The removal of the skin covering the top of a person head during or after a battle dates back to the Scythians (c. 400 BC). The Visigoths also took scalps during the wars with the Anglo-Saxons in the 9th century. When the Europeans first visited America they observed that the Huron, Chichimec, Iroquoi and Muskhogean tribes scalped enemy warriors. The Spanish administrator of Mexico, Francisco de Garay, reported in 1520 of seeing the "cutting of the skin off the entire head and face, with hair and beard". However, there is no evidence that the majority of Native American tribes at this time were involved in scalping.
In 1688, the French-Canadians began paying for every enemy scalp. This encouraged the emergence of groups trying to make a business out of scalping settlers. The British responded in 1693 by announcing that they would pay money for the scalps of Frenchmen and their Indian allies. As much as £100 was obtained for an important scalp.
In 1777, Jane McCrea, the fiancée of a soldier serving with General Burgoyne's army, was captured by Indians allied to the British. Then during a dispute between two warriors, Jane was scalped. General Burgoyne did not punish the guilty men for fear of breaking the alliance with that tribe. This decision enraged local Americans and many men now joined in the struggle against the British. It was later claimed that the death of Jane McCrea greatly aided the rebel cause and contributed to the defeat of Burgoyne's army at Saratoga. The incident continued to be used as propaganda against the English and the story was immortalized by John Vanderlyn's painting, The Death of Jane McCrea, in 1804.
This policy of scalping spread to the Americans during the 19th century and they paid bounties for the scalps of troublesome tribes such as the Apache. The idea of scalping as an act of revenge was adopted by the Plains tribes during the Indian Wars.
The scalp was usually taken from a dead enemy. Pierre Pouchot saw soldiers being scalped in about 1760: "As soon as the man is felled, they run up to him, thrust their knee in between his shoulder blades, seize a tuft of hair in one hand and, with their knife in the other, cut around the skin of the head and pull the whole piece away." Some warriors gained status by scalping a man during combat. This involved making a knife incision around the scalp lock and pulling the hair back very quickly. Although extremely painful, being scalped alive was not always fatal.
A full-scalping would often lead to serious medical complications. This included profuse bleeding, infection, and eventual death if the bone of the skull was left exposed. Death could also occur from septicemia, meningitis or necrosis of the skull.
The fashion of head shaving, except for a small lock of hair, on the crown of the head, developed amongst the Plains Indians. This hair covered about two inches in diameter and therefore only a minor wound would result from being scalped. However, it was a great insult for a Native American to be scalped while still alive. For example, the Arikara tribe would treat a scalped warrior as an outcast.
Native American tribes used scalping to persuade Americans from abandoning the idea of taking their land. Nelson Lee was unlucky enough to captured by the Comanche tribe. "During all the time they were thus exhibiting the result of their savage work, they resorted to every hideous device to inspire us with terror. They would rush toward us with uplifted tomahawks, stained with blood, as if determined to strike, or grasp us by the hair, flourishing their knives around our heads as though intending to take our scalps. So far as I could understand their infernal shouts and pantomime, they sought to tell us that the fate which had overtaken our unfortunate companions not only awaited us, but likewise the whole race of the hated white man. All the dead, without exception, were scalped and the scalps, still fresh, were dangling from their belts.
After the battle had finished the warrior would clean and dry the scalp. Thomas Gist witnessed this while he was being held prisoner. "The men began to scrape the flesh and blood from the scalps, and dry them by the fire, after which they dressed them with feathers and painted them, then tied them on white, red, and black poles".