American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image

Scalping in the Colonial Period

Title: Native American holding scalp
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
The removal of all or a portion of the scalp was a custom practiced by various Native American groups and later by European settlers. The current consensus is that the practice of scalping was an indigenous creation. The males of many Native American groups wore their hair in a certain manner that lent itself to this practice. Both groups utilized this practice, which was often fatal, as a component of warfare. The scalp could be removed in several ways. Likewise, scalping held a number of symbolic meanings, both positive and negative.

Many Native American tribespeople wore their hair in a specific fashion, with a lock of hair braided and hanging. This distinct lock of hair came to be known as the scalplock. For many Iroquois and Algonquian speaking tribes, the warrior's soul was believed to reside in the scalplock. Though Europeans did not wear their hair in the same fashion, once hostilities arose between the two groups, they too could become victims of the process.

Misunderstanding the significance of scalping to Native Americans, the Europeans perceived the practice as simply an atrocity and responded to it accordingly. As time passed, both the French and British took scalps of Native Americans. These Europeans saw the taking of scalps as a means of gaining proof that Native Americans had been killed on an expedition. By the same token, Europeans sometimes paid money for scalps collected by Indians, the payment being known as a scalp bounty. The most infamous figure known in connection with this practice was the Lieutenant Governor of Canada during the American War of Independence, Henry "the Hair Buyer" Hamilton.

Among some Native Americans, scalping served a number of significant, symbolic purposes. It added to the prestige of a young warrior to gain the scalp of another in battle. It transmitted tangible evidence of a warrior's ability. Likewise, it was often believed that it transferred the masculinity or even the warrior prowess of one Native American to another. By the same token, taking a warrior's scalp after death served as a tribute to the martial ability of the fallen. It acknowledged that the slain had been a worthy opponent. If captured, a warrior could sometimes expect gruesome torture to the death (that within eastern Indian cultures was regarded as a sacrifice to restore balance to the world). Part of this torture might include the removal of the scalplock as a sign of the removal of masculinity or the soul prior to death.

As time passed and traditions eroded, especially among the Iroquois due to the practice of mourning war, scalping became a tactic employed against all of their victims, regardless of gender. Most historians link the degeneration of the practice to the frequency and intensity of the wars in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the period encompassing the conflicts over the fur trade. These conflicts, along with disease epidemics, ravaged the elders of the various tribes, especially in the Northeast. These were the members of the tribe who served as the transmitters of their people's culture.

While scalping among American Indians served a number of purposes, all of these were vital in the creation of a young warrior's identity. Primarily, the acquisition of an enemy's scalplock in battle presented a concrete testament to the young man's martial prowess. At the same time that the captured lock of hair gave evidence of increased status, it simultaneously provided a means to salute the abilities of the vanquished. Thus the removal of the scalplock from the head of a dead warrior did honor to both contestants in the engagement.

James R. McIntyre


Further Reading
Axtell, James, and William C. Sturtevant. 1980. "The Unkindest Cut or Who Invented Scalping?" In William and Mary Quarterly 37: 451–472.; Brooks, Robert L. 1994. "Warfare on the Southern Plains." In Skeletal Biology in the Great Plains: Migration, Warfare, Health, and Subsistence. Edited by Douglas W. Owsley and Richard L. Jantz, 317–324. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.; Eid, Larry V. 1998. " 'A Kind of Running Fight': Indian Battlefield Tactics in the Late Eighteenth Century." In Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 71: 147–171.; Gleach, Frederick W. 1997. Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Richter, Daniel K. 1983. "War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., no. 40: 528–559.
 

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Introduction
  Chronological Essays
  Issues
  Events
  Culture
  Governments
  People and Groups
  Documents
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
  Resources
  Images
ABC-cLIO Footer