Godwin, Earl of Wessex, scalped his enemies way back in the 11th century. Six hundred years later the Dutch and English brought the custom to North America, not as an official method of warfare, but as a bounty to ease the fury of the frontiersmen.
Outlaws, runaways, and freethinkers were the early settlers of the western border, an area rife with drink and disease, a hotbed of conflict both with the Indians and with the profiteering colonial government, which was staid and tyrannical in the eyes of the freethinkers.
The frontiersmen turned on the Indians, eager to clear them out, and then they turned to their governments, demanding retribution for depredations caused by the Indians. The Dutch government and soon after the English devised the scalp bounty as conciliation, that is, they paid a certain amount for delivery of an Indian scalp.
Although the major task of pushing out the Indians was being accomplished by government troops, certainly the bounty encouraged resistance to their presence. In 1703 Massachusetts paid £12 for an Indian scalp. Less than 20 years later the price had soared to £100, an enticing bonus for the frontiersmen, who did not care (nor could the governments know) whether the scalp came from an Indian enemy or ally, from a man, woman, or child.
The practice became widespread, and missionaries were solicitous for their Indian converts. The French used the scalp bounty to eliminate the peaceful Beothuk of Newfoundland, who presented only a slight irritation. During the French and Indian Wars, General Braddock offered his troops £200 for the scalp of the Delaware leader Shinngass, 40 times the price offered for a French soldier’s hair. Some governments continued to pay for Apache scalps into the 19th century, when a public outcry finally ended the practice.
Some Indian tribes had practiced scalping to a very limited extent before the Europeans arrived, but the scalp bounty induced widespread retaliation.
Many tribes, the Iroquois in particular, used scalping as a defense against the encroaching whites and were later held accountable for initiating the practice since no European, it was readily presumed, would stoop so low.