From a promising beginning based on mutual trade and potentially beneficial relations, the connection between European colonists and the Indigenous peoples of North American soon devolved into something much more sinister: Predator and prey. Few aspects of American life in the 1700s make this more clear than the Scalp Act of 1756 which had one clear objective: eradicate the so-called “Indian Problem” from the Pennsylvania frontier.

When William Penn bought lands from the Delaware, he purchased all of the rights but allowed the Delaware to stay where they were. In September 1737, Thomas Penn, William’s son, told the Delaware there was a deed for land sold to his father. He produced a forged document that included the names of Indians who had already passed on. Though no elders could remember such a deed, Penn convinced the Delaware to set up an event where they would walk together to map out land. The so-called “Walking Purchase” turned out to be a massive land swindle that essentially forced the Delaware to leave the region. After the displaced tribal citizens allied themselves with the French they began to take revenge, and by December 1755 there were so many attacks on settlers on the frontier that they appealed to the Pennsylvania legislature for help. The legislature set aside $60,000 for forts. Instead, the money was used to as a fund to remove Indians from the border. 

Photo: Wikipedia

The Scalp Act

Scalping is the act of cutting or tearing a part of the human scalp, with hair attached, from the head. This gruesome procedure generally occurred during warfare with the scalp being taken as a macabre trophy. Scalp-taking is considered part of the broader cultural practice of the taking and display of human body parts as trophies, a sign of dominance and a testament to the combatant’s prowess in battle. It may have developed as an alternative to the taking of whole human heads, which were more difficult to acquire, transport, and preserve for subsequent display. 

Scalping developed independently in various cultures across the world. Indeed, it was practiced by some Indigenous peoples as an award of triumph in battle. Eventually, scalping also became financially motivated with individuals receiving payment for each scalp procured. New Hampshire militiamen partook in the first recorded scalping of Indians by whites in North America as 10 sleeping Indians were scalped by whites for a bounty. Making it an official government policy – one that enabled individual citizens to be paid by the state of Pennsylvania for every scalp taken – was new. 

It’s not entirely clear where or when a bounty for scalps was first offered, but it wasn’t all that rare in New England by the early 1700s. In fact, most Americans seem to have accepted the validity of the practice at the time. In April of 1756, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Robert Morris enacted the Scalp Act. Anyone who brought in a male scalp above age of 12 would be given 150 pieces of eight or the equivalent of  $150. For females above age of 12 or males under the age of 12, they would be paid $130. The scalp of an Indian woman earned a payment of $50. The military effectiveness of a scalp bounty wasn’t tabulated based on the number of actual scalps. The mere announcement of a bounty transformed the settlers from passive observers to active participants.

The bounty system in American was initiated by the Dutch and elaborated by New Englanders. It first offered payment in exchange for the heads of wolves and other predatory animals that were an undesirable obstacle to orderly settlement. It wasn’t that much of a stretch, therefore, when even greater rewards were offered for the collection of Indian scalps. Legislators made explicit the similarity they saw between these animal and human predators by using the same terms of evidence for a kill: the head or the scalp. Bounties made Indians into predatory animals whose terrifying attacks on outlying settlements reduced English families to prey. The implication – that such attacks would undermine English colonization – suggested Indians should be treated like any other predator the settlers had encountered. By equating Indian scalps with animal skins, bounties also increased settlers’ distance from their Native neighbors and dehumanized them. Indians were now objects whose body parts could be bought and sold. Reducing humans to commodities replicated the slave trade and many colonial bounty acts outlined rewards for prisoners as well as scalps. New England’s bounties encouraged indiscriminate Indian hunting (and hating). 

Indians were now objects whose body parts could be bought and sold.

Just another government policy

Today’s use of the word ‘scalper’ has a very different meaning. We use it to describe a reseller of tickets – you know, the guys outside of the stadium who want to charge you $250 for a seat that originally sold for $50 but is now much more in demand. According to historians, the term as it relates to tickets arose during rapid settlement of the American frontier when rail travel quickly grew in popularity. Men saw an opportunity to make quick cash by purchasing unused portions of railroad tickets to resell for profit. Railways charged less per mile for longer-distance tickets, making it possible for a traveler going from New York to Chicago to buy a ticket all the way to San Francisco, step out onto the platform in the Windy City and sell it to a scalper. That entrepreneurial fellow would then sell the ticket to a different traveler for less than what the California-bound man would have paid to the railway in a normal transaction. The original ticket holder, the so-called scalper and the San Francisco-bound passenger all came out ahead. Only the railway suffered a loss. At the time these railway ticket traders were equated with the takers and brokers of scalps, and the term stuck. Eventually they expanded beyond rail tickets and today we encounter offers to buy “scalped” tickets for just about every event imaginable. What’s difficult to imagine is just how brutal the settler colonists must have been to consider the taking of scalps to be just an ordinary day-to-day transaction, as run-of-the-mill as buying a train ticket.