The History of the State of Maine.Vol 2. pp. 117-118
  19. ^ A particular history of the five years French and Indian War in New England ... By Samuel Gardner Drake, William Shirley. p. 134]
  20. ^ O'Toole, Fintan (2005). "White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America". ISBN 9780374281281. 
  21. ^ John Grenier. The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760. Oklahoma University Press.2008
  22. ^ Lawrence scalp bounty. Nova Scotia historical society
  23. ^
  24. ^ Chronology of American Indian History By Liz Sonnebor, p. 88
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Kelsey pg. 303
  28. ^
  29. ^ Haley, James L. (1981). Apaches: A History and Culture Portrait. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 51. ISBN 0806129786. 
  30. ^ Worcester, Donald Emmet (1985). Pioneer Trails West. Caxton Press. p. 93. ISBN 0870043048. 
  31. ^


External links[edit]