Some notes on scalping


Where did the practice of scalping begin? As every school child knows, Indians took scalps from their enemies and held dances and ceremonies over them.

Where did the practice of scalping begin? As every school child knows, Indians took scalps from their enemies and held dances and ceremonies over them.

It has been fashionable in the last few years to claim that the white man, in fact, introduced scalp lifting to the New World. That fits in neatly with the current dogma that holds that Europeans were the source of all evil; hence, they must have invented scalping.

Truth to tell, scalp trophies were unknown in Europe before the 17th century. There wasn’t even a word in English for scalping until the middle 1600s.

Indians, on the other hand, appear to have known all about scalping hundreds of years ago. In ancient burials, archeologists find skulls showing definite signs that the scalp was removed.

The practice was most common among eastern woodland Indians and tribesmen of the Great Plains. The farther west you moved, the rarer it became.

Warriors of the Great Plains decorated their bridles, lances and shields with scalp locks raised from their enemies. The blonde tresses of young women were the most highly prized.

We know Indians created ceremonies only around very old, traditional behaviors. So, if they had borrowed scalping from the white man, they would scarcely have turned it into a ritual.

When the Spaniards first visited the upper Rio Grande Valley, they found that the Pueblos had a formal women’s scalp society that served as an arm of the war society. Here, as elsewhere, the dried enemy scalps were ritually “fed.”

Navajos seem never to have indulged in taking scalps. Their fear of handling the dead was too great. Their cousins the Apaches had something of the same taboo. Yet on some occasions, we know that Apaches resorted to scalping.

More often they were the victims of scalping — by Mexicans and Americans who had adopted the custom from other Indians. In the 1830s, the governors of Chihuahua and Sonora paid bounties on Apache scalps.

The Grand County Commission, which sat at Silver City, did the same thing in the mid-1880s. It declared a $250 bounty per Apache scalp. Ranchers near Las Cruces offered a private bounty of $500 for Geronimo’s topknot.

The most famous scalp ever lost in New Mexico was that of Gov. Charles Bent. He was the first civil governor installed by the Americans. That was in 1846 during the Mexican-American War.

The following January, Bent and a small party left for the Governors’ Palace on the Santa Fe plaza and rode to Taos where he had his home. Rumors abounded that trouble was brewing there, but he paid no attention.

A few mornings later, a mob made up of Taos Indians and local citizens battered down Gov. Bent’s front door. While trying to shield his family, he was riddled with arrows.

As Bent lay dying in a pool of blood, a Taos warrior ripped off his scalp and waved it aloft in triumph. Then the revolutionary mob paraded through the dusty streets.

Swiftly, an army marched forth from Santa Fe, fought the rebels who had forted up in the Taos Pueblo church and defeated them. The leaders were afterward tried in court and hanged.

The bodies of Gov. Bent and other Americans killed in the incident were soon taken down for burial to Fort Marcy at the capital. Later, their graves were moved to the National Cemetery, where they can be seen today.

Lt. Richard Elliott, on hand at the time, informs us in his letters that Bent’s scalp was afterward recovered from the Taos Indians, who had nailed it to a board with brass tacks and were using it as a sacred relic.

The grisly scalp, says Elliott, was conveyed by the Army to Santa Fe. At Fort Marcy, the Bent grave was opened and the missing scalp restored to its owner.

Be that as it may, stories have long circulated that Taos Pueblo to this day still possesses Gov. Bent’s scalp, nailed to its board.

If so, is it the genuine one, or merely a symbolic replacement? After all, old and dried-up scalps look pretty much alike. Of course, the Army could have been given a bogus scalp, too. We’ll probably never know the truth, but at this late date, surely no one cares.