The Scalp Industry

Although the origins of the practice of scalping may be lost in the nebulous hinterlands of the past, the industry of scalp hunting has a specific and documented history. Although some of the particulars may be shrouded in rumors, the scalp bounty laws instituted a peculiar economic venture between the Mexican government and, primarily, American citizens. Between 1835 and the 1880s, the Mexican authorities paid private armies to hunt Native Americans, paying per kill and using scalps as receipts. The practice began when the Mexican government could no longer provide adequate protection to its citizens from the marauding Apaches and Comanches. The natives rode down from the U.S. killing peons, kidnapping women, and stealing livestock and then would escape back over the border. Because the Mexican military was unable to effectively ward off the threat over such a large expanse and because the Mexican farmers either could not afford or were forbidden to possess arms, the government had to look to alternative methods of suppressing native violence.

Bounty Laws

Sonora was the first state to enact a scalp bounty law; in 1835, offering 100 pesos for the scalps of braves (with a peso roughly equal to an American silver dollar). An American named James Johnson sparked the boom period in 1837 when he fired a concealed canon at close range on unarmed Apaches. The blast tore into Apache warriors as well as women and children, and Johnson and his troops swarmed into the mass of natives, killing and scalping. While this event occurred in Hidalgo County, New Mexico, the scalps were cashed in Sonora, and the entire incident proved how profitable scalp hunting could be. It also flamed native animosity towards both Mexicans and Anglos, encouraging more raids and greater violence (a cycle that continued throughout this era). Soon afterward, Chihuahua enacted a similar law offering a graded bounty: $100 for braves; $50 for squaws; $25 for children under fourteen (although the latter two were ostensibly for live captives). While the callous nature of this business might have limited the number of participants, the Panic of 1837 had left many pioneers and miners strapped for money, and scalp hunting offered a quick profit for men trying to reach California, and the bounty of one Indian was worth more than many Mexicans or Anglos could earn in a year. It also provided financial rewards for a conflict that had begun before a price had been set on Indian blood.

The system was temporarily abandoned, but in 1841 it was revived due to continuos raiding; one Comanche raiding party killed 300 Mexicans and seized over 18,000 head of livestock (as well as countless women and children). The situation continued to worsen for the Mexican authorities, and some historians have suggested that the natives actually "harvested" victims, leaving behind enough survivors and resources so that they could raid again. At one point, the situation had gotten so bad that Apaches were killing Mexicans on the streets of Chihuahua City during the middle of the day. In 1843 the authorities in Chihuahua tried to pit natives tribes against each other and offered Apache tribes a stipend if they would take the knife to the Comanches and stop raiding the state. This plan obviously failed- the Apaches did take the stipend, but began raiding Sonora instead (essentially the Mexicans were paying the tribe to raid other Mexicans)- however, it reveals the desperation of the Mexican government. By 1845, the scalp bounty had be reinstated yet again, and Gov. Don Angel Trias of Chihuahua put out a $9000 reward on the chief of the Apaches- Don Santiago Querque. At this point Querque/Kirker began working for the government scalping the natives that recently had been his allies.

After the Mexican-American War

Ironically, the Mexican peoples finally received relief from the Apache and Comanche raids when the U.S. declared war on Mexico; the U.S. soldiers spent their spare time chasing and hunting the natives. However, without the protection of Kirker and the other Anglos, Chihuahua was again besieged and in 1847 raised the price of scalps to $200. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, most of the Mexican states revived their scalping bounties again in preparation for more raids (there is little mention of the discontinuation of these bounties- I would speculate though that after the immediate threat was gone they were repealed until the attacks resumed). In 1849, Chihuahua's "Ley Quinto," which would remain on the books until 1886, passed setting a price of $150 for live women and children, $200 for the scalps of warriors, and $250 for live warriors. Most professionals though felt that the extra $50 did not justify the increased risk and so traded in "receipts" only. Durango passed similar laws the same year, and in 1850 Sonora set the price at $150 for warriors and $100 for women and children under fourteen. By mid-1850 Chihuahua and Sonora had included the Seri Indians on their hit lists too. The details of the scalp bounty laws reveal that this wretched business was indeed a business with its own self-policing practices. States, to prevent fraud, defined "scalps" to include one or both ears or the crown (a fresh scalp could be stretched before it was dried and cut into up to a dozen "scalps"). Regulatory committees were also established to examine scalps, but these were often bought off so that the scalps of children were purchased as adults, etc. (As a brief aside, a method of scalping and preserving the receipts was dictated by several of the scalp hunters. In James Kirker's party the duties were relegated to the Shawnees in the group who would cut around the crown and then sit with their feet on the shoulders of the victim and yank the trophy from its place of origin. The scalps were then sprinkled with salt and tied to poles to dry so that they would not deteriorate before they could be sold.)

