Lately I’ve had a thing for Native American trade knives, commonly referred to as scalping knives – or scalper blade knives. They were all-purpose and could have been used for everything from butchering, to of-course, scalping enemies. In my own research, I’ve found that there’s not a whole lot out there on these knives – at least not in one place. So I figured I’d do a post with some of the wealth of resources I’ve examined on scalping knives, which hopefully I can keep up and running for a while, and hopefully supplement as I find new knives and information.
A 1782 estimate to the Dept. of Indian Affairs from Fort Detroit on the number of “presents” they would need on hand for 1783 alone, included a request for “60 Gro Scalping Knives,” which amounts to 11,280 knives for trade to the Indians, for just August of 1782 through August of 1783…. And that’s just for use at Detroit! No wonder these tend to turn up in Michigan….
“Scalping knives” have long been debated and explored by students of history and lovers of knives. An excerpt from an article by Gene Hickman:
According to Carl P. Russell Jr. scalpers may not be what you think, as the term “Scalping Knife” was used by fur traders of the period to designate a certain style of knife for trade to Indians, and Russell described them as “any cheap butcher knife.” On the other hand, Charles E. Hanson, Jr. has confirmed the existence of a specific pattern for the trade good known as “the scalping knife.” In the Quarterly Journal of the Museum of the Fur Trade, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring 1987), Hanson illustrates and describes the knife from notes and letters of Alexander Mackenzie & Co., a partner of the North West Company.
“These scalpers are of the simplest pattern possible-a generally straight or very slightly curved blade 6 or 7 inches long, fairly straight and unsharpened on the top, ending in a point from which the sharpened bottom edge begins and runs along the bottom back to the grip, making a curved edge suitable for skinning and slicing. The grip is a single piece of wood split with a saw for two-thirds of its length. The short tang of the knife blade was shoved into this split and fastened by two or three rivets inserted into holes drilled from side to side. With a minimum of machine polishing, the knife was completed and ready for sale.“
Hanson goes on the say that “hundreds of blades of this general style have been found at fur trade sites of the 1780-1840 period.“http://www.manuellisaparty.com/articles/pfd%27s/Some%20Thoughts%20on%20Butchers.pdf
The Sheffield guys told me that some of the handles were also of the extreme octagon shape and that other handles were originally nothing more than the rectangular slab handles with the corners angled. They also told me that tangs were made both half and full. Full tangs were easier to haft and were stronger,http://www.manuellisaparty.com/articles/pfd%27s/Some%20Thoughts%20on%20Butchers.pdf
but cost slightly more to produce. Pin numbers varied as to the size of the blade it supported and whether it was full or half tang. You’ll see 4, 5, or 6 pins commonly, usually depending on the size of the knife. Either way it was always more than 3 pins. The 3 pins become standard with the invention of the “big fat” brass cutler’s rivets of the 1890s. Iron and less often brass pins are correct for the time period and not the large brass cutler’s rivets. Brass pins are also acceptable. Some of the 19th century examples even have 3/32” to 1/8″ iron pins. The norm, based on years of handling and looking at originals in collections and other research, is wood handled with iron pins.
The “scalping knife,” or “scalp knife,” had ordinary the shape of a single-edged butcher knife, but occasionally it was two-edged, like a dirk. The traders usually sold the knife alone, the Indians making the scabbard according to their own liking. The instrument was carried in the belt or on a cord passing about the neck. The prices paid for these knives differed widely. Thus, in 1665 certain Canadian Indians received 8 knives for 1 beaver skin, while in the beginning of the nineteenth century, during the height of the power of the fur companies, $7.50 was paid in their territory for a knife which in England was worth 3 1/2 pence. At about the same period farther south, in the United States, a knife cost $1. Catlin tells us that in 1832 a Sheffield knife, worth perhaps 6 pence, was valued at the price of a horse.Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian, 1907 https://books.google.com/books?id=LdkrAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Not just the scalp….
In some cases the Indians and after them the whites severed not only the scalp, but also other hairy parts of the skin or other pieces, and some of these were utilized for tobacco pouches, straps, belts, etc. Such pieces of skin became even, in some instances, articles of trade.
