Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Taking scalps

During the War of 1812, America soldiers' greatest fear was being massacred, hacked to pieces and scalped by Indians fighting with the British. The sight and sound of war-painted, whooping warriors often was enough to send them into flight.

On May 29, 1813, British naval officer James Richardson watched as first one and then another boatload of American soldiers rowed toward his fleet on Lake Ontario, whitle flag flying. These 115 well-armed Americans were terrified of Indians on shore, and chose to surrender rather than fight them - all 36 warriors.

Richardson said the surrender can be explained by tales of Indian atrocities in the mouths of all mothers and nurses.

Americans blamed the British for spurring the Indians on. In Congress, Henry Clay refuted Federalist claims that Canadians were innocent. "Canada innocent? Canada unoffending? Is it not in Canada that the tomahawk of the savage had been molded into its death-like form?

The British, in turn, valued the Indians precisely because they scared the poop out of Americans. But they argued that Americans were hardly innocent. When an American general rebuked a british officer for the Indians' conduct, he reported that the officer cited as justification "that our government would send the Kentuckians into Canada."

A British sargeant reported that "These Kentucky men are wretches ... served out with blankets like the Indians, with a long knife and other barbarous articles ... After engagements they scallop the killed and wounded that could not get out of the way."

For what it's worth, it was an American who took the first scalp in the War of 1812. On July 29, 1812, Capt. William McCulloch killed and scalped a Menominee warrior, outraging the Menominee who had promised the British they would refain from taking scalps. Maybe it was a harsh sort of justice when, 10 days later, McCulloch fell into an ambush and lost his own scalp.

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