The rather liberal payment policies of the local authorities made the scalp industry highly profitable. Indian hunters could keep any livestock or loot they recovered, civilians, soldiers, Mexican nationals, and foreigners were all eligible, and unquestioning inspectors all enticed unscrupulous men into this business. Mexican scalps were just as good as Indians, the scalps of women and children were bought for $100 (although the law made no provisions for this), and the bounties were advertised both in Mexico and North of the Rio Grande. Many of the scalp hunters were former Texas Rangers or forty-niners searching for quick cash. Some of the more famous include Major Michael Chevallie, James Kirker, Capt. Michael Box, John Glanton, and John Dusenberry. Other Americans also participated for a different type of payment; the state of Coahuila promised land to groups of Seminoles and a group of run-away slaves led by John Horse (Juan Caballo) in exchange for their services as Indian hunters.

Boom Time

The years of 1849-1850 were the true boom time, but an industry like this can obviously get out of hand (if it didn't begin by being out of hand). From the accounts it seems that no one in the South-west was safe during that year. The recent war with Mexico and the dark hair of the Mexican farmers made the peons easy targets when Indian scalps became scarce or too dangerous to acquire. Scalpers also began slaughtering any natives they could run down, including peaceful tribes like the Pimas and Yumas. Kirker and Box supposedly made rather large profits hunting agricultural tribes along the Rio Grande and Sierra Madre. Groups would also masquerade as natives and raid local villages, an act that served a dual purpose. It reinforced the necessity of the bounty laws and provided scalps that could be then sold to the governors responsible for protecting the village. The authorities did begin to notice that whenever Glanton or other hunting parties passed through a region, Indian activity always increased; a fact that led to many hunters being run out of Mexico and eventually helped to ruin the industry. Scalping as a business peaked that winter when the natives were driven out of the mountains in search of food; in one raid in the Big Bend country Glanton supposedly took 250 scalps (a fact that doesn't appear in Chamberlain's account, so it may have been another scalper). By that spring though, Chihuahua alone had paid out over $17,000 to scalp hunters. Many of the Mexican states found that they did not have the money to pay the scalping parties or that the expenditures were growing to a point where they would soon be bankrupt- another element that helped bring an end to the trade.


Scalp hunting was a high risk industry beyond just the battles required to attain scalps, and it eventually took its toll on the hunters. Some native chiefs began offering bounties for the scalps of Mexicans and Anglos as a retaliatory effort; Chief Gomez set the price at $1000 each after a similar bounty was put on his locks. Scalpers even began scalping other Indian hunters; payment could be collected from the natives if the Mexicans wouldn't accept the scalps. In one gruesome hunting party comprised of Mexicans and Kickapoo Indians, a dispute between the two constituencies arose, and the Mexicans scalped (and redeemed) all of their native hunting (former) allies. By the spring of 1850, the hunters were facing a depletion of their resources, and many were being run out for their indiscretions with the Mexicans they were supposedly protecting. Glanton found a reward on his head in Chihuahua and relocated to Sonora before the Yumas killed him. Both Kirker and Box were run out of Chihuahua and Durango and ended up in California. Although the laws stayed on the books until the 1880s, the industry as such had run its course; violent confrontation continued in the guise of the Indian Wars until most of the tribes were subdued and confined to reservations.