In the summer of 1779 the farmers in the neighborhood of Prickets Fort, in West Virginia, killed an Indian who was wounded in a fight, and the body was scalped and skinned. The skin was tanned, and from it were made a saddle, ball bags, and belts. One of the bags is said by Mr. Thwaites to be preserved to this day by a grand uncle of one of the farmers who did the skinning.
But even the whites were not always safe before other whites in this respect; thus we read in Norton’s Redeemed Captive that during the war in 1746 a French youth cut off an arm of a slain New Englander for the purpose of making himself a tobacco pouch.Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian, 1907 at 436https://books.google.com/books?id=LdkrAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Some good period documentation, here:
Aside from the leggings covered earlier, another interesting culture crossing commodity that shows up with our 18th century back country kit is the butcher or scalping knife. Some of these men were carrying imported cheap fixed blade knifes that seem to have mirrored what was commonly sold for the Indian trade, sometimes referred to as”Scalping” knives or “Butcher” knives. The line between a domestic kitchen and trade items may have been very blurry in this instance.An accurate and interesting account of the hardships and sufferings of that band of heroes : who traversed the wilderness in the campaign against Quebec in 1775 By John Joseph Henry
A wide variety of handles can be found in period documents including wooden ( frequently oval or faceted and in ‘yellow’ woods like box, ‘red’ such as cam or barwood and etc.) and bone. Prices ranged a bit depending on which material was used.
“The principal distinction between us, was in our dialects, our arms, and our dress. Each man of the three companies, bore a rifle-barreled gun, a tomehawk, or small axe, and a long knife, usually called a “scalping-knife,” which served for all purposes, in the woods.His under-dress, by no means in a military style, was covered by a deep ash colored hunting-shirt, leggins and mockasins, if the latter could be procured. It was the silly fashion of those times, for riflemen to ape the manners of savages.”
A tour in the United States of America
“They wore fringed hunting shirts, dyed yellow, brown, white and even red; quaintly carved shot-bags and powder-horns hung from their broad ornamented belts; they had fur caps or soft hats, moccasins, and coarse woolen leggings reaching half-way up to the thigh. Each carried his flintlock, his tomahawk, and scalping knife.”
Background on scalping, in general:
The Connecticut and Massachusetts colonies offered bounties for the heads of killed hostile Indians, and later for just their scalps, during the Pequot War in the 1630s; Connecticut specifically reimbursed Mohegans for slaying the Pequot in 1637. Four years later, the Dutch in New Amsterdam offered bounties for the heads of Raritans. In 1643, the Iroquois attacked a group of Huron pelters and French carpenters near Montreal, killing and scalping three of the French.
Bounties for Indian captives or their scalps appeared in the legislation of the American colonies during the Susquehannock War (1675–77). New England offered bounties to white settlers and Narragansett people in 1675 during King Philip’s War. By 1692, New France also paid their native allies for scalps of their enemies. In 1697, on the northern frontier of Massachusetts colony, settler Hannah Duston killed ten of her Abenaki captors during her nighttime escape, presented their ten scalps to the Massachusetts General Assembly, and was rewarded with bounties for two men, two women, and six children. There were six colonial wars with New England and the Iroquois Confederacy fighting New France and the Wabanaki Confederacy over a 75-year period, starting with King William’s War in 1688. All sides scalped victims, including noncombatants, during this frontier warfare. Bounty policies originally intended only for Native American scalps were extended to enemy colonists.
Massachusetts created a scalp bounty during King William’s War in July 1689. During Queen Anne’s War, by 1703, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was offering $60 for each native scalp. During Father Rale’s War (1722–1725), on August 8, 1722, Massachusetts put a bounty on native families. Ranger John Lovewell is known to have conducted scalp-hunting expeditions, the most famous being the Battle of Pequawket in New Hampshire.
In the 1710s and ’20s, New France engaged in frontier warfare with the Natchez people and the Meskwaki people, during which both sides would employ the practice. In response to repeated massacres of British families by the French and their native allies during King George’s War, Massachusetts governor William Shirley issued a bounty in 1746 to be paid to British-allied Indians for the scalps of French-allied Indian men, women, and children. New York passed a Scalp Act in 1747.
