This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor's and Became a Legend
This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend

Larry Holzwarth - September 1, 2019

Much of what is known about Hannah Duston is speculative, including what her real name was. It can be found spelled as Dustin, Duston, Dustan, and even Durstan, depending upon where one looks. Though the consensus is that her maiden name was Emerson, as hardy a New England moniker as can be found. Hardy she undoubtedly was, as history credits her with being the mother of no less than eight children. She was from a family which had its share of problems with the early Massachusetts’ authorities. She was the older sister of Elizabeth Emerson, whom the elders of Haverhill had hanged for the crime of infanticide in June, 1693. She had previously given birth to children of questionable siring, forever hanging a banner of disrepute on the family home, at least figuratively.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
The Salem Witch Trials provided a backdrop for Hannah’s story in the 1690s. Wikimedia

She was not alone. An uncle and his daughter had been among the accused at the witch trials in Salem. The gentleman in question, Roger Toothaker, had long boasted of his own ability in detecting witches, a skill he passed along to his daughter before he died in custody in the jail at Boston. His daughter was later acquitted. With this family as her domestic refuge, Hannah Duston became one of colonial Massachusetts’ earliest heroines, a survivor of Indian custody and torment, and a slayer of those heathens who bore her away from her home and hearth. Her story did not become famous until nearly a century after her death, and thus is liberally laced with legend and hyperbole, intermixed with truth. Here it is as best as it can be told, the story of the woman often believed to be the first American woman to be honored with a statue.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Thanks to the behavior of certain members of her family, Hannah Duston was of questionable reputation in her hometown of Haverhill. Wikimedia

1. Hannah came from a typically large family in colonial New England

Hannah’s parents, Michael Emerson and his wife Hannah Webster Emerson, settled in the town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, where they proceeded to have fifteen children, of which Hannah was the eldest. She was born just before Christmas, December 23, 1657. As the eldest child, Hannah from an early age was responsible for the care of her younger siblings, and before she was in her teens would have been intimately familiar with the most important feature of the New England home of the time – the large fireplace which served to heat the home, prepare the meals, and provide the greater measure of the evening light. Daughters in colonial New England were considered marriageable at an early age by modern standards, though Hannah did not wed until she was twenty, much older than usual.

She may have been unable to provide a dowry for her husband, or perhaps she was not graced with the features considered attractive to suitors, or perhaps both. At any rate, once wed she, as had her mother before her, quickly produced a large brood with her husband. By the age of 40 (then considered the earliest stages of old age) she was living, in Haverhill, with her husband and eight children. Thomas, her husband, was a maker of bricks and a farmer. They lived with their children on a prosperous farm just north and east of the small cluster of buildings which made up the town of Haverhill, where tongues continued to wag over the disreputable family from which she came. Such was the situation in late winter, 1697, when events transpired to make Hannah locally famous and notorious.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Life on a colonial farm meant day after day of unremitting labor, nearly all by hand. Colonial Williamsburg

2. Hannah was a farmer’s wife as well as a mother of eight

Life on the small New England farms of the seventeenth century was harsh, and Hannah would have to have been extraordinarily tough, at least in modern terms. Her hands were calloused and strong; hands which would have been adept at slaughtering chickens, butchering pigs, shucking corn, and hoeing and weeding the gardens and crops. They would have been familiar with the touch of scalding water, the harshness of homemade soap, the coarseness of a scrubbing board. Add to that the fatigue of raising any number of children, maintaining a home, and dealing with the harshness of the New England climate, and it is safe to say that Hannah did not resemble what has been called the delicate flower of womanhood. She was likely as hardboiled as the leather of her stout farmer’s shoes.

