Terror of Scalping in the Wild West

Nothing struck terror into the hearts of folk in the Wild West more than stories of scalping by the Indian tribes. Throughout the 19th century, American newspapers ran lurid accounts of cranial mutilation. The peeling away of the scalp from the skull as a trophy, a keepsake from a battle by the native American peoples who had lived in the Americas before the white man arrived. So what was the truth behind this practice? Why did it happen and when did it finally stop?

Scalping as fun for American boys!

One newspaper in 1890 ran a very telling story about a group of boys pouncing on an old man in a New York park yelling “Scalp that Indian!” The elderly gent took the attack in his stride. But it was the response of a bystander that was very telling. Those boys have been reading dime novels, he noted. Before jovially remarking that as a child many years ago, “my one desire was to go West to scalp Indians”.

A key argument of apologists for colonialism in the past was that enlightened Europeans abolished disagreeable practices among the natives. For example the practice of Sati in India where a widow sat on top of her husband’s funeral pyre and was duly immolated. The British banned Sati in 1829. But with scalping, the practice – as we’ll see – was adopted by allegedly civilised whites against native Americans. In fact, they took to it with relish!

The bystander mentioned above, many years before, and his schoolmates had been so enraptured at the thought of scalping Indians that they ran away from their homes, boarded a freight train, making their way to Philadelphia – which they assumed was the Wild West. And where did they imagine the native Americans lived? Why, the Zoological Gardens! And it was while scaling the fence that they were apprehended by a police officer and sent home after a good telling off.

Meanwhile on the reservation…

It’s rather disturbing that those boys imagined Indian tribes could be found in a zoo. But there is a cruel logic grounded what had become a miserable reality. By that time, native Americans had been penned into reservations for several decades. Treated like zoo animals – caged, watered, and barely fed.

In 1878, the Cheyenne decided that being confined to an area stricken by disease and poverty and where the bison herds they traditionally hunted had been wiped out, wasn’t the life for them. So, defying the American authorities, they escaped.

Heading north they killed some cowboys, fought off soldiers sent to bring them back, and fell on settlers they encountered – showing little mercy to men, women, and children. A village populated by Mennonites – a religious group – was wiped out. When soldiers arrived, the men were lying dead in the street while the Mennonite women were “found stark mad wandering on the prairie”.

Yet the Mennonite men weren’t scalped by the Cheyenne. They hadn’t fought back so there was no glorious trophy for the taking. Warriors on the enemy side were always scalped. But those who showed no resistance, like these Mennonites, were left with their skull intact.

Declining to scalp was an indication of contempt for the dead man – not respect. In marked contrast, one of the dead cowboys was discovered pistol in hand, bullet cases strewn around his corpse indicating a gunfight with the Cheyenne. He had earned the right to be mutilated – and was duly scalped.

A white man’s head posed a challenge to the Cheyenne. Among the tribes, it was easy to know what to scalp. The Sioux, for example, taunted their Cheyenne rivals by growing a “scalplock” (a plait of hair on an otherwise bald head). It was a way of saying – if you’re so great, come and hack my scalplock off.

But a white man had nothing so defined to excise. So, the Cheyenne took their scalping knife and “cut around just below the line of the hair on the forehead. Then the knife circled his head, taking in that portion of the scalp where the hair divides behind”. In other words, they took a lot more off the top of a white man than a Sioux.

As a native American male, losing your scalplock was a grave matter. A dead warrior was lifted to the “happy hunting grounds” after death by his scalplock. But if it had gone, that wouldn’t happen.

There was an account in the 19th century of native Americans fleeing white forces riding their horse over a precipice to certain death in order to avoid being scalped. Apparently singing a triumphal song as they descended rapidly. How much of these stories is poetic licence is a matter of debate. (Image below of a man scalped by the Cheyenne – article continues below).

The authorities paying for scalps

Scalping predated the arrival of Columbus and Europeans into north America. Evidence from discovered skulls suggests the practice may date back to at least 2,000BC. Native American tribes had different practices. The River Yumans in Arizona took the whole skin off the head including the ears. As early as the 16th century, the French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), observed that the Sioux took all the skin off the head. The face was also removed by the Teton Dakota Plains Cree. It might even be stretched like parchment between two poles.

What white settlers introduced was a financial incentive to go scalping. The Dutch, British, and French exploited tribal rivalry to deal with those who posed a threat to their expansion. So, they offered a cash sum for each scalp from an enemy tribe.

In 1637, English colonists in New England fought a bitter war against the Pequot tribe. They enlisted the help of the Mohegans and Narragansetts offering money for Pequot scalps – or any other body parts. The enemy flesh came in at such an alarming rate that the colonial administrators stopped bothering to keep detailed records.

In the years immediately before American independence, Britain and France fought a bitter war across north America. This was depicted brilliantly in the novel and Hollywood movie, The Last of the Mohicans. And as you see in the movie, Indian took sides in exchange for payment and protection from either the French or British. As the war intensified, the two European superpowers paid handsomely for the scalps of enemy tribes.

In the aftermath of the American War of Independence it was claimed that the British colonial official Henry Hamilton had paid Indian warriors to scalp American rebels. He was dubbed “The Hair Buyer General”. This story may have been the kind of lurid American propaganda designed to make the former British rulers look truly bestial. But it does fit into a grim pattern from the earliest settlers onwards.

From the moment the Spanish began to colonise Mexico, they ran into stiff resistance from the Apaches. Skirmishes occurred from the 1600s but reached a peak with the Apache-Mexico wars which raged from the 1830s to the 1850s. Mexico won its independence from the Spanish Empire in 1821. Its territory for the first 25 years extending deep into what is now the United States. For example, the Mexican state of Sonora including much of modern Arizona.

Without Spanish military backup and money, the governors of states like Sonora and Chihuahua struggled to contain the Apache and Comanche. So, they came up with a murderous solution. In 1835, Sonora state offered 100 Pesos for each scalp of an Apache brave. Two years later, an American, James Johnson, fired a cannon at some Apache (men, women, and children) and cashed in big time.

Chihuahua followed suit. It offered $100 for braves, $50 for squaws, and $25 for children under fourteen. Not every settler had the stomach for such a revolting line of business but there’s clear evidence that some, including cash strapped miners who had failed to strike it rich, got in to the scalping business. This in turn made the Wild West that much wilder as Apaches retaliated against this appalling brutality.

Of course, this bounty-for-scalps money making scheme was open to abuse. If there were no Apaches around, bounty hunters settled for peaceful tribes like the Pimas and Yumas. And some American bounty hunters reckoned that the authorities would never notice if a Mexican farmer, with dark hair and tanned skin, was offered up as an Apache scalp. So productive were the scalpers that Chihuahua had to ditch the scheme because the bounty payments were forcing it into bankruptcy.

Once paid for, scalps might be displayed in the most inappropriate places. There’s a record of the scalp of the Comanche warrior Running Devil being nailed to the wall of a saloon for decades. Over that time, it shrank until it resembled a small piece of leather. (Article continues after this image below).

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Survivors of scalping in the Wild West

It seems inconceivable but some people survived scalping in the Wild West. There’s even a story I found of a British soldier asking to be scalped by his native American captors instead of outright killed. In 1925, Arizona’s oldest citizen, Henry Mims, died at the grand old age of 109. Half way through his life in 1865, he was scalped by Indians in Texas. For the rest of his life, he wore a cap at all times to hide the horrific scarring. And it proved no impediment to lasting beyond a century.

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