During Father Le Loutre’s War and the Seven Years’ War in Nova Scotia and Acadia, French colonists offered payments to Indians for British scalps. In 1749, British Governor Edward Cornwallis created an extirpation proclamation, which included a bounty for male scalps or prisoners. Also during the Seven Years’ War, Governor of Nova Scotia Charles Lawrence offered a reward for male Mi’kmaq scalps in 1756. (In 2000, some Mi’kmaq argued that this proclamation was still legal in Nova Scotia. Government officials argued that it was no longer legal because the bounty was superseded by later treaties – see the Halifax Treaties).
During the French and Indian War, as of June 12, 1755, Massachusetts governor William Shirley was offering a bounty of £40 for a male Indian scalp, and £20 for scalps of females or of children under 12 years old. In 1756, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Robert Morris, in his Declaration of War against the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) people, offered “130 Pieces of Eight, for the Scalp of Every Male Indian Enemy, above the Age of Twelve Years,” and “50 Pieces of Eight for the Scalp of Every Indian Woman, produced as evidence of their being killed.”
In the American Revolutionary War, Henry Hamilton, the British Lieutenant Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Detroit, was known by American Patriots as the “hair-buyer general” because they believed he encouraged and paid his Native American allies to scalp American settlers. When Hamilton was captured in the war by the colonists, he was treated as a war criminal instead of a prisoner of war because of this. However, American historians have conceded that there was no positive proof that he had ever offered rewards for scalps. It is now assumed that during the American Revolution, no British officer paid for scalps. During the Sullivan Expedition, the September 13, 1779 journal entry of Lieutenant William Barton tells of patriots participating in scalping.
Did you know there was a US Supreme Court case on scalping knives?
I found a really interested US Supreme Court case from 1906, where a French streamliner named “La Bourgogne” sunk, resulting in a large loss of life, and apparently the loss of a large collection of Native American artifacts. In the court records, there are pages and pages of questioning from expert witnesses on the nature and value of Native American artifacts. The following conversation takes place on scalping knives:
Q. Have you, during the same period of time bought, sold or ascertained the market value of scalping knives?
A. So-called scalping knives.
Q. Why do you say so-calling scalping knives?
A. Well, they rig up a butcher knife and put it into a fancy beaded scabbard and sell it as a scalping knife. It is probably like the scalping knives were, but the real scalping knives that have been in actual use there is hardly enough of them outside the museums to consider them as an article of merchandise.
Q. In what does the value of scalping knives, so-called, then consist, in the knife or the scabbard?
A. Well, the knife is rather a flimsy affair; it is a pretty poor excuse for a knife, and they don’t amount to much.
Q. How is the value of the scabbards determined?
A. The scabbards range in value from ten cents to 75 cents, with exceptional values running as high as $2.50 and $4.Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 1907 No. 33, Deslions v. La Compagnie Generale Transatlantique. https://books.google.com/books?id=1h8rAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA1853&lpg=PA1853&dq=scalping+knives&source=bl&ots=RLcUH_j2ky&sig=ACfU3U005CQ4zbOPt9K9CV607rXTTTjBXQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiT_-b74_jkAhWDnFkKHU9SDmU4HhDoATAHegQICBAB#v=onepage&q=scalping%20knives&f=false
The tale of Jane McCrea:
The best-known case of scalping during the Revolution is the tale of Jane McCrea, a women who was engaged to a Loyalist lieutenant when she was abducted, scalped, and shot by Indians under the command of British Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne. Continental commanders immediately realized that the incident could be used to garner greater popular support and military recruits for their cause. To this effect, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates wrote a scathing letter to Burgoyne in September 1777, with copies sent to Congress and many Philadelphia newspaper presses, primarily blaming the British for the incident:
That the savages of America should in their warfare mangle and scalp the unhappy prisoners, who fall into their hands, is neither new nor extraordinary; but that the famous Lieut General. Burgoyne, in whom the fine gentleman is united with the soldier and the scholar should hire the Savages of America to scalp Europeans and the descendants of Europeans; nay more, that he should pay a price for each scalp so barbarously taken, is more than will be believed in England until authenticated facts shall in every Gazette, convince mankind of the truth of the horrid tale – Miss McCrea, a young lady lovely to the sight, of virtuous character and amiable disposition, engaged to be married to an officer in your army; [she] was … carried into the woods, and there scalped and mangled in the most shocking manner … [by] murderers employed by you.
