An abbreviated form of head-hunting, the custom of scalping was once popular in North America, where it was practiced first by some (but not all) Native American peoples before Europeans arrived, but later by both more Native American peoples and some European settler peoples. The Native Americans’ motive first was scalping for trophies, but later they added the European settlers’ motive of scalping for bounties.

Head-hunting in one form or another has occurred throughout time & throughout the world, probably because the human head is the most specific symbol of the individual person. Take the person’s head, and the power of the entire person is taken substantively or spiritually or both together.

The ancient Celtic peoples of Europe were inveterate whole-head-hunters, and their more recent descendants occasionally used that old custom to make bold political statements. “Behold the head of a traitor!” was the rallying cry, both about British King Charles I in 1649 and about French King Louis XVI in 1793, after their respective beheadings. Likewise, the severed head of Wampanoag Chief Metacomet (aka King Philip) was displayed atop a pole at Plymouth Colony Fort for years, after he was shot by an Indian scout for dismemberment by the English in 1676.

As early as the Pequot War (1637-38), New Englanders in Connecticut had paid bounties to their Indian allies for scalping their Indian enemies (specifically, they paid Mohegans for Pequots’ scalps). But during the wider-spread & more-deadly King Philip’s War (1675-76), Connecticut & Massachusetts governments extended the bounties-offer for Indian-enemy scalps to their own White soldiers also. And thus began the Hair-Trade as an economic opportunity for New Englanders–not to be confused with the older Fur-Trade in (lower) animal pelts. The highest bounties offered for adult male Indian-enemy scalps gradually grew from £3 late in King Philip’s War to £300 late in the (4th) French & Indian War (latest 1750s), £300 then being a relative fortune & an utmost incentive.

As scalp-bounties rose, New Englanders devised devious means of obtaining Indian scalps. Re-using already-paid-for scalps was thwarted by immediately burning every scalp submitted, in a keg of tar. But the problem of counterfeit scalps was never solved: friendly Indians had to worry about being more-easily & less-dangerously targeted than hostile Indians. In Maine, the worst known case of such scalp-counterfeiting was the Owls Head Massacre of July 1755, wherein Capt James Cargill’s all-White bounty-posse deliberately sought & killed a dozen or more peaceful Penobscots. Later, Cargill went to court to protest being denied the bounties for their scalps, after protesting Penobscot warriors had joined already-hostile Abenakis in frontier raids and Massachusetts had declared war on all of the Penobscots. Capt Cargill got no bounties for that batch of scalps, but soon he was back in the Hair-Trade again, with promotion to Colonel of Militia in the wider war that he personally had expanded because of his crime.

In the Lakes Region of Maine, the “Battle of Lovewell’s Pond” (in today’s Fryeburg) in 1725 became famous in song & story and Longfellow’s first poem & a later one too. Capt John Lovewell’s bounty-hunting party had set out legitimately to scalp the Ossipee & Pigwacket bands of Abenaki-Pennacook peoples, during the Abenaki War (the fourth conflict between New Englanders & Wabanakis). But on a Sabbath morning in May, after the posse’s Chaplain Frye had surprised & scalped an apparently-lone Indian, suddenly all Hell broke loose. By the end of that long day’s night, both Capt Lovewell and his opponent Paugus the Pigwacket war-chief were dead, as were most of their men also. So few lived to tell the true tale, that New Englanders ever since have exaggerated it into a great triumph. Nonetheless, it was only a Pyrrhic Victory by the best possible spin. Scalping paid only losses that time.

Yet some New Englanders gained real profits from scalping. It was not even necessary to expose oneself to combat danger–just finance other men to go out on scalping scouts. In Falmouth (now Portland) Maine, the town’s leading clergyman Thomas Smith reported in his journal (diary) for 18 June 1757 that he had received “£ 165 and 33” (= £ 198 total of two accounts?) as “my part of scalp money”. Call it nice patriotic profit like War Bonds in World War 2, or naughty old Daddy Warbucks tricks, or both together?