She was also no stranger to danger and fear, not of the harshness of the weather or the woods, but of the natives which occupied the latter. By the end of the seventeenth century the settlers in Massachusetts’ outlying towns had endured several wars with the natives. In 1697 King William’s War was still raging, a conflict which remains notable for the cruelty practiced by both sides, the heathen Abenaki and their Papist French allies on the one side, and the Christian English on the other. Raids of villages by the Indians were marked with the slaughter of the men, and all too frequently the children, with the women strong enough to march carried off as hostages for ransom. The English preferred taking scalps to hostages, as they were easier to carry home, and received a payment for them from representatives of the British King.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Fort WIlliam Henry in a 1910 postcard. It was destroyed (later rebuilt) during King William’s War, one of a series of 17th century conflicts between English and French, colonists and Indians. Wikimedia

3. Hannah lived during a time of brutal violence in New England

King William’s War was but the latest in a series of conflicts between the English settlers and the natives, who were backed by their allies from France. The French envisioned America as an economic colony, providing furs and other wealth to the throne via trade with the native tribes, rather than the establishment of settlements dependent on the mother country. By the 1690s, the conflicts in North America had destroyed many of the indigent peoples of New England, the remnants of their tribes taking shelter with the Abenaki, who reigned over the lands of northern New England and southern Canada. Abenaki raids on English settlements were notorious for their mercilessness, a violence encouraged by the French missionaries, many of them Jesuits who welcomed the destruction of the Protestant English as a means which justified by the end.

The savage nature of the wars in North America were reflected in the conflicts in Europe, of which they were but a sideshow to the monarchs on their gilded thrones. English settlers resented the French, but began to resent the English as well, as protecting troops were often absent, and the responsibility for protecting the settlements landed on the settlers themselves. During King William’s War, whole Massachusetts towns (and Connecticut and New Hampshire towns as well) were razed by the savagery of the Abenaki attacks. The settlers remained on or near their farms, establishing alarm systems to rouse the militia to defense at the same time it warned the women and children to flee for the security of frontier strongholds and blockhouses. Such was the situation on the Massachusetts frontier, including Haverhill, in March, 1697.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
An attack by French and Indian allies on the English outpost of Schenectady during King William’s War. The taking of hostages was a goal of the attackers. Wikimedia

4. Women on the Massachusetts frontier were considered valuable to both sides

When Abenaki warriors struck Haverhill, Massachusetts, on March 15, 1697, they found, to their immense satisfaction, more than just men to kill and buildings to burn. There were no crops yet in the fields, no fruit on the trees. The snows of the New England winter still covered much of the ground, especially where it had accrued in deep piles over the course of the season. What they found at the Duston farm just outside of the settlement of Haverhill were several women, including Hannah Duston, then 40 years of age, and her friend and neighbor, Mary Neff. According to local tradition, Hannah had only weeks before given birth, and her infant was either captured as well, or killed by the Indians during the raid. Others claim the child was of Mary Neff. At any rate, it did not survive the coming ordeal.

Although much has been made of it in fiction and folklore since, the Indians of the colonial period did not usually slaughter women they encountered on their raids, recognizing them as valuable, either as hostages for ransom or slaves used for wives and pack animals. Women could be made to carry the loot taken during a raid, thus freeing the warriors from duties considered less than manly. Children – at least children capable of transporting themselves on foot – were also valuable as labor and hostages, though they tended to become troublesome on the trail and were thus frequently dispatched. Thus some young children survived captivity while most did not. Hannah and Mary, captured by the Abenaki, were forced to travel north, through what was for the most part still winter, bound for the Abenaki villages near the Saint Lawrence River. They went by way of the Merrimack.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Unlike livestock and small children, both of which could be troublesome on the trail, women were valuable hostages to be held for ransom. Wikimedia

5. Hannah found other English captives being held by the Abenaki

The Abenaki, like most of the Native Americans of the northeast, did not consider women to be worthy of the attention of men beyond their duties as servants and wives. This was particularly true when traveling, whether as a war party or other reasons. Women prepared the food, made the camp, gathered the firewood, repaired the weapons, and for the most part kept watch over the prisoners. Hannah Duston and Mary Neff, being in the eyes of the Abenaki warriors mere women, were not bound and dragged along as they traveled north. They traveled in company with the native women, who ensured that the existence of the English women was unpleasant enough. After a fortnight, Hannah and Mary were left in the care of an Indian family, likely Pennacook Indians.

