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. 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.
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.
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.” Ammianus Marcellinus noted the taking of scalps by the Alani, a people of Asiatic Scythia, in terms quite similar to those used by Herodotus.
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, 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.
The soldier of fortune, John Duncan observed, in 1845, what he estimated to be 700 scalps taken in warfare and displayed as trophies by a contingent of female soldiers — Dahomey Amazons — 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.
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 the Sioux and the 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.”
Many 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 circa 1325 CE.
The “Connecticut and Massachusetts colonial officials had offered bounties initially for the heads of murdered Indigenous people and later for only their scalps” during the Pequot War in the 1630s, scalping did not appear in the laws of the American colonies until the mid-1660s. The Jesuit Relations of 1642-1643 state, 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.” In 1697, on the northern frontier of the Massachusetts’ colony, settler Hannah Dustin killed ten of her Abenaki captors during her nighttime escape, presented their ten scalps to the Massachusetts General Assembly, and was rewarded with bounties for two men, two women, and six children. 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.
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.
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 Seven Years’ 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). Also during the Seven Years’ War, Governor of Nova Scotia Charles Lawrence offered a reward for male Mi’kmaq scalps in 1756. (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.
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. 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.”
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.
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”.
Scalping also occurred during the Sand Creek massacre in the American Indian Wars, when a 700-man force of Colorado Territory militia attacked and destroyed the village of Cheyenne and Arapaho in southeastern Colorado Territory, killing and mutilating an estimated 70–163 Native Americans.