New copies of my book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques are now available from Amazon at $24.95.
This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

American Indians and Their Knives

The following excerpts are from Twenty Years Among Our Hostile Indians (1897) by James Lee Humfreville:
"With the advent of firearms, the tomahawk ceased to be an important war weapon. It was commonly carried, but generally used as a pipe, the back or bead being hollow and used for a bowl, and the handle, which had a hole through it, was used for a stem. The blade or axe was of iron or steel; this they procured from white traders. The tomahawk has passed into history as a bloody weapon, and at one time might have been entitled to its reputation as such, but of late years it was rarely used. If by chance an Indian met another in a hand-to-hand combat his weapon was the knife. Some of the duels with knives were of the bloodiest kind; they would stab and slash each other so terribly that both contestants died locked in each other's arms. When a fight of this kind occurred it was sure to end fatally for one or both. I once saw the bodies of two Indians who died in this manner, and counted eight stabs and twenty-one slashes on one body, and eight stabs and fourteen slashes on the other; the bodies were lying close to each other just as they had died.

"All Indians, both men and women, carried a knife in a sheath attached to the belt, and were dexterous in its use. The knife was their inseparable companion, and was used for slaughtering animals, scalping enemies, and for general purposes. Knives were kept as sharp as possible, the handle being often elaborately ornamented in true Indian style. In early days on the plains it was difficult for them to secure a sufficient supply of knives, but that difficulty ceased after white traders established trading posts throughout the Indian country. . . . .

"The manner of taking a scalp in battle was to cut with a knife, around the braid of the scalp lock, a circle two or three inches in diameter, and then with a jerk tear it from the skull. Occasionally, especially if not pressed by danger, and there was plenty of time, be would cut around the entire scalp, tearing it from the head. Such a scalp was often divided into numerous small locks, which were used in ornamenting his war shirt or other personal belongings. Half a dozen or more scalp locks often represented but a single victim. A few people who have been scalped by the savages, after they were supposed to be dead, have recovered, but were great sufferers ever after from headaches, earaches, nervous prostration, and constant colds. The cranium being without its natural protection, subjected the victim to great inconvenience with every climatic change.

"The majority of Indians had a peculiar custom in relation to claiming the scalp. The one who first struck an enemy after he was down, and supposed to be dead, could claim the scalp, although the person killing him had made every effort to strike the prostrate body and demand the trophy. This custom I attribute to the warrior's desire to be the first to strike the enemy, so that he could claim to be in advance of all others in the battle, and therefore the foremost brave.

"Scalps when taken in this way were the personal property of the individual who struck the dead body first; they were kept and exhibited by him and his family as a token of bravery. They would take a twig off a bush and make a hoop five or six inches in diameter; then thongs of rawhide were put through the scalp around the edges and fastened to the inside of the hoop, thus stretching the scalp tight, when it was left to dry.

"When a scalp dance took place, these scalps, stretched in their tiny hoops, and frequently ornamented with fur and other articles, were fastened to long poles, which the women carried in an upright position. Scalp dances were always held on the return of a victorious war party, especially if, in addition to scalps, it had secured a large amount of booty in the way of horses and mules.

"When one Indian scalped another who had a feather in his scalp lock, this feather was fastened to the scalp, and dangled from the pole on which the trophy was carried. Such a scalp was the special admiration of the dancers, for the presence of the feather was supposed to be evidence of the superior bravery of the slain, and the still greater bravery of the captor. Nearly every brave was the possessor of a number of these ghastly trophies, and he exhibited them conspicuously on all ceremonial occasions. They were his badges of distinction, as well as the evidence of his claims to greatness with his people. . . .

"Throwing the knife at an object was a sport at which the majority of Indians were particularly expert. Taking the knife in the palm of the hand with the handle toward the end of the fingers, and standing at from ten to thirty feet from the target, they would, by a dexterous movement of the forearm, throw the knife at an object often not larger than a saucer, and with such precision that the point of the knife struck within this small circle at almost every throw. I have seen them stand at a distance of twenty-five feet from the target and hit it twenty-five or thirty times consecutively."


  1. Scalping though to be historically correct was not as widely used as most expect. The British paid other whites big money for native american scalps especially women and children, so this practice as a revenge technique was taken over by the various tribes basically if you take our scalps we'll take yours. Thus scalping began to grow amongst the younger generations in the tribes but even though it may have been a common practice before whites entered the picture it was not a prevailant one.

  2. It's true that scalping was originally introduced by the British as a way of collecting a bounty on Indians. I think the Spanish paid a bounty on Apache scalps in the early 19th century.

    When I post excerpts from 19th-century writing I don't always correct the inaccuracies contained therein. I'm presenting them for historical interest only.

  3. Strings on neck-knife sheathes can be seen for hanging around a neck, but how were sheathes secured for waist carries?