In 1641, Willem Kieft, director of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, offered a friendly Native American tribe a disturbing deal. He would pay, he declared, 10 fathoms of “wampum” for every scalp cut from the skulls of the nearby Raritan tribe they brought him. It was a good deal. Wampum, or strips of beaded cloth, worked as a form of currency in the barter system used by Native American tribes. And 10 fathoms was a healthy sum. The tribe agreed. They probably weren’t the first on the continent. Nor would they be the last. The agreement was part of a system that brought death and suffering to people across North America for hundreds of years.
For the Dutch, the scalp bounty was useful. They were outnumbered and in conflict with neighboring tribes of Native Americans. By paying them to hunt each other’s scalps, they could practice a divide and conquer strategy that kept their enemies weak. Why risk being killed fighting Native Americans when you could just pay someone else to do it? Because it was such a useful strategy for the Dutch and other European colonizers, it became a common practice for new governments to pay for scalps as waves of new settlers came to North America.
Today, many people associate Native Americans with scalping. But scalping has a long history that reaches far from North America. According to Herodotus, the ancient Scythians, who lived around the Black Sea, had to present their king with the scalp of an enemy to get a share of the post-battle spoils. In the 9th century AD, the Franks and Anglo-Saxons scalped their enemies after battles and during raids. Scalping likely had different meanings for different peoples who practiced it. But at its core, it seems to have been about humiliating and disempowering their enemies while boosting the status of the warrior who took the scalp. It was a trophy to prove their ability in battle.
The actual mechanics of scalping likely varied as well. But generally, once a victim was dead or too wounded to move, a blade was placed at the top of their forehead, just below the hairline. Then it would be drawn back across the side of the head, sawing through the flesh. Once the cut was complete, a quick tug separated the skin from the top of the skull. The skin could then be preserved as a trophy, if necessary, to be hung from the warrior’s horse or body. Or in the case of the scalp bounties, turned in for cash.
The lure of quick profit played a large part in the growth of scalping among Native American tribes. While we often associate them today with scalping, before the arrival of Europeans, relatively few Native American tribes in the East actually practiced it. But once the new governments on the continent started to pay for scalps, there was a new economic motivation to hunt for them. And scalping wasn’t limited to Native Americans. European settlers themselves began collecting on the bounties for scalps.
In Massachusetts, British settlers were frequently murdered by Native Tribes allied with the French during King George’s War. In response, the colony issued a bounty for the scalps of Native men, women, and children. New York passed a similar law the next year. Over the next few decades, these types of bounties became increasingly common. In 1756, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Robert Morris declared war upon the Delaware tribe, offering, “for the scalp of every male Indian enemy above the age of twelve years, produced as evidence of their being killed, the sum of one hundred and thirty pieces of eight.”
The idea that you could receive a bounty for Native American scalps became a common part of the colonial experience. And the cycles of violence and warfare between settlers and Native Americans reinforced the system in practice and in the minds of settlers. Hannah Duston was a woman from Massachusetts who was kidnapped by a tribe of Native Americans and led off into captivity. But one night, she broke loose and killed several of her captors with a hatchet. She fled to safety, but not before making sure to collect their scalps to turn them in for the standing bounty.
Scalping was and is seen as a particularly barbaric custom. It was designed to spread fear. So in times of war, scalp bounties became a useful tool for psychologically attacking opponents. As the French and British began establishing colonies in the New World, their conflicts began spilling over from Europe. Colonial wars broke out frequently between the two nations. And in the New World, each side was allied with different tribes of Native Americans. The colonial governments had already been offering bounties for Native American scalps. Now, they extended those bounties to colonists.
When the American Revolution began, accusations that each side was paying Native Americans to scalp their enemies began to fly. Though there’s no evidence to support it, one British commander was nicknamed the “hair-buyer general” by patriots who accused him of paying for American scalps. But when the Revolutionary War ended, the idea that paying for scalps was barbaric seemed to be forgotten. By the time America began expanding west into the Great Plains, the scalp bounties re-emerged.
On the plains, the Americans began to encounter new tribes like the Apache and Commanche. These were tribes that the Spanish settling in what is now Mexico had been at war with for centuries. Like other governments on the continent, the Spanish authorities quickly settled on scalp bounties as the best way to deal with their Native American adversaries. Now that the U.S. government was fighting Native tribes in the wilds of the South West, they too revived the tradition of offering bounties for scalps. Soon a class of professional scalp hunters began to emerge. And they weren’t always particular about where they got them.
In 1862, conflict broke out between the U.S. government and several bands of Dakota warriors in Minnesota. In response to continued raids, the Minnesota government authorized the creation of a band of volunteers. These men would receive a daily wage for their services in hunting down Dakota men in the wilderness. In addition, they’d receive a hefty bounty of 25 dollars for every scalp they brought back. This order made these men truly professional scalp hunters. They made their living tracking down and collecting scalps for the government. And similar arrangements were in place from time to time across the prairie as various states and local governments realized that a bounty system was an effective way to deal with hostile natives.
But the best place to be a professional scalp hunter in the American West was near the border with Mexico. For centuries, bands of Commanche and Apache had raided across the borders. They would strike into Mexico, carrying off livestock and killing settlers before retreating beyond pursuit into the U.S. or vice-versa. In 1835, the Mexican state of Sonora offered a bounty of 100 pesos for scalps. In 1837, an American named James Johnson struck on a novel way to collect on the bounty. He loaded a cannon and hid it in the path of an approaching group of unarmed Apaches and fired. All that was left to do was collect the scalps from the dead and dying.
With the end of the Mexican-American War, the scalping industry entered a boom period. Many veterans of the war found themselves unemployed but armed with a knowledge of the terrain of northern Mexico and the southwest U.S. More importantly, they had a familiarity with violence. Gangs of men who used those skills to pursue the trade-in scalps began to form. Sometimes working directly for the Mexican government, they pursued Native Americans through the country, hunting their scalps. John Joel Glanton and his Glanton Gang were some of the most infamous of these new scalp hunters.
The Glanton gang began murdering civilians in Chihuahua and turning in their scalps for the bounties. But within a few months, the authorities discovered what was going on and Glanton himself was the target of a bounty. Ultimately, a band of Yuma Native Americans hunted Glanton down and killed him after he murdered a group of Yuma for their scalps. Ironically, the U.S. government ultimately organized an expedition to punish the Yuma for his death. The boom period for scalp bounties ended shortly afterward. But the laws offering bounties for scalps stayed on the books for decades in many cases. And in Nova Scotia, a law offering bounties the scalps of Mi’kmaq men has never been repealed, even to this day.
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