Send his scalp to the British Museum

08 September 2016

Area Studies | Empire and Globalism | History

In his classic 1893 the frontier thesis – first delivered at the Chicago Worlds’ Fair – the historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave an analysis of how the experience of this contested space creates a particular culture and character in its inhabitants. It forges aptitudes, democracy, tough mentalities, self-reliance, and so forth. A small taste: ‘In the settlement of America we have to observe how European life entered the continent, and how America modified and developed that life and reacted on Europe. Our early history is the study of European germs developing in an American environment … The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him in European dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad cart and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin.’

Although not wholly accepted by historians today, Turner’s thesis is still appreciated as an interesting starting point when looking at frontier regions and the ways in which they shaped settler communities, indigenous peoples and eventually entire nation-states.

One particular example of the American frontier shaping the colonist was in the European newcomers’ adoption of the practise of scalping enemies; that is to say cutting away a part of the scalp and taking it as a trophy or proof of victory. Though removing body parts as trophies was not unique to Native Americans – Europeans had their own history of lopping off appendages for bragging rights – the colonists that arrived certainly picked up or revived this habit.

Which leads us to a curious episode featured in the documents of Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement & Colonial Encounters and a letter that reveals an interesting intersection between the frontier and institutions of culture and so-called metropolitan civilisation. In the 1750s, a global war was taking place between the European powers and this extended to their colonies in North America in the form of France versus Britain and their respective Native American and First Nations allies: the French and Indian War, 1754-1763. This resulted in several nasty ‘backcountry’ wars between colonists, militias and Native Americans away from the relatively-ordered lines and pitched battles of uniformed regular troops. This January 1758 letter of the Pennsylvania proprietor Thomas Penn to Richard Peters about government and war matters in the colony mentions the aftermath of the Kittanning Raid thirteen months earlier.

Thomas Penn to Richard Peters, January 1758 © Massachusetts Historical Society
Thomas Penn to Richard Peters, January 1758 © Massachusetts Historical Society


This was an event in one of these backcountry wars where British colonist militias attacked the Native American Delaware (Lenape) village of Kittanning – a base for raids against British colonists in Pennsylvania. Although many of the Delaware warriors were away, one of the notorious chiefs known as Captain Jacobs (real name Tewea) put up a fight that ended with his house being set on fire and him and his family being shot down as they rushed out to escape the flames. In the aftermath of this fight, the colonists took scalps of the slain Delaware, including that of Captain Jacobs. The customs of the ‘wilderness’ mastering the colonist in evidence. Indeed, Jacobs actually had a bounty on his scalp given his infamous raids on colonist settlements.

What was proposed for Captain Jacob’s scalp is the extraordinary appendix to this violent episode and it makes for an interesting reflection on Turner’s thesis. Penn’s document suggests that the scalp was sent to London, where he was based at the time: ‘Dr Fothergill sent me the Minutes from October 1756. For some months which is all I’ve seen of them … I also received printed Indian conferences in July and November 1756 and at Lancaster in May last a Copy of George Croghans [sic] two journals and other papers mentioned in your letter of the 10 of September with the scalp of Captain Jacobs for which I am greatly obliged to Colonel Armstrong to whom it’s a valuable trophy. I have thought of sending it to the British Museum with a plate engraved giving an account of the action. Your last letter …’

So the gruesome trophy of a brutal frontier war possibly ends up in a major cultural institution. We don’t know if it ever made it but perhaps the scalp of Captain Jacobs resides in a dusty box in a dusty storeroom at the British Museum today. But this episode does make for an illustration of the frontier’s influence reaching all the way back beyond even the colonist to a great symbol of ‘civilisation’ no less. That’s well beyond Turner’s expectations.


Find out more about ‘frontiers’ and Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement & Colonial Encounters below in this interview with Alan Lester, Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex.

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About the Author

Felix Barnes

Felix Barnes

I have been an editor at Adam Matthew since September 2013. Since then I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with some fascinating collections including Global Commodities, the Foreign Office Files for China, American History, 1493-1945, Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters, Socialism on Film and J. Walter Thompson: Advertising America.