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.