We’ve all seen Hollywood depictions of American Indians scalping their enemies. Whether it’s The Last of the Mohicans or Dances With Wolves, the procedure is portrayed in roughly the same manner: an Indian grabs his struggling enemy by a tuft of hair, and with one clean blow of his tomahawk takes off an entire scalp. Movie representations were likely based on posed, melodramatic period images such as the following–painted by artists who had never had the misfortune of being near an actual battle:
The historical reality was a bit different, however. Actual scalping was considerably messier and took much longer. We have an account from Jonathan Carver, an American writer and explorer who served in the French and Indian War. Carver writes:
At this business [the Indians] are exceedingly expert. They seize the head of the disabled or dead enemy, and placing one of their feet on the neck, twist their left hand in the hair; by this means, having extended the skin that covers the top of the head, they draw out their scalping knives, which are always kept in good order for this cruel purpose, and with a few dextrous strokes take off the part that is termed the scalp. They are so expeditious in doing this, that the whole time required scarcely exceeds a minute!
A similar account was published in 1865, by a Corporal Pike who had fought in the Indian Wars out west. In Pike’s account, the use of the knife is not enough to sever the scalp–the leverage of the foot is needed:
Scalping, barbarous as it is, is reduced to an art among the Indians. The victor cuts a clean circle around the top of the head, so that the crown may form the center, and the diameter of the scalp exceed six inches; then, winding his fingers in the hair, he puts one foot on the neck of the prostrate foe, and with a vigorous pull tears the reeking scalp from the skull. To the dead, this, of course, would not be absolute cruelty; but it is too frequently the case that the process is performed and the scalp severed while yet the mangled victim lives ; and there are instances where parties have recovered, and long survived this barbarous mutilation. Occasionally, a warrior is not satisfied with the part of the scalp usually taken, but bares the skull entirely, and carries away in triumph even the ears of his victim.
The following image is a more accurate representation (source unknown):