Bring Me Their Scalps!

One of the most persistent reversals of historical reality is the claim that scalping was introduced by the white man to the Indians of North America. Despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, this false claim seems to have nine lives.

I suppose it’s all a part of a concentrated effort since at least the 1960s—but in some circles well before that—to romanticize and idealize the Indian while concomitantly demonizing the white man. The evil white man invaded a pristine land of happy natives living in harmony with their neighbors and nature, don’t you know. When I was an undergraduate at UCLA in the 1960s, I recall a professor telling our class that scalping was the creation of American colonists as way to collect bounties on enemy Indians. It then spread from tribe to tribe until it was universally practiced and became falsely regarded as an Indian custom.

Like most good falsehoods, there is an element of truth here. There were instances when certain colonial authorities did offer bounties on enemy Indians and a scalp provided proof of a kill. The scalp was the article used precisely because scalping was a common Indian practice going back beyond any Indian’s memory. Moreover, colonial authorities got the idea from Indian tribes allied with the whites—the Narragansett, Niantic, and Mohegan—during the Pequot War of 1637, the first major conflict between Indians and whites in New England. Those Indian allies commonly brought Pequot scalps to the whites of the colonies in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay to prove they were doing their job—a way to provide body counts for their search-and-destroy missions.

Nonetheless, the assertion that scalping actually came from the white man has been repeated ad infinitum until it is taken as conventional wisdom, although it can be easily disproved. Shouldn’t college professors know better? Of course, but most doctoral programs today are embarrassingly devoid of content that doesn’t conform to cultural Marxism. Then there are professors who know better but who fear the consequences of telling the truth. As I’ve often remarked: When I was a kid, I got in trouble for telling a lie. Now that I’m an adult, I get in trouble for telling the truth. 

French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed up the Saint Lawrence River in 1534, reaching the Indian village of Stadacona—near present-day Quebec City—in July. The chief of the Stadaconans, Donnacona, proudly displayed “the scalps of five Indians, stretched on hoops like parchment,” Cartier recorded in his journal. He said they were from an enemy tribe to the south, “who waged war continually against his people.” 

Members of Hernando de Soto’s expedition through what is today’s southeastern United States in 1539-1541 noted the importance of scalping to the Apalachee. “The scalps were what they most prized to display at the end of the bow with which they fought,” one of de Soto’s lieutenants wrote. “I even saw the skin of the crown of the monk, exhibited to me by an Indian who brought it to show.” Another member of the expedition, Simon Rodrigues, was killed and scalped while the expedition was still in Florida.

During the summer of 1540, Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado reached today’s New Mexico after a long journey north from central Mexico. He was looking for the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola, thought to have streets paved in gold. He found no gold but he did find “scalp societies” among the Pueblo Indians and plenty of scalps.

Nearly three centuries later in the 1830s, Mexican governors of Chihuahua and Sonora started paying bounties for the scalps of Apache (an event featured in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian). Mythmakers of more recent times blamed those Mexican authorities for introducing the practice to the Indians. If that claim put too much responsibility on the Mexicans for introducing scalping in the regions that became New Mexico and Arizona, then blame was put on the Grant County Commission at Silver City for issuing bounties when those areas became part of the United States following the Mexican War.

Probably the best early description of the Indian practice of scalping comes from the French artist Jacques le Moyne, who came to the New World with an expedition led by René Goulaine de Laudonnière in 1564. In northern Florida they came into contact with the Timucua Indians, whose territory extended into southern Georgia. Somewhere along the St. Johns River, Le Moyne described the Timucuans scalping their enemies:

They cut the skin of the head down to the bone from front to back and all the way around and pulled it off while the hair, more than a foot and a half long, was still attached to it. When they had done this, they dug a hole in the ground and made a fire…. Over the fire they dried the scalps until they looked like parchment.… They hung the bones and the scalps at the ends of their spears, carrying them home in triumph.

When they arrived at their village, they held a victory ceremony in which the legs, arms, and scalps of the vanquished were attached to poles with ‘great solemnities.’

Upon establishing Jamestown in 1607, John Smith noted the powerful Powhatan tribe delighted in taking scalps. In a raid on an enemy tribe, said Smith, Powhatan warriors killed 24 men and brought back their scalps as well as captives to present to the Powhatan chief. The Powhatans then hung the scalps on a line strung between two trees for display. The Powhatan chief “made ostentation … shewing them to the English men that then came vnto him, at his appointment,” Smith wrote in his 1612 book, A Map of Virginia

In 1617, the Dutch built a fort at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, the site of present-day Albany. They quickly became aware of the bloody warfare between the Mohawk and Mohican tribes, and the horrific torture and scalping that was practiced. A resident surgeon at the fort in the mid-1630s described an Indian fortress with “three wooden images carved like men, and with them … three scalps fluttering in the wind.” He noted scalps displayed elsewhere as well.

If these very early descriptions from French, Spanish, English, and Dutch sources, and many more like them, leave room for doubt about scalping being an Indian practice that long predated the arrival of the white man, then there are hundreds of skulls from hundreds of years ago from various archeological digs that show clear evidence of scalping.

The largest of these digs is at Crow Creek along the Missouri River in central South Dakota. The area today is part of the Crow Creek Reservation. A team of archeologists from the University of South Dakota excavated the site first in the 1950s and then again in the late 1970s and 1980s. They found the remains of 486 Indians—men, women, and children—and dated those remains to the mid-14th century. Nearly every one of the victims of the massacre had been scalped, mutilated, and dismembered. The hands and feet of most appear to have been severed and carried off as trophies. The scalping and mutilation applied to all the women and children massacred as well as the men. It’s been suggested that their scalps held higher value than those of the men because it meant that the scalps weren’t taken from enemies out on a trail or on the battlefield, but from those in a fortified village.  Penetrating the defenses of an enemy village required skill, cunning, and courage. 

At the nearby Fay Tolton dig dating to the Middle Ages, the skull of a 5-year-old child clearly shows the characteristic scalping lesion. It seems that if an enemy had hair long enough to make a good trophy, then age or sex didn’t matter.

In the Vosberg Valley, southeast of the small town of Young, Arizona, there is a burial site of four Indians, two men and two women, that has been dated as early as 1050. All four of the Indians have the cut marks on their craniums characteristic of scalping.

At the Sargent Site Ossuary in Custer County, Nebraska, there was an elaborate burial of a dozen prehistoric Indians in parallel rows facing west. Four of the dozen skulls—three men and one woman—have distinct signs of having been scalped.

There are other archaeological sites as well with skeletal remains from hundreds of years ago with skulls clearly showing the scalping lesion and revealing that the scalping of the enemy was not restricted to warriors.

There is simply no question that scalping was an ancient and near-universal practice of the American Indian and had nothing to do with the arrival of the white man in what is today the United States.  However, that doesn’t comport with the Indian good/white man bad paradigm of today’s cultural Marxists, especially those in academe.

The idea of the white man being responsible for scalping still has surprising currency and reminds me of something else I heard from a professor—a conservative one—in my undergraduate days at UCLA in the 1960s: “It’s not what really happened in history that’s important, it’s what people believe happened.”          ◆

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