Once distributed throughout the colonies the tale of Jane McCrea led to an explosion of anti-British and anti-Loyalist literature, much of which contained rhetoric directly conflating the Tory cause with Indian cruelty.https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/09/rhetoric-practice-scalping/ The Rhetoric and Practice of Scalping, by Zachary Brown, Journal of the American Revolution, September 1, 2016.
First hand documentary evidence on scalping, here:
This soldier also described how the act was executed. “When a war party has captured one or more prisoners that cannot be taken away, it is the usual custom to kill them by breaking their heads with the blows of a tomahawk . . . When he has struck two or three blows, the savage quickly seizes his knife, and makes an incision around the hair from the upper part of the forehead to the back of the neck. Then he puts his foot on the shoulder of the victim, whom he has turned over face down, and pulls the hair off with both hands, from back to front . . . This hasty operation is no sooner finished than the savage fastens the scalp to his belt and goes on his way.
This method is only used when the prisoner cannot follow his captor; or when the Indian is pursued . . . He quickly takes the scalp, gives the deathcry, and flees at top speed. Savages always announce their valor by a deathcry, when they have taken a scalp . . . When a savage has taken a scalp, and is not afraid he is be ing pursued, he stops and scrapes the skin to remove the blood and fibres on it. He makes a hoop of green wood, stretches the skin over it like a tambourine, and puts it in the sun to dry a little. The skin is painted red, and the hair on the outside combed.
When prepared, the scalp is fastened to the end of a long stick, and carried on his shoulder in triumph to the village or place where he wants to put it. But as he nears each place on his way, he gives as many cries as he has scalps to announce his arrival and show his bravery. Sometimes as many as 15 scalps are fastened on the same stick. When there are too many for one stick, they decorate several sticks with the scalps.”3https://www.varsitytutors.com/earlyamerica/early-america-review/volume-3/scalping-during-the-french-and-indian-war
An English captive, Thomas Gist (son of the famous Christopher Gist), wrote in his journal on September 14, 1758, that his captors “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, which they made so by pealing the bark and then pain(t)ing them as it suited them.”4 Captain John Knox, of the 43rd Regiment, mentioned in his journal finding “a scalp, which I suppose to have been a child’s, with fine hair, en papillate; it was about the size of a large saucer stretched on a hoop, and the flesh-side painted” the following year.5
Another Frenchman, Captain Pierre Pouchot, of the Bearn Regiment, and commandant at Fort Niagara most of the war, recounted in his memoirs how the Native American would scalp his foe. “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 &, with their knife in the other, cut around the skin of the head & pull the whole piece away. The whole thing is done very expeditiously. Then, brandishing the scalp, they utter a whoop which they call the ‘death whoop’. . . If they are not under pressure & the victory has cost them lives, they behave in an extremely cruel manner towards those they kill or the dead bodies. They disembowel them & smear their blood all over themselves.”6
An account of attack near Lake George, in 1759, illustrates Pouchot’s observations. On July 2nd, “16 of the Jersey Blues were sent without the camp to gather a little brush for the General’s Baker, but were not an hour gone before they were surprized in sight of the camp by a party of the enemy, consisting of about 240, who killed and scalped six, wounded two, took four prisoners, and only four of the whole party escaped. They shewed themselves plainly to the whole Army after they got the scalps, gave a hollow, and then made off to their Battoes, which were not more than two miles from the Head of the Lake. A large party was ordered out after them, but in vain. They butchered our people in a most shocking manner, by cutting pieces of flesh out of their necks, thighs and legs.”7
And more here:
In May, 1756, just prior to the French laying siege to the forts at Oswego, French allied Indians skulked about the English fortifications to inflict what casualties they could and lift scalps. Stephen Cross, a shipbuilder from Massachusetts, writes in his journal on May 25 that, “This morning found that Indians had killed 3 Dutch battoe men, who had camped about a stones throw from the hospital, having come upon them asleep, and cut their throats and scalped them before they fired off a gun. One of our soldiers came in from the edge of the woods, where it seems he had lain all night having been out on the evening party the day before and got drunk and could not get in, and not being missed, but on seeing him found he had lost his scalp, but he could not tell how or when, having no others around. We supposed the Indians had stumbled over him in the dark, and supposed him dead, had taken off his scalp.” This incident is confirmed by the journal of the British engineer Patrick Mackeller who wrote the day before that, “They likewise scalped a soldier who lay drunk asleep (he afterwards recover’d )…”
Another account comes from the New Hampshire Gazette of March 10, 1758. In a letter dated at Albany, February 14, 1758, the following is recorded: “On Wednesday the 8th Instant, a number of men were sent from Fort Edward to cut wood, and for their protection, the commanding officer thought proper to send a sergeant, corporal, and 24 private men, as a covering party to the wood cutters. They were not 200 yards from the blockhouses, before they were waylaid, and fired upon by a superior number of the enemy who had the advantage of snowshoes. They killed the sergeant and 11 privates, wounded 4, and 6 are missing, supposed to be captivated, before they could retreat to the garrison. We hear that a man belonging to the above party, some hours after arrived at Fort Edward, and said he had left his nightcap, meaning he was scalped by the enemy. ‘Tis said he is almost recovered.” . . .
During the famous massacre at Fort William Henry in August, 1757, Ezekiel Stevens of Derryfield, New Hampshire, was scalped, tomahawked, and left for dead. His entire scalp was taken off, just above his ears. When he recovered his strength enough to rise, he was found and cared for by some French officers. Once his ghastly wounds healed he returned home. For want of hair, he wore a cap. He lived to be a good old age.http://www.mohicanpress.com/mo08018.html
Here are original examples of quilled neck-sheaths for use with scalping knives, which came from an article on Quilled Knife Cases from Northeastern North America, by Christian F. Feest:
Excerpt from the academic paper on existing examples of original quilled neck sheaths:
Pictures of Native people wearing knives or knife cases also begin to appear only shortly before the middle of the eighteenthcentury. The earliest known European illustration of a NativeAmerican knife case is seen on an anonymous French drawing(ca. 1730) of a Fox warrior wearing a small, simple knife caseon his chest (Peyser, 1989:82).
An early and rather isolated de-scription of aSouth American asymmetrical neck-worn knifecase appears in an illustration in André Thevet’s Singularitezde la France Antarctique (Thevet, 1558:101 recto). Based onthe appearance of the blade and of the handle, the knife couldhave been a European metal knife, which suggests the possibil-ity of an independent case of parallel adaptation or diffusion toSouth and North America from a European (most likely French) source. Nothing, however, appears to be known aboutearly modern European neck-worn knife cases.
In 1759 GeorgeTownshend, General Wolfe’s successor as commander of theBritish army in Canada, made several drawings of an Indian(once identified as “of yeOutewas Tribe” (Honour, 1975:128))with a knife case hanging from his neck. On the monumenterected in Westminster Abbey in 1761 for Townshend’s brotherRoger, two Indians are wearing clearly defined neck-worn knifecases, which are perhaps based on artifacts in GeorgeTownshend’s collection (Figure 1; see also Honour, 1975:128–129, figs. 119–120).5https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263657448_Quilled_Knife_Cases_from_Northeastern_North_America
Neck sheaths, continued…..
A survey of Native North American artifacts documented inEuropean collections before 1750 has disclosed no convincingevidence for the presence of knife cases. A knife (apparentlywithout a sheath) was obtained by Ralph Thoresby of Leedsfrom the three Mohawks among the “Four Kings of Canada”visiting London in 1710, and there is no record of knife casesin collection catalogs of that period (Feest, 1992:82). A knifewith a quilled sheath is said to have been collected in 1697 byPierre le Moyne, sieur d’Iberville, the founder of French Loui-siana, for his cousin Le Moyne de Martigny (Vitart, 1980:131),but neither an illustration nor any supportive documentationhas ever been published. More recently, an unusual type ofquilled knife case has surfaced in Besançon in association witheighteenth-century Iroquois and Mississippi valley material,which so far can be traced back only to 1853 (Lagrange andDubois, 1992:111, no. 241).