Meanwhile, what were the French doing? Both similar things and different. Certainly the Indian allies of the French were induced with scalp-bounties, and French colonial soldiers repeatedly went on the Indian raids that scalped English settlers. French missionary priests encouraged such raids, and even accompanied some of them. French leaders were called Hair-Buyers by the English, even if the term applied equally to English leaders. But also there were differences, and for good reason. New France was much larger in area than New England, but had a far smaller population and far less funding. Therefore, French leaders realized early on that capturing live-&-well New Englanders for ransom, or servants, or adoption made more sense than killing & scalping them. So they soon better-rewarded their Indian allies & French colonials to bring-‘em-back-alive!–or kidnap them, whichever term one prefers.

Many English captives-to-be either could not or would not make the long trek to Canada, so were killed for cruel revenge, and scalped-for-minimum-profit, either immediately or en route. This is the scenario that became the typical New England legend of the French-&-Indian Wars. However, there also was the lesser-discussed situation of the eventually-more-or-less-happy captives. Even after ransom became available for them, many English captives chose to stay in French Canada–some even with benevolent Indian captors. These stayers, particularly stayers-with-Indians, increasingly became an embarrassment to New England’s leaders, and especially so to Puritan clergymen, who saw the hand of God or Devil in it.

Today, interest in both family genealogy (for the American public in general) and in Captivity Narratives (for students of American Studies) combine to make a market like never before for both new books and reprints of old books about these long-ago events of life-&-death in the wilderness. The grandmothers of studying Family Captives now have their basic books back in print by Heritage Books Inc of Bowie MD These books are:
—C Alice Baker (1896): True Stories Of New England Captives (HB Reprint #B041)
—Emma Lewis Coleman (1925): New England Captives Carried To Canada (HB Reprint #C651).

Both books are general secondary-sources, but they contain brief detailed specifics of very many individual captivity cases. Understandably, only a few complete primary-source captivity narratives can fill up any one anthology. No single anthology currently available covers eastern New Hampshire and Maine exclusively. Colin G Calloway (ed, 1992): North Country Captives (University Press of New England) is an anthology which covers Vermont through central New Hampshire.

In conclusion, it needs stating that, unlike whole-head-hunting, scalping was not necessarily an automatic fatal affront to the victim. The example that follows is extreme, but the outcome of survival was well-known if not common among European settlers. During Chief Polin’s Last Raid, on New Marblehead (now Windham) Maine in May 1756, settler Ephraim Winship supposedly was scalped twice, but survived the ordeals and lived ten years thereafter. No doubt he felt religiously blessed for still being alive and patriotically proud to wear his scars.

Yet aboriginally, among Native Americans themselves, a very different situation might prevail, because scalping was not simply an act or a custom on its own–it was a part of an integral cultural complex of spirituality & personality related to much more. The carefully-groomed warriors’ haircuts that we label scalp-locks were symbols of spiritual & personal being, more deeply basic to individual identity than any hair-statement that we are likely to encounter today. To lose one’s own, or to take another’s, scalp-lock, once formally meant the spiritual death of the victim, so that to survive a scalping physically put a spiritual curse & shame on the victim, certainly not a religious blessing.

Scalping was indeed “The Unkindest Cut“, as historian James Axtell has titled his 1980 paper, written jointly with ethnologist William C Sturtevant. That paper appears in two formats: Originally a “Notes & Documents” report in WILLIAM & MARY QUARTERLY, Series 3, Volume 37, July 1980, pages 451-472; Expanded version appears in James Axtell’s (1981) book The European & The Indian (Oxford University Press), Chapters 2 (all), 4 (pages 142-144), & 8 (all). Axtell & Sturtevant therein amply supply details on various lines of evidence (q.v., — far too lengthy to summarize here) to demonstrate that scalping already was practised by Native Americans on their own, in Pre-Columbian times (i.e., pre-1492), before Europeans arrived in the New World and added bounty-incentives for the activity.