Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer
Scalping was a barbarous practice in which human scalps were ritually cut away from a victim’s skull and retained as war trophies by many martial societies of the past. In the New World, the practice developed independently among the tribes of the Americas. Native American warriors developed a fearsome reputation among white colonists for taking scalps but the practice was also a common feature of pre-colonial life. Amerindians frequently scalped one another during bloody intertribal conflicts. One of the most publicized and gruesome scalpings of the American West was perpetrated not by an Amerindian, however, but instead by a well-known white man, the iconic “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Born in 1846, William Frederick Cody made a name for himself as a pony express courier and military man, eventually achieving distinction as the Army’s Chief of Scouts for the Third U.S. Cavalry. His nickname derived from his time spent while contracting with the Kansas Pacific Railroad when he killed over 4,000 buffalo in an eighteenth-month period. Cody eventually achieved fame as a showman back east, where he produced and starred in a series of popular Wild West shows in big cities like Chicago and New York. Cody made many friends along the way, including the young and flamboyant cavalry officer, George Armstrong Custer.
Cody was enraged upon discovered that Custer fell at Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876. He extracted his revenge at Warbonnet Creek, where he engaged a group of hostile Indians. Cody, blood drunk, killed and scalped one of the Cheyenne warriors, known as Yellowhand. He infamously waved the grisly trophy over his head while exclaiming, “The first scalp for Custer!” The act was shockingly well-received by the press and people back east, who also wanted revenge for Little Big Horn. Cody went as far as writing the scalping episode into his Wild West show—reportedly using the physical scalp as a marketing gimmick.
The American public eventually turned on Cody, especially after the U.S. Army crushed what little Amerindian resistance remained on the Great Plains. Newspapers and horrified citizens started to criticize Cody, who continued to aggrandize the story of Warbonnet Creek after most Native Americans were confined to reservations. Cody eventually changed his Wild West show, omitting the scalp from the playbill. In later life, the showman publicly regretted taking the scalp but still reveled in the fame he achieved on the frontier. The barbaric scalping remains a popular part of American Western history, with hundreds of images and stories woven around the tale.