Hannah Duston

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Hannah Duston by Junius Brutus Stearns

Hannah Duston (Dustin, Dustan, and Durstan) (born Hannah Emerson, December 23, 1657 – c. 1737) was a colonial Massachusetts Puritan mother of nine who was taken captive by Abenaki Native Americans during King William's War with her newborn daughter during the Raid on Haverhill (1697), in which 27 colonists were killed. While detained on an island in the Merrimack River in present-day Boscawen, New Hampshire, she killed and scalped ten of the Native American family members holding them hostage, with the assistance of two other captives.

Duston's captivity narrative became famous more than 100 years after she died. Duston is believed to be the first American woman honored with a statue.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7] During the 19th century, she was referred to as "a folk hero" and the "mother of the American tradition of scalp hunting".[8] Some scholars assert Duston's story only became legend in the 19th century because America used her story to define its violence against Native Americans as innocent, defensive and virtuous.[9]


Statue on the island in Boscawen, New Hampshire where Hannah killed the Native American family and escaped down river

Hannah Emerson was the oldest of the 15 children born to her parents. At age 20, she married Thomas Duston, a farmer and brick-maker.[10][11] The Emerson family had previously been the subject of attention when Elizabeth Emerson, Hannah's younger sister, was hanged for infanticide.[12]

During King William's War, Hannah, her husband Thomas and their nine children were residents of Haverhill, Massachusetts in March 1697 when the town was attacked by a group of Abenaki Native American from Quebec. (In this attack, 27 colonists were killed and 13 were taken captive to be either adopted or held as hostages for the French.) When their farm was attacked, Thomas fled with eight children, but Hannah, her newborn daughter Martha, and her nurse Mary Neff (nee Corliss) were captured and forced to march into the wilderness. According to the account of Cotton Mather (who interviewed Hannah), along the way the Native Americans killed the six-day-old Martha by smashing her against a tree.

Hannah and Mary were assigned to a Native American family group of 13 persons and taken north. The group included Samuel Lennardson, a 14-year-old captured in Worcester, Massachusetts the year before.

Six weeks later, at an island[13] in the Merrimack River at the mouth of the Contoocook River near what is now Penacook, New Hampshire, Hannah led Mary and Samuel in a revolt. She used a tomahawk to attack the sleeping Native Americans, killing one of the two grown men (Lennardson killed the second), two adult women, and six children. One severely wounded Native American woman and a young boy managed to escape the attack.

The former captives immediately left in a canoe, but not before taking scalps from the dead as proof of the incident and to collect a bounty.[14] They traveled down the river only during the night and after several days reached Haverhill. The Massachusetts General Court later gave them a reward for killing Native Americans; Hannah Duston received 25 pounds, and Neff and Lennardson split another 25 pounds (various accounts say 50 or 25 pounds, and some accounts mention only Duston's receiving an award).

Hannah lived for nearly 40 more years.


Hannah Dustin historical marker in Boscawen, New Hampshire

The event became well known, due in part to the account of Cotton Mather in his Magnalia Christi Americana.[15] Duston became more famous in the 19th century as her story was retold by Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry David Thoreau.[9]

There are six Memorials to Hannah Duston. The campaign to build the first monument in Haverhill, Massachusetts, began in 1852, at a time when building public monuments was still a somewhat rare occurrence. The monument they chose was a simple marble column that would cost about $1,350 and by 1861 they had the necessary funds. It was erected in June 1861, at the site of Duston’s capture, but it was never fully paid for. After successfully suing the association, the builders removed the monument in August 1865, erased the inscription, engraved a new one, and resold it to the town of Barre, Massachusetts, where it stands to this day as a memorial to that town’s Civil War soldiers.[9]

The first memorial that was actually executed was by sculptor William Andrews, a marble worker from Lowell, and erected in 1874 on the island in Boscawen, New Hampshire where she killed her captors. Huge crowds overwhelmed the island on the day of its dedication, with speeches presented all day long. It was the first publicly funded statue in New Hampshire.

