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The following excerpts are from a Muzzleloader Magazine article written by George A. Bray III, who among other things, moonlights as our site historian. To order the back issue containing "The Delicate Art of Scalping" in its entirety call Muzzleloader at (903) 832 - 4726. Request Volume 13, Number 2 1986.

Note: Breaks in text continuity are represented by a wood bar.


The Delicate Art Of Scalping

Scalping was being practiced by the Native Americans prior to the arrival of any European explorers and settlers. In 1535, the first French explorer, Jacques Cartier, was shown "the scalps of five Indians stretched on hoops like parchment" by Indians near present-day Quebec City.

It is believed that a warrior's scalp-lock once symbolized his life force. For another to touch it in any way was considered a severe insult. It also served as a trophy of war, and served as verification that the scalper was a brave warrior who had indeed inflicted casualties upon his foes. Sir William Johnson, the famous Superintendent of Indian Affairs in North America, wrote in 1772 that the Indians considered scalping to be "a National Act and Declaration of War."

Captain Francois Pouchot, French commandant of Fort Niagara during the French and Indian War, describes how a scalp was taken in his Memoir Upon the Late War in North America. He relates that "as soon as the man has fallen, they run to him, put their knee between his shoulders, take a lock of hair in one hand, and with their knife in the other give a blow separating the skin from the head, and tearing off a piece. This is a thing quickly done; then showing the scalp they utter a cry they call the death cry".

Another French writer of the period, known only by his initials of J.C.B., also describes the act. "The savage quickly seizes his knife, and makes an incision around the hair from the upper part of the forehead to the back of the neck. Then he puts his foot on the shoulder of the victim, whom he has turned over face down, and pulls the hair off with both hands, from back to front... When a savage has taken a scalp, and is not afraid he is being pursued, he stops and scrapes the skin to remove the blood and fibres on it. He makes a hoop of green wood, stretches the skin over it like a tambourine, and puts it in the sun to dry a little. The skin is painted red, and the hair on the outside combed. When prepared, the scalp is fastened to the end of a long stick, and carried on his shoulder in triumph to the village or place where he wants to put it. But as he nears each place on his way, he gives as many cries as he has scalps to announce his arrival and show his bravery. Sometimes as many as 15 scalps are fastened on the same stick. When there are too many for one stick, they decorate several sticks with the scalps."

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Once a scalp was dried and painted, it often became a decorative device. The missionary to the Abenaki Indians at St. Francis, Father Pierre Joseph Antoine Roubaud, wrote in a narrative relating to the 1757 siege and subsequent massacre at Fort William Henry that the Indians "were engaged in counting the number of barbarous trophies - that is to say, the English scalps - with which the canoes were decorated,..." It was at the Abenaki village of St. Francis that the famous ranger commander, Major Robert Rogers, "found... hanging on poles over their doors, etc. about 600 scalps, mostly English" prior to his destruction of the town in 1759.

The Iroquois likewise decorated their villages, or "castles," with scalps. The first Dutchmen to enter upstate New York during the winter of 1634-35 viewed atop one of the gates of the old Oneida Castle on Oriskany Creek "three wooden images carved like men, and with them ... three scalps fluttering in the wind." On a smaller gate was yet another.

Scalp Display

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Scalps could also be used as replacements for the dead. In Albany, on May 18, 1758, "Capt. Jacob Head, of a Company of Stockbridge Indians, brought to Sir William's (Johnson) lodgings four French scalps, which his cousin, chief of another company of said Indians, had taken from the enemy some few days before." These four scalps were offered to Johnson to replace some dead Indians, one being for the Mohawk chief King Hendrick who was killed at the Battle of Lake George in September, 1755.

Although the Europeans did not originate scalping, they certainly did encourage its promotion and spread. This was accomplished by the posting of bounties for each scalp brought in ...

Wood Bar

It is commonly believed that scalps were only taken from the dead, or that those scalped died as a result. This is simply not true, and many cases can be documented. As Warren Johnson, Sir William's brother, wrote in his journal on April 12, 1761, "There are many instances of both men and women recovering after being scalped." He also verifies J. C. B. 's description of how the scalp was removed from the head. "They pull it off from the back of the head."

Wood Bar

In May, 1756, just prior to the French laying siege to the forts at Oswego, French allied Indians skulked about the English fortifications to inflict what casualties they could and lift scalps. Stephen Cross, a shipbuilder from Massachusetts, writes in his journal on May 25 that, "This morning found that Indians had killed 3 Dutch battoe men, who had camped about a stones throw from the hospital, having come upon them asleep, and cut their throats and scalped them before they fired off a gun. One of our soldiers came in from the edge of the woods, where it seems he had lain all night having been out on the evening party the day before and got drunk and could not get in, and not being missed, but on seeing him found he had lost his scalp, but he could not tell how or when, having no others around. We supposed the Indians had stumbled over him in the dark, and supposed him dead, had taken off his scalp." This incident is confirmed by the journal of the British engineer Patrick Mackeller who wrote the day before that, "They likewise scalped a soldier who lay drunk asleep (he afterwards recover'd )..."

