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June 8, 2021

Scalped in 1867 by Cheyenne in Nebraska, Here’s the Story Behind William Thompson’s Scalp

Scalping is often depicted in old-timey cowboy-and-Indian movies with lots of quavering music and dramatic pauses. But then you see the real scalp under a bell jar and it isn’t so melodramatic anymore.

William Thompson’s scalp, archived at the Main Library in Omaha, Nebraska, looks more like some sort of rodent than an impactful part of history. However, Thompson’s story—surviving a scalping, holding on to the coiffure in question—makes it all the more remarkable.

On a hot and muggy evening in August of 1867, as the railroad was being built. Union Pacific officials realized they were not getting any telegraph feed west of the Plum Creek Station. Four railroad telegraph workers and a foreman went to Plum Creek Station, which later evolved into the city of Lexington. They arrived on a handcar. They came around a curve and ran into a bunch of railroad ties. The handcar was derailed. At this time, there were 25 Cheyenne warriors that were waiting in ambush, and they came down and attacked the repair party. Working on the railroad was a dangerous job.

William Thompson was a victim in the attack. He suffered a wound to the upper arm, and one of the Cheyenne braves scalped him. He was awake, and alive at the time. There is much debate on how he managed to stay quiet, but apparently he did.

Earlier in the day, another train left Omaha. It arrived after the attack, and it ran into the same bunch of railroad ties as the handcar. That derailed the entire train, 17 cars, the engineer, the fireman, the conductor were killed, and it was the first successful derailment of an entire train by a Native American tribe in U.S. history.

Then UP realized they had a serious issue. They sent out a second rescue train the next day. They rescued Thompson who was quite a sight at that time. Infection had started to set in, but he was alive, and they took him back to Omaha where they tried to re-attach the scalp. Dr. Richard Moore tried to do that in August of 1867, but they were unsuccessful. But the doctor did believe Mr. Thompson was a strong individual, and he would survive the infection, which he did.

Thompson was from England and he hung on to the scalp. His fellow countrymen were not as enamored with the scalp as he was. Thompson donated his scalp to the doctor who had tried to help him. He did decide to donate it to Dr. Moore in 1900. Dr. Moore then decided to donate it to the Omaha Public Library since he assumed the local interest would be piqued.

The scalp is now kept in an acid-free box at the W. Dale Clark Library in Omaha. It’s always handled carefully with gloves. It’s been the subject of some several national TV shows, and people often request to see it.

(The original story was told by Lynn Sullivan, a library specialist at the W. Dale Clark Library in Omaha, via KOLN)


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