Already residing with the family was another English captive, a teenage boy by the name of Samuel Leonardson. It was unusual for a boy of his age to be in residence with a family without having assumed some of the duties of the warriors, even if he had been adopted by the Abenaki, and had earned a certain degree of their trust. Leonardson had been instructed by either the Abenaki women or their husbands in the use of the tomahawk and the scalping knife. According to some versions of Hannah’s legend, it was she who encouraged young Leonardson to ask the Indians to teach him how to use the tomahawk on a man, which they obligingly (and somewhat unbelievably) agreed to teach him. If the tale be true, the trusting Abenaki taught the captured British boy how to kill with a tomahawk and then allowed him to sleep unguarded, with such weapons to hand, and recently captured Englishwomen nearby.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
A somewhat fanciful depiction of Hannah, and presumably Mary Neff, dispatching their Indian “captors”. Smithsonian

6. Hannah’s legend began one bloody spring night in 1697

How many Indians comprised the “family” (they were likely Pennacook Indians, under the protection of the Abenaki) which Hannah and Mary were staying with is unknown, as were their composition in terms of the number of men and women at the encampment. One night in the spring of 1697 (the date is disputed, Hannah had no calendar nor almanac with which to record it), the Englishwoman rose, armed herself with a tomahawk provided by young Leonardson, and killed all but one of the Indians. The count of the dead victims was established by the number of scalps she collected, ten of which were presented for the bounty due to the governor of Massachusetts. They were worth five pounds apiece, a healthy sum (for the scalper at least) in 1697. In equivalent amount in 2019 would be about $10,000.

Not all of the Abenaki were victims of Hannah’s rage. At least one elderly woman escaped, fleeing via the nearby river, and a small boy of indeterminate age escaped by fleeing into the darkened woods. Knowing that the boy would sound the alarm and generate reprisal, yet also knowing that she had no way of finding him in the dense woods, Hannah and the other English captives opted to flee, using the canoes of the dead Indians, back to the civilization represented by Haverhill and the other English settlements. The stream they followed was the Merrimack River, heavily traveled by the Abenaki and their allies, and they chose to travel only at night, hiding during the daylight hours along the shoreline.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
The Indians sold their hostages to their French allies, or to other Indians to serve as slaves. John Heinz History Center

7. Hannah was a prisoner of the Abenaki (or Pennacook) for about six weeks

According to the account later delivered, along with the bloody scalps, by Hannah and a somewhat subdued Mary Neff, the attack on the Indian “family” which had held them took place on or about April 30, meaning that she had been a captive for about six weeks. The story she told the authorities (in the person of Cotton Mather) was that they had been held by two men, two women, six children, though later accounts added older women to the encampment, who managed to escape. Since Hannah presented ten scalps for collection of her bounty, four of which had been detached from the heads of adults, at least six of her victims had been children. They also claimed a firearm, in the form of a musket, as a prize.

The actual killings likely took place in the colony of New Hampshire, only recently (1680) acquiring such status on its own, but the waters of the Merrimack were claimed by Massachusetts, which thus also had the responsibility of honoring the claim for the bounty represented by the scalps. There were problems with the scalps however, and they had nothing whatever to do with being the scalps of children, as one might expect among the pious Protestants of Massachusetts. The colony had suspended the payment of a bounty on scalps the preceding year. Besides, Hannah was a woman, married, and thus had no legal standing with which to claim the bounty. The scalps were, in the eyes of the colony, the property of her husband, as indeed was Hannah herself. It was up to him to claim the money, if he so chose.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Allegedly Thomas Duston was working on this house (he was a bricklayer) at the time his wife was captured in 1697. Library of Congress

