October 10, 2005

The Origins of Scalping

This isn't really an important topic when so much else is going on in the world, but over the weekend, without an internet connection and forced to pick up actual paper books, I started reading Walter McDougall's Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History: 1585-1828, in which he argues that William Kieft, governor of New Amsterdam in the 1640s, was the one who started the whole practice of scalping in the New World, by paying bounties for native scalps. (He also initiated a whole bunch of wars and was generally an unpleasant dude.) Indian tribes soon learned to retaliate in kind—prior to this, McDougall claims, they had taken the whole head as a battle trophy.

Certainly it was known to Europeans—the 11th century Earl of Wessex scalped his victims—and didn't become widespread in North America until Europeans arrived; in the 17th century the English paid high prices for scalps. On the other hand, this website, citing scholarly sources and everything, says, "Historical records, archaeology, and other sources strongly indicate that the practice originated among certain Native American tribes." (The site also has a vivid description of how to scalp, in case anyone wants to know.) I guess scalping could have originated in both Europe and North America, as is the most likely theory, but that seems like an awfully bizarre coincidence. Also, I had no idea that Wall Street was named for the fort-wall on Manhattan Island that the Dutch would retreat behind when attacked.
-- Brad Plumer 12:42 PM || ||