By Diane E. Foulds
BOSCAWEN, N.H. - As monuments go, the one depicting Colonial heroine Hannah
Dustin looks like any other, with one crucial exception: In her left hand
she holds a fistful of human scalps.
The inscription underneath tells of her 1697 capture in an Indian raid, and
how she slew her captors as they slept - 10 women and children. Later she
returned for their scalps, having remembered they could fetch a bounty.
The idea of a settler scalping Indians might seem like a historical
quirk. Most Americans assume that if there was any scalping going on
in Colonial times, the Indians were doing it, not the English.
But the truth, it turns out, is more complex. In an era where Indian-nicknamed
teams are under fire and even the meaning of Thanksgiving is being re-evaluated
by Native Americans, the very word "scalp" has become culturally loaded -
and the origins of the practice increasingly controversial. If one thing is
certain, however, it's that Hannah Dustin was no fluke. "
Americans certainly scalped Indians during the Revolution and after," says
Colin Calloway, who teaches history at Dartmouth College. "They also stripped
Indian corpses of skin."
New England is littered with evidence if you know where to look. Some 35
miles north of the Hannah Dustin statue, at New Hampshire's Rumney rest area
off Route 25, a discreet historic marker reading "Baker River" tells of Lieutenant
Thomas Baker and his scouting party, whose 1712 razing of a nearby Pemigewasset
Indian village earned a "scalp bounty" of 40 pounds sterling from Massachusetts
Colonial authorities. The deed earned Baker a promotion to captain - and a
In museums around the region, actual scalps were still available for viewing
as recently as the 1980s. Museums with scalps in their collections included
Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Fort Ticonderoga
museum on Lake Champlain, and the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology
Then in 1990, the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection
and Repatriation Act, which mandated the return of sacred Indian artifacts
and of remains. As museums combed through their collections, they found scalps
that were clearly Indian. Some even had documentation identifying the scalp-takers
Historical records confirm that Colonial authorities offered a bounty on
Indian scalps. Hannah Dustin, for example, collected a monetary reward and
a pewter tankard. In Salem, redeemed scalps were hung along the walls of the
town courthouse, in full view of the public, until the building was torn down
Dartmouth's Calloway said it is unclear whether New England tribes took scalps
before contact with Europeans. At least two tribal spokesmen say theirs did
Mashantucket Pequot spokesman Buddy Gwin says scalping "was not a
practice traditional to first nations peoples" until becoming "a retaliatory
act" against colonists.
John Brown, who is tribal historical-preservation officer for Rhode Island's
Narragansett Indians, said that bodily mutilation was considered "dishonorable"
until it was "learned" from Europeans in the mid-17th century.
It was such absolutist arguments on both sides of the scalping question
that led James Axtell to the issue some years ago. A historian at the College
of William & Mary in Virginia, Axtell vividly remembers walking into New York
City's former Heye Museum of the American Indian in the early 1970s
and seeing human scalps hanging in a glass case. One was blond, obviously
a girl's. Another had African hair, perhaps taken from a slave. There were
probably Indian scalps there too, he says.
Later, stories started to circulate that the Europeans had invented scalping
- and that colonists had actually taught it to the Indians. Axtell paid little
notice until he started hearing those stories from academics. At that point,
he and fellow historian William Sturtevant decided it was time to sort out
Based on markings on skulls, drawings, linguistic clues, and the diaries
of 15th- and 16th-century explorers, their conclusions were ultimately published
in a 1981 book, "The European and the Indian," which argues that the practice
of scalping in North and South America predated the arrival of Christopher
"Scalps were not mere trophies or booty of war, however," Axtell wrote. "The
whorl of hair on the crown and especially male scalp locks, braided and decorated
with jewelry, paint, and feathers, represented the person's `soul' or living
spirit. To lose that hair to an enemy was to lose control over one's life,
to become socially and spiritually `dead', whether biological death resulted
English settlers adopted the practice as a retaliatory measure, he said
- and then added a new twist by offering bounties to their Indian allies for
scalps taken from hostile tribes.
According to Axtell's book, the English in Connecticut paid the Mohegans
for the heads of Pequots, and the Dutch paid wampum for Raritan heads. After
the start of King Philip's War in 1675, it said, Rhode Island's Narragansetts
were paid for heads in lengths of cloth.
The arrangement worked, although scalps were substituted for whole heads,
which were too cumbersome to carry over long distances. It also required some
adjustment by the Indians, who were unused to giving up their hard-won war
trophies to foreigners.
But the English took scalping into their own hands when the Indians
could no longer be relied upon, and it became an accepted - if unpleasant
- reality of Colonial life. By 1723, Massachusetts was paying 100 pounds sterling
for the scalps of male Indians aged 12 and over, and half that for women and
children. The scalps were then burned or buried.
Axtell even documents an Indian scalping by a Puritan minister, who
managed somehow to reconcile it with his religious beliefs.
"Along with pious thoughts, I receive 165 pounds 3-3 . . . my part of scalp
money," reads the 1757 diary of another clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Smith of
Falmouth, Maine, who supplied provisions and ammunition to a scalping
party made up of his parishioners.
Scalping continued up to the Revolutionary War, with Englishmen even
scalping each other on the battlefields.
The idea of scalping continues to have powerful effects on the culture,
particularly in its exclusive association with Indian warriors.
"Most people have bought into the concept that Indians are savages," says
National Park Service archeologist Sam Ball.
"Prejudice over this sort of thing is just plain enormous," he says. "And
it is being reinforced, rather than getting a clear, rational evaluation of
what the evidence is and what reality is."
Calloway feels the misconceptions are part of a "complex process of dehumanizing
Indians to justify taking away their land and culture, and attributing the
brutality of frontier race wars to the `other side.' "
Axtell cautions against excess on either side of the argument - and suggests
we shouldn't rush to judge our forebears' behavior by today's moral standards.
"If white Americans have assumed that only `savage' Indians scalped, they
were clearly misinformed," he says. "If they thought that scalping
was particularly `savage,' they conveniently turned a blind eye to their ancestors'
adoption and encouragement of the practice and to far more heinous acts and
practices in America's military past."
But that still leaves the question of how the full story could have been
widely ignored for so long. One reason is that Indian scalping has
become part of our cultural mythology, incorporated into murals, prints, and
even a Frederic Remington statue called "The Scalp."
The Hannah Dustin statue, by contrast, is decidedly obscure, secluded on
an island next to a park-and-ride lot outside Boscawen. It gets few visitors,
although vandals have broken off Dustin's nose.
As for those Indian scalps in local collections?
"My guess is that lots of 19th-century museums didn't want to know whether
the scalps they had were Indian or Euro-American," says Dean Snow, who heads
the Anthropology Department at Pennsylvania State University.
Then he added a more personal anecdote, overturning another misconception:
that it was always a death sentence.
"For what it's worth," he said, "my own great-great-great-great grandfather
was scalped and left for dead when he was young by a Mohawk - British allies
then - raiding party during the Revolution."
Family tradition holds that someone shaped a silver skullcap to cover the
"He woke up without his hair," Snow said, "and lived to be an old man with
a silver plate on his head."