8. Thomas Duston claimed the bounty for the scalps, along with young Leonardson

The historical record is vague regarding the whereabouts of Thomas Duston at the time the Indian raiding party attacked his farm and made off with his wife. However his activities following her return to the settlements are well documented. Duston petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature, then sitting in Boston, for payment, informing that body that during her captivity “among the Barbarous Indians” she had done an “extraordinary action, in the just slaughter of so many of the Barbarians”, and was thus entitled to “considerable recompense”. Duston humbly admitted that there was then no legal obligation for the colony to pay the bounty, such payment having been suspended by the legislature. Still, he argued that the “merits of the action still remains the same”.

The legislature evidently agreed, though not to the extent which Duston and his wife expected. The Colony awarded the sum of 50 pounds for the scalps, 25 to be paid to Hannah, or more correctly to Hannah’s husband as recompense for Hannah’s actions, and the other 25 divided equally between Mary Neff and Samuel Leonardson, who though only 14 had more claim to legal standing than either Hannah or Mary. The payment was described by the legislature as being for “service in slaying their captors”. Mary Neff died in Haverhill in 1722, little is known about the rest of her life. Samuel Leonardson died in 1718, after moving to the Colony of Connecticut where he raised five children near the town of Preston. Hannah Duston remained in Haverhill, where she was shortly transformed into a legendary figure.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Hannah told her story to Cotton Mather, who cited it as an example of Divine deliverance from Satan. Wikimedia

9. Cotton Mather gives birth to the legend of Hannah Duston

In the spring of 1697, when the near miraculous return of Hannah Duston was still fresh in the minds of the residents of the Massachusetts frontier, and when King William’s War was still raging, she was visited by an eminent worthy from Boston. Cotton Mather was a graduate (1681) of Harvard College, a well-known author of religious and scientific pamphlets, and had been one of the leading perpetrators of the mass hysteria known to history as the Salem Witch Trials. He was also a minister with a strong reliance on fire and brimstone in his messages to the faithful, and an early and steadfast supporter of inoculation against disease. The latter position drew strong resistance from many Puritans, who believed that smallpox and other diseases were acts of retribution by a righteous God, and interference with His will was blasphemous.

Mather eventually published the tale of Hannah Duston and her deliverance from the heathen Abenaki, in no less than three different works, none of which were particularly concerned with historical accuracy. Mather also invited Hannah to attend a sermon he preached on the subject in Boston, likely a tedious experience for the obviously no-nonsense Hannah forced to listen to the notoriously long-winded Mather. Through Mather the story became well-known along the frontier, and in the taverns and meeting-houses of the rough towns which took the place of cities in early colonial America. Mather’s versions of the story – plural, as all three contain significant differences in detail – were not the first to be told on the frontier, nor the only to appear in writing, and over time the story grew with each telling, newly embellished by the teller of the tale.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts colonial leader who recorded Hannah’s story in his diary, as she told it. Wikimedia

10. Samuel Sewall may have been the first to record Hannah’s story of her captivity and escape

Samuel Sewall was a leading citizen of Colonial Massachusetts, a proponent of the Salem Witch Trials (for which he later expressed deep regret), a graduate of Harvard College, and a leading officer in the militia. He was also a printer who produced one of the earliest editions of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress to appear in America. He was one of the earliest American leaders to publicly and fervently renounce slavery, as well as to support a 1690 version of women’s rights. From 1673 to 1729 he kept a journal, in which he recorded events and his observations and commentary regarding life in Massachusetts. It includes the story of Hannah Duston, as she recounted it to him in April, 1697, when the events were but a few weeks old (curiously, since according to what she told Mather she was still a captive at the time).

