For more than 10,000 years, the Wabanaki peoples have been living in a region called the Dawnland. Captain John Smith rebranded the area “New England” in a map he made in 1614. He and the other colonial settlers renamed rivers and villages to claim the land for themselves and erase Native people from their homelands. But that wasn’t enough. Eventually colonial officials introduced a grisly incentive to hasten that erasure: bounties for dead Native Americans.
Yes, the settlers whom many Americans mythologize at Thanksgiving as peace-loving pilgrims were, just a generation later, issuing official government orders putting a price on the scalps of Indigenous children, women and men.
The reward: about $12,000 in today’s dollars for the scalp of a man, half that for a woman, and a bit less for a child. It was nearly as much as a soldier would earn in two years. Sometimes bounty hunters were granted the land of the people they scalped – thousands of acres, which scalpers used to found towns that they named after themselves, like Westbrook, Maine; Shirley, Massachusetts; and Spencer, Massachusetts, to name just a few.
According to our research, there were at least 69 government-issued scalp edicts across the Dawnland from 1675 to 1760, and at least 50 scalp edicts issued elsewhere in the United States until 1885. The proclamations targeted specific tribes by name – and occasionally marked specific tribes safe because they were “allies” of the authorities. But neither scalpers nor authorities had much way of knowing the tribal affiliations of the people whose scalps they took, so for centuries bounties were a license to kill all Indigenous people.
We are part of the team behind the new short documentary Bounty. In New England alone, we’ve uncovered government payments for 375 human scalps, submitted in 94 separate claims and equaling government payments of millions of dollars in today’s money. More documents may be buried in colonial archives.
In 1755, the lieutenant governor of the province of Massachusetts Bay, Spencer Phips, issued an edict declaring the Penobscot people a target of extermination and commanding “his Majesty’s Subjects of this Province to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing, and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians.”
The Phips Proclamation lives on in collective memory because members of the Penobscot Nation and other Wabanaki peoples sometimes post it on the walls of tribal government offices as a kind of reminder: You tried to kill us, but we are still here. The United States was built on our lands and on top of the bones of our ancestors. We live and thrive on these lands today and are sovereign nations with the right to self-determination.