Another account comes from the New Hampshire Gazette of March 10, 1758. In a letter dated at Albany, February 14, 1758, the following is recorded: "On Wednesday the 8th Instant, a number of men were sent from Fort Edward to cut wood, and for their protection, the commanding officer thought proper to send a sergeant, corporal, and 24 private men, as a covering party to the wood cutters. They were not 200 yards from the blockhouses, before they were waylaid, and fired upon by a superior number of the enemy who had the advantage of snowshoes. They killed the sergeant and 11 privates, wounded 4, and 6 are missing, supposed to be captivated, before they could retreat to the garrison. We hear that a man belonging to the above party, some hours after arrived at Fort Edward, and said he had left his nightcap, meaning he was scalped by the enemy. 'Tis said he is almost recovered."

Wood Bar

During the famous massacre at Fort William Henry in August, 1757, Ezekiel Stevens of Derryfield, New Hampshire, was scalped, tomahawked, and left for dead. His entire scalp was taken off, just above his ears. When he recovered his strength enough to rise, he was found and cared for by some French officers. Once his ghastly wounds healed he returned home. For want of hair, he wore a cap. He lived to be a good old age.

{Note: Mentioned in the article is "J.C.B."... he has since been identified as "Jolicoeur" Charles Bonin. In the third paragraph, Captain Francois Pouchot should read "Pierre" Pouchot.}


Note the techniques of scalping as described in this article and how they compare with the depiction of scalping found in The Last of the Mohicans; face down, a swift cut from front to back, and so forth...

Dear Major Bray: January 16, 2002 I have a question concerning your online publication concerning scalping. You write, Scalping was being practiced by the Native Americans prior to the arrival of any European explorers and settlers. In 1535, the first French explorer, Jacques Cartier, was shown "the scalps of five Indians stretched on hoops like parchment" by Indians near present-day Quebec City. Could this not be explained as Indian scalps taken by outsiders? You also state, "Scalping, of course, predated the mid-eighteenth century. Historical records, archaeology, and other sciences strongly indicate the practice originated among certain Native American tribes.1 A French soldier, identified by the initials J. C. B., related in his memoirs that "this horrible custom was practiced by these savages alone, and sprang from their own barbarism, for it seems never to have existed in any other nation, not even among nations, who, like them, have never received any idea of civilized life."2 My question centers on the accuracy of these statements. Most reputable historic sources claim that scalping originated amongst Visigoths, Franks, and the Scythians. These same sources also claim that only a small percentage of Indians learned and adopted these practices from the French and English whereas you claim it was a widespread, indigenous practice. If we actually look for origins of this practice amongst the North American Indians, according to the book Heritage in Canada, scalping in North America probably began with a governor of the New Netherlands colony who wanted Native people killed. He paid for the scalps, considering them proof of the Natives' death. Do you have a degree in history, are you an actual Major, and upon what source or sources do you base your above claims?
The Major Replies: Thank you for your inquiry on my scalping article.  I am sorry for the delay in responding to you. I am a major in a reenactment unit that is involved in the French and Indian War, which is my true area of interest.  I have no history degree, but have studied the conflict for well over 30 years.  My sources were listed at the end of the article you read, I believe, as I noted the endnotes in the text you copied. I took most of the historical data from a couple of articles written by James Axtell, who is a professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA.  They are referenced in my article.  Also, I have looked at other materials as well.  I am aware that it is commonly stated that Europeans were the ones who introduced the practice to the Native American, but at this time, I do not feel from research I have done that this is the case. As to other early Europeans doing it, such as the tribes you mentioned, it did not seem to carry over into the European culture as there is no evidence of them practicing it in the various conflicts/wars that were fought in the 17th and 18th centuries, except in North America.  And, while I suppose that Cartier could have been presented scalps taken by others and presented to the Indians that presented them to him, it is just as feasible to think that they had procured them themselves. As too how widespread it was, I would not attribute the practice to all Native American tribes.  I was looking primarily at the eastern seaboard as that is where the war took place. My real purpose for writing the article was to show some examples of what happened during the French and Indian War and to point out that it was a lucrative practice and that many survived that were scalped.  There have been many misconceptions about the subject and I hoped to dispel some of them. I hope I have answered your questions, and that if I can help further that you will let me know.


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Major George Bray's Company Of Rogers' Rangers

To read Major Bray's updated and complete article on scalping during the French & Indian War: Scalping During the French and Indian War

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