Although Sewall – Harvard graduate or not – used what may charitably be called adventurous spelling in his journal, using several different renditions of Hannah’s last name for example, he describes the events with the tantalizing introduction of a new twist. According to what Hannah told him, in an entry dated May 12, one of the two Indians killed by Hannah, “did formerly live with Mr. Roulandson at Lancaster”. From his entry it would appear that Hannah recognized the man, whom she described to Sewall as “her master” as one who had evidently frequented the British settlements. Mary Rowlandson, of Lancaster, was the subject of a captivity account of her own, during the King Philip’s War of 1675-76. Beyond the comment recorded in Sewall’s journal, little other evidence exists to indicate that Hannah knew her captors.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
The raids of the Indians and French, such as this one at Deerfield in 1704, were recorded in the journals and diaries of the day. Wikimedia

11. Other diarists recorded brief accounts of the captivity and escape at the time

Large numbers of the settlers in Massachusetts in the late 17th century were functionally illiterate, unable to read or write, a significant problem among the women. Literacy was not a prerequisite for what was generally considered to be their duties and responsibilities at the time. It is evident that Hannah fell among these, since there is no existing document which bears her signature or is purported to contain her tale in her own writing. But several other diarists recorded her story, though whether heard directly from her, as in the case of Sewall, or whether acquired as hearsay from others who picked up the story is unknown. One such case is that of a Quincy bricklayer who left a diary in which he mentions Hannah Dunston in an entry dated April 29, 1697.

The diarist was John Marshall, who in the retelling he confided to his diary mentions the murder of Hannah’s young child during the raid. His entry describes Hannah as only recently having given birth, “when she had lain in childbed but a few days” when the attack occurred, and the newly born infant killed by an Indian by bashing its head against a tree. According to Marshall, the same Indian was one of the two men killed by Hannah during her escape, which differs from the accounts provided to and from Mather and Sewall. In some of the diary entries one can almost hear the excited gossip and embellished stories being told, as new details and justification for righteous revenge creep into the tale being told about the small frontier settlements.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Hannah’s tale of her escape became a legend on the frontier, though her treatment while in captivity was seldom discussed. Wikimedia

12. Hannah’s own story describing her captivity was never fully told

Hannah Duston left her story behind with Cotton Mather, Samuel Sewall, and through her husband with the Massachusetts Legislature, but she never recorded it on her own, and in the retellings known to history she did not recount her treatment by the Indians who held her in captivity, beyond those related to her escape. However, in May 1724 a letter was presented to her church elders in Haverhill, asking that she be given status as a full member of the congregation. Her express purpose was to be allowed to take communion and to offer her confession. The letter, likely composed by another member of the church and possibly by the minister himself contains a brief passage describing her captivity.

“I am Thankful for my Captivity,” she wrote, or rather dictated. “[T]was the Comfortablest time that I ever had; In my Affliction God made his Word Comfortable to me.” She also claimed that she remembered the 43rd Psalm, and that, “…those words came to my mind”. Beyond that she had no further comment on the event which led to her using a tomahawk – in effect a small axe – to bash in the skulls of several humans, most of them children. Nor did she express any regret nor remorse. Hannah was granted her request and received the full covenant of the church. The statue later erected in her honor, said to be the first ever erected to a woman in the land which is now the United States, stands on the site of the church. The church itself was razed, but the letter remains in the hands of the Haverhill Historical Society.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Indians raids and the seizure of hostages along the New England frontier continued for most of the 18th century, including further attacks at Haverhill. Wikimedia

13. Haverhill continued to be the target of Indian attacks

Hannah Duston returned to Haverhill and local legend, boosted by the sermons of Cotton Mather and the publications in which he presented the story. Haverhill, being one of the outlying towns of the English settlements, continued to be the target of French and Indian attacks. Neighbors were raided, their homes burned, their crops destroyed. Women continued to be the target of raiders, carried back to the Abenaki settlements, which were dominated by French missionaries. The French priests served as the liaison with government officials in Quebec, negotiating the ransoms of the prisoners captured by the Abenaki. Children continued to be killed by raiders on both sides, often seen as little more than an inconvenience when considering the distances prisoners were forced to travel.