Quilled knife cases from northeastern North America pre-served in European and American collections would thus ap-pear to date from the middle of the eighteenth to the middle ofthe nineteenth century. In preparing this report, almost 100knife cases, published and unpublished, from this region andperiod were studied (references for these are provided largely inthe end notes). Less than a third of these have a documentedhistory before 1850, and less than 10% of them have reasonablywell documented provenances, including the Iro quois, Huronof Lorette, Ottawa, Menominee, and Winnebago. It is estimat-ed that this sample exceeds well over 50% of the knife casesfrom northeastern North America that have been preserved incollections. This leaves some hope that additional material yet tobe studied will further our understanding by adding more datedand/or provenanced examples.
Various types of quilled knife cases occur all over an arearanging from the northeastern United States to the western Ca-nadian Subarctic. Like other pouches of this region, knifecases were either suspended from the neck or attached to abelt. Unlike other pouches, no examples worn with bandoleer type shoulder straps are known, and an eighteenth-centuryFrench source is unique in reporting knifes stuck behind thegarters (J.-C.B., 1978:181).https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263657448_Quilled_Knife_Cases_from_Northeastern_North_America
Excavated Scalping Knives:
Found at the Duckhouse Site in Cahokia, Illinois:
Excavated from Ft. Ticonderoga:
British trade knife excavated from the Grand Portage National Monument:
I can’t remember where I found this. Looks to be excavated examples in a museum somewhere:
Knives excavated at The Old Fort Point Site:
The two kitchen knives are of the same type (Fig. 24 d-e). The “V” grind blades have practically straight backs and their cutting edges curve up gradually toward broken points. The blades have a maximum width of 27.7 mm and 29 mm and a maximum thickness of 2.2 mm and 2.7 mm. The one intact choil is distinct and at a right angle to the tang. The flat half-fangs (those which do not extend the full length of the handle) are relatively parallel-sided and have convex butts. They are 39 mm and 47 mm long and 21 mm and 22.5 mm wide. Three rivets originally secured the handle scales to the fangs. Of the two surviving rivets, the longest is 1.9 mm in diameter and 19.3 mm in length, indicating that the handle was at least this thick. The two knives are 161.6 mm and 184.5 mm long overall.
A “cross-over-L” hallmark (Fig. 2S) is stamped on the reverse (left) side of each blade, 19.5 mm and 26 mm from the juncture of the blade and tang. The marks are oriented parallel to the long axes of the blades and are a total of 12.5 mm and 13.7 mm high. The “formee” crosses (arms narrow at the centre, expanding toward the ends; the sides straight or concave, and the ends flat) are 5.6 mm and 6.4 mm high. The “L” marks are 5.8 mm and 6.4 mm high.
The “cross-over-L” mark is reputed to be the Hudson’s Bay Company’s “own old mark” used on scalping knives shipped to York Factory in the 19th century (Evans 1965: 47). However, Douglas A. Birk of the Minnesota Historical Society has carried out extensive research on knives bearing these marks and found that they appear predominantly at North West Company sites (Birk 1973: pers. com.). Thus the mark cannot be attributed solely to one of the above establishments. Birk (1973: pers. com.) feels that the mark was in use from at least 1780 until the 1830s.http://parkscanadahistory.com/series/chs/26/chs26-3f.htm
Some cool contemporary replicas by great blade smiths:
Edited to add (10/10/19):
Some new arrivals: Ken Hamilton reproduction scalping knives, and also an original with wood handle still intact, next to some of the relics in our collection:
Edited to add 10/11/19:
Here’s a great three part article I stumbled upon about French trade knives:
Edited to add 10/26/19:
Check out this original trade knife wooden sheath, originally covered in red fabric, shown to me by Wallace Gussler yesterday:
Also, I got another Ken Hamilton reproduction the other day. A copy of a Cross L blade, based on a dug original:
To be continued…..