In 1879, a bronze statue of Hannah Duston grasping a tomahawk was created by Calvin H. Weeks (1834–1907) in Haverhill town square (now Grand Army Park), where it still stands. The monument stands on the site of the Second Church, of which Hannah Duston became a member in 1724. The original small axe or hatchet held by Hannah Duston can be found today in the Haverhill Historical Society. The Duston hatchet is not a tomahawk. It is usually called a biscayan or biscayenne, a common trade item of the late seventeenth-century New England frontier.

The third Memorial was created in 1908 when there was an inscription put on a boulder in Memorial to both Hannah and Martha. The boulder was placed on the site of Hannah's son Jonathan's home, where Hannah lived her final years. Hannah Duston died at this location in 1736.

Fourth Memorial: A mill stone placed on the shores of the Merrimack River where Hannah, Mary and Samuel beached their canoe upon their return to Haverhill.

Fifth Memorial: The Site of James Lovewell's Home, where Hannah, Mary and Samuel rested on their way home from captivity.

Other commemorations include: Hannah Dustin Health Care Center, a Hannah Dustin Rest Home, and a Hannah Dustin Elementary School,

The Dustin House, in which she lived in the years after the raid, is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.


Today, Hannah Duston's actions in freeing herself from captivity by killing the Abanaki family she was with are controversial, with some Americans simply celebrating her as a hero, while others are more tempered in their commemoration of her given that she was killing other Americans. Some commentators have said her legend is racist and glorifies violence.[16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23]

Scholars, such as Barbara Cutter, have questioned why the legend of Duston was ignored for most of the eighteenth century, only to be heralded throughout the nineteenth century.[9] She concludes that Duston was turned into a symbolic representation of the United States in relation to its native population. The United States created her into an archetype of a virtuous woman whose violence against "the savages" was both defensive and innocent, just as the United States claimed to be in its assault against Native Americans in the nineteenth century. Cutter identifies that one of the only commentators to object to the honoring of Duston was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who believed the United States' violence against its native populations was not in self-defense, and was neither virtuous nor innocent.[9]


  1. ^ Tauber, Alfred I. (2001). Henry David Thoreau and the moral agency of knowing. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. p. 241. ISBN 0520225279. 
  2. ^ Robertson, Patrick (2011). Robertson's book of firsts : who did what for the first time (First U.S. edition. ed.). ISBN 1608197387. 
  3. ^ Elshtain, Jean Bethke (1987). Women and War. New York: Basic Books. p. 175. ISBN 0465092160. 
  4. ^ Danilov, Victor J. (2005). Women and museums : a comprehensive guide. Lanham, MD ; Toronto: AltaMira. p. 63. ISBN 0759108552. 
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  6. ^ Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 125: 761. 1991.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ Faludi, Susan (2013). The terror dream fear and fantasy in post-9/11 america. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 313. ISBN 1429922125. 
  8. ^ John Grenier. The First Way of War. University of Cambridge Press. 2005. pp. 40-41
  9. ^ a b c d e Cutter, Barbara (2008). "The Female Indian Killer Memorialized: Hannah Duston and the Nineteenth–Century Feminization of American Violence". Journal of Women's History 20 (2): 10–33. doi:10.1353/jowh.0.0007. Retrieved 2013-01-04. 
  10. ^ Purvis, Thomas L. (1999). Colonial America To 1763. Infobase Publishing. p. 231. ISBN 9781438107998. 
  11. ^ Hurd, Duane Hamilton (1888). History of Essex County, Massachusetts: With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men (Vol. 2). J. W. Lewis & Company. p. 1953. 
  12. ^ Kearney, Peg Goggin. "The Life and Death of Elizabeth Emerson". University of Southern Maine. Retrieved 2014-01-22. 
  13. ^ Located at 43°17′16″N 71°35′28″W / 43.28778°N 71.59111°W / 43.28778; -71.59111
  14. ^ Allitt, Patrick (December 9, 2007). "City on a Hill". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-09. 
  15. ^ Mather, Cotton (1702). Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New England from 1620 - 1698. 
  16. ^ Beasley, Erin; Lessing, Uri, Lesson Plan: Western Expansