In the often contentious and acrimonious debates over whether the Golden State’s Indigenous peoples were targeted for genocide by white Euro-Americans between 1846 and 1873, inflammatory scalp bounty accusations against the state of California have become a staple of public discourse. California is frequently accused by public leaders, political activists, academic scholars, and others of once having paid cash rewards ranging anywhere from twenty-five cents to twenty-five dollars for Indian scalps, heads, and other body parts in order to wage a deliberate “war of extermination” against its Native peoples. So routinely are these allegations made that they now go largely uncontested and appear to have won nearly universal acceptance as established historical facts. These “facts,” however, are false. The state of California never offered, let alone actually paid, cash bounties for Native American scalps, heads, or other body parts. And, despite numerous similar claims to the contrary, neither did any county—nor, with one possible exception, did any incorporated town or city.
Nevertheless, thanks in large part to repeated and unchallenged assertions based on very faulty scholarship, scalp bounty allegations have been allowed to evolve over the past thirty years to become a popular but polarizing myth that serves mainly to inflame public passions and to frustrate rational discourse in what are frequently bruising public quarrels over vital contemporary issues such as tribal sovereignty, reparations for past injustices, casino gaming regulation, and, of course, disputed points of historical interpretation central to the genocide debate.
This essay traces the evolution of the pervasive California Indian scalp bounty myth from its origins in the 1990s and examines the numerous different versions that its propagators have put forth over time, despite a near-total lack of concrete supporting evidence. Although scalping itself was widely practiced by state militiamen and volunteer “Indian fighters” like the infamous Jackson Farley and Hi Good, the taking of corporal trophies in California’s genocidal frontier wars did not result from the pursuit of financial reward. Indeed, the remarkably small number of documented cases reveals that Indian scalp bounties remained extremely rare in gold rush California and were seldom offered anywhere except in a scattered handful of isolated and unincorporated rural communities.