If watching The English , the Prime Video series, you may have been surprised at the depiction of a chilling character named Black-Eyed Mog. An English settler who decorated her wall with Native American scalps, her portrayal begs the question of whether this was common practice in the battle for domination by European settlers over Native American indigenous peoples of North America.
Scalping has become part of popular imagination when it comes to Native Americans in North America . While the archaeological record has provided ample evidence of scalping from prehistoric sites, scalping was frequently described by early European settlers and explorers, including the French Jacques Cartier who is credited with naming Canada.
These early records attest to complex scalping customs on the eastern coast of North America, including scalp dances, scalp preparation and the use of scalps as war trophies. It appears that scalping was part and parcel of intertribal warfare in some areas, where the aim was to take the scalps of enemies killed in battle or within enemy territory.
The verb “to scalp” was first coined in American English in 1675 during the bloody conflict known as King Philip’s War, fought between the indigenous and European colonists of New England in modern-day Northeastern United States. Up until then, the Europeans had used a variety of equivalents which didn’t so vividly convey its gruesome meaning.
Depiction of the Mandan, a Native American tribe of the Great Plains, scalping an enemy. ( Public domain )
Despite their late adoption of a term to describe it, European settlers embraced scalping and were soon spreading the tradition for their own genocidal ends. In fact, history is riddled with examples of European governments offering scalp bounties to encourage the murder of Native Americans and the incursion of European settlers into their territory.
One example is highlighted in Bounty, a documentary film produced by members of the Penobscot Nation . The film highlights a 1755 proclamation by Spencer Phips, the then-lieutenant-governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, who in the name of King George II offered monetary rewards for the killing of the Penobscot people. The reward was clearly established:
“For every Male Indian Prisoner above the Age of Twelve Years… Fifty Pounds
For every Male Indian Scalp, brought in as Evidence of their being killed, Forty Pounds
For every Scalp of such Female Indian or Male Indian under Twelve Years of Age… Twenty Pounds.”
And if you think this was an unusual occurrence, think again. According to the filmmakers, the first known colonial scalping order was issued in 1675, but their research has uncovered over 70 other proclamations encouraging the killing of Native Americans in New England alone. “Pretty much any Native American man, woman or child was considered fair game at times,” explained Emerson Baker, a Salem State University history professor, in AP News .
Top image: Segment from a political cartoon depicting the practice of scalp bounties for Native American scalps in North America. Source: Public domain
By Cecilia Bogaard