A neighbor of Hannah’s, captured during the same raid in which Hannah had been, returned to Haverhill in 1699, ransomed by the English, with a different tale of Hannah’s activities while in the hands of the Indians. Though Haverhill was the objective of many more raids, including during Queen Anne’s War (so-called in North America; in Europe known as the War of the Spanish Succession), Hannah and her somewhat isolated farm were spared further attacks. She had one more child, a daughter named Lydia, born in the autumn of 1698. She lived another thirty years or so after her captivity, her death occurring in either 1736 or 1738; the confusion over the date is limited to the year of her demise, with scholars and local histories agreeing that she died on March 6.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Increase Mather, like Cotton Mather, compared the Indians to the servants of Satan. Wikimedia

14. Cotton Mather made Hannah a living symbol of divine protection

Cotton Mather preached the story of Hannah Duston from the pulpit as an example of the protection of the Protestant settlers of New England by their justly vengeful Providence. The Indian tribes, allied with the French, were viewed as heathens in the service of Satan. Those who had been converted to Catholicism by the French were little better in the eyes of the Protestant English. Their view was reflected by the wars in Europe – and the ferocity exhibited as they were fought – during that extraordinarily brutal age. There were more than a few like Hannah, in the sense that they had successfully escaped captivity. Hannah’s surreptitious killing of ten sleeping Indians was unique however, and Mather made it a sign that the hand of God was with the English.

He did so not only from the pulpit, but in tracts he wrote. They were not only for the consumption of the fledgling colonial settlements, but back home in England. The works, the first published in 1697, focused on her deliverance, presumably through divine intercession, from the hands of the godless heathen which had captured her. Mather drew direct comparisons in his works between Hannah’s adventures and those of other colonial women who had fallen into the hands of the nefarious French and their barbarous allies, some of whom were rescued and some of whom escaped. One such tale was recorded in a tract entitled The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, which described the capture and eventual recovery (through ransom) of Mary Rowlandson. It is widely considered to have been the work of Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
A map of New England which appeared in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. NYPL

15. Hannah Duston’s fame gradually faded in the colonies

Following the final work on the subject by Cotton Mather, 1702’s Magnalia Christi Americana (The Glorious Works of Christ in America), which contained a recounting of the tale entitled Dux Faemina Facti (A Woman Led the Accomplishment), the story of Hannah Duston and her heroic slaughter of ten barbaric sons and daughters of Satan began to fade from view. One reason was that so many tales of slaughter and heroism emerged along the New England frontier as the series of wars between French, English, and their Indian allies continued. At the same time, the fire and brimstone influence of the Mather’s and other Protestant ministers eased somewhat, though the messages from the pulpit still often contained plenty of promises of eternal damnation and the need to either convert or exterminate Indians which failed to accept their Savior.

By the time of the American Revolutionary War, less than a century after the events, Hannah Duston was a local legend, her feats embellished by retelling. She became a subject for inclusion in works by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. It appeared in school textbooks. By the 1850s the story was fully sanitized, Hannah had risen up to slay only her captors, who were also the murderers of her child. The six dead Pennacook children (if they were indeed Pennacooks) were no longer part of the story. Eventually the war party which seized her, and which she killed before escaping, consisted of ten or so warriors, of differing tribes. As the tale took on the editing of time, the capturing Indians found names, and in some cases fearsome reputations, warriors of renown in what was already New England’s distant past.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
As captivity narratives became popular, such as the capture of Daniel Boone’s daughter Jemima, memorials to Hannah began to appear. Wikimedia

16. Memorials to Hannah Duston began to appear before the American Civil War

In the 1850s the town of Haverhill decided, through private subscription, to erect a memorial to its most famous resident. By that time Haverhill was a major textile center, and one of the leading manufacturers of shoes in the United States. A frontier town no longer, and with little to connect it to the heroic days of the Revolution in comparison to other Massachusetts towns, citizens of Haverhill raised the money to erect a statue to Hannah, a heroine in the struggle to seize a godless land from the heathen occupants and convert it into a shining example of pious industry. The statue, a simple column of marble, was erected in 1861, just as the American Civil War was beginning. It subscriptions were never honored, and the stonecutter who provided it was never paid for his work.

