In 1864 13 year old Robert McGee was headed west on the Santa Fe Trail with his parents. They died along the way and the boy, orphaned, continued the journey with a wagon train bringing supplies to New Mexico. Somewhere in the western reaches of Kansas the soldiers tasked with guarding the wagon train got delayed and the civilians were set upon by a band of Brule Sioux Indians, led by their chief, Little Turtle.
The drivers and teamsters of the wagon train were no match for the Indian warriors, and they were all tortured and killed. Young McGee watched helplessly as their blood was shed, and then he was taken before Little Turtle. The chief decided that he would kill the boy himself, and he put a bullet in McGee’s back. The boy fell to the ground, still alive and conscious, and Little Turtle put two arrows through him, pinning him down. And then the chief took out his blade and removed sixty four square inches from McGee’s head, starting just behind the ears. As he lay on the ground more Indians came upon him and poked him full of more holes with knives and spears.
All the while the boy was awake.
When the soldiers finally caught up with the wagon train they found a horrible massacre, with everyone scalped. But as the soldiers picked through the bodies they found that McGee and another boy had survived. They were rushed to Fort Larned, where the other boy died. Somehow the scalpless McGee survived his experience… and many years beyond. The picture above was taken in 1890, when McGee told his story to a local newspaper.
McGee’s survival was almost miraculous, but he wasn’t the only man to be scalped and live to tell about it. Josiah Wilbarger was set upon by Comanche Indians about four miles east of modern Austin, Texas. He was shot with arrows and scalped and left for dead, but the man survived 11 more years. In fact he only died after hitting his head on a low beam in his home, cracking his skull and exposing his brain.
Wilbarger is quoted as saying that being scalped was surprisingly painless, but “while no pain was perceptible, the removing of his scalp sounded like the ominous roar and peal of distant thunder,” according to James de Shield’s Border Wars of Texas (via Futility Closet).
I can’t find out whatever eventually became of Robert McGee. Perhaps he lived to a ripe old age, always keeping a large collection of hats.