By the end of the American Civil War, in August of 1865, the builders of the statue, unpaid and somewhat upset about it, removed the name of Hannah Duston from the column and the column itself from its pedestal. Countless cities and towns were at the time seeking memorials to the recently fallen during the Civil War, and the town of Barre, Massachusetts commissioned a new inscription on the marble column which had originally memorialized Hannah. The former Duston memorial became one to honor the dead of Barre during the recently completed unpleasantness with the Confederacy, and the column was moved to that town, erected in a ceremony overseen by the town’s fathers, and remains today as one of America’s venerated Civil War monuments.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Hannah Duston became an honored heroine of New Hampshire and New England, as well as in her native Massachusetts. NHPR

17. Hannah Duston was memorialized by the State of New Hampshire in 1874

As noted, the site of the actual escape executed by Hannah took place on an island (or perhaps on shore nearby) in the Merrimack River in what is today New Hampshire. In 1874 a stonecutter in Lowell, Massachusetts was commissioned by the legislature of New Hampshire to create a statue of Hannah Duston. The stonecutter, William Andrews, had no idea what Hannah looked like, nor a physical description to guide him as he crafted what is purportedly her image out of marble. Undaunted, he created a marble icon of Hannah, which was erected on Boscawen Island, which sits where the Merrimack and Contoocook Rivers join, forever designating it as the site where Hannah’s heroism was demonstrated.

The island is today the Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site, and usurps to New Hampshire a colonial heroine who rightfully belongs to Massachusetts, according to some. The statue was the first to be erected by New Hampshire using public funds, rather than money raised privately, and is said by some to be the first ever erected to honor a woman in the United States. Andrews paid service to the Hannah Duston legend by depicting her in marble bearing the scalps of the Indians which she had heroically slain. Her other hand holds the axe with which she dispatched the savages, rather than the knife with which she would have taken the scalps. The entire monument, statue and pedestal, stands over thirty feet in height.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Detail from the Hannah Duston monument in Haverhill by Calvin Weeks. Wikimedia

18. Massachusetts was prompt in erecting a statue of its own

With New Hampshire celebrating what some had the temerity to call the Granite State Heroine, patriotic leaders of Haverhill, no doubt imbued with civic pride, led a movement to honor Hannah Duston properly in her home town of Haverhill. In 1879 a statue of Hannah in bronze was created and placed at the site where her church had once stood, in what was then Haverhill’s town square. The statue was created by Calvin Weeks, who created several monuments around the town of Haverhill, including the town’s 1869 Soldier’s Monument. Calvin, as with Mr. Andrews before him, needed to fall back on artistic license to envision what Hannah may have looked like, and his version of her appearance includes a somewhat more angry visage than that displayed in New Hamsphire.

Hannah does bear an axe in the Haverhill statue, brandished in perpetuity in her right hand. The bronze Hannah is also missing one shoe, in tune with an aspect of her legend which emerged in the early 1830s. Her own descriptions to Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall did not include that detail, and her legend has several versions of how she came about to be one shoe shy at the time of her vengeance against the Indians. Several additional statues and memorials followed, and both the axe she allegedly used to kill her captors (except that her captor’s had left her in the custody of other Indians) and the knife with which she took their scalps are on display for the interested to see.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
19th century captivity narratives became popular, though often historically inaccurate, romantic legends. Wikimedia

19. Hannah Duston’s story is one of hundreds of captivity narratives from America’s past

The genre known as the captivity narrative, in which a person or persons is taken prisoner and held by those considered to be uncivilized, is a well-known and well established aspect of literature and history. They were published early in the history of North America, and many evolved into myths, including John Smith’s capture by the Powhatan Confederacy and subsequent rescue by the Indian princess Pocahontas. Many have at least a partial basis in reality, though they are embellished in recounting to form a moral judgment, creating a fable for the reader. Hannah Duston’s story is one such tale. By her own accounting, for example, the Indians whom she killed as they slept were not the same as those who had carried her from her home. In hr legend they are one and the same.

Nor were the children who fell to her axe perpetrators of the crime against her, hence they were excised from the story in later retellings. Her own story, recorded by Sewall and Mather (and with far less prejudicial bias by the former) is a far cry from the legend which has descended from her actions, whatever they had been that early spring night in 1697. She and the version of her story deemed most suitable for use have been modified and edited by racists, Indian activists, criminologists, feminists, and revisionists, making Hannah and her legend a symbol of whatever cause they either support or oppose.

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend
Massachusetts’ Dustin Garrison House is a popular tourist destination, though Hannah and her husband likely never lived there. Library of Congress

20. Hannah’s legend is a New England and internet business

In Haverhill, there exists a house known as the Dustin Garrison House, built around 1700, near the site where Hannah was captured in 1697. Some claim that the house was under construction by her husband at the time of the attack on his farm. However, the property records of the town offer no evidence that the house was ever occupied by the Dustons, of whatever spelling. Nonetheless, it uses its name and the notoriety attached as part of its allure to tourists and other visitors. The site of the Hannah Dustin statue in New Hampshire has little to justify its claim as the site of the massacre, but just as little to oppose it, and thus its claim is accepted. Hannah and her legend are a modern business as much as they are an historical legacy.

There is no doubt that Hannah lived in Haverhill, was taken captive, and returned from captivity bearing the scalps of the Indians she and her party had slain. By her own account as recorded by Sewall the Indians killed were not those who had originally seized her; were killed with their own weapons as they slept (with Hannah and her fellow captives unrestrained); and were mostly women and children. Subsequent use of her story by those inclined to reshape it for their own purposes made Hannah’s tale one of the best known of colonial America’s captivity narratives. But as is all too often the case, the true story of Hannah Duston, however one spells her last name, is somewhat different from what is widely believed, though no less interesting for that.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Massacre on the Merrimack: Hannah Duston’s Captivity and Revenge in Colonial America”. Jay Atkinson. 2015

“Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives”. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. 1998

“Cotton Mather and the Emerson Family”. Dustin Griffin, Massachusetts Historical Review. 2014

“The Gruesome Story of Hannah Duston, Whose Slaying of Indians Made Her an American Folk Hero”. Barbara Cutter, April 9, 2018

“Retracing a mother’s path of escape along a wintry Merrimack”. Jay Atkinson, The New York Times. November 12, 2015

“Diary of Samuel Sewall”. Samuel Sewall, edited by M. Halsey Thomas. 1973

“The Dustin Family”. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge. 1836

“The Story of Hannah Duston: Cotton Mather to Thoreau”. Robert D. Arner, American Transcendental Quarterly. 1973

“A Week on the Concord and Merrimack”. Henry David Thoreau. 1849

“Hannah Dustin’s Letter to the Elders of the Second Church in Haverhill”. Hannah Duston. 1724.

“Women and War”. Jean Bethke Elshtain. 1987

“The History of Haverhill Massachusetts, 1807- 1892”. John Greenleaf Whittier and Benjamin L. Mirick.

“Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New England from 1620 – 1698”. Cotton Mather. 1702

“Hannah Dustin’s descendant calls her a heroine; Others say she is a villain”. By Allison DeAngelis, Eagle-Tribune. October 4, 2017

“Reconsidering Hannah Dustin and the Abenaki”. Margaret Bruchac, Haverhill Eagle-Tribune. August 28, 2006

“The Mass Marketing of the Colonial Captive Hannah Duston”, Sara Humphreys, Canadian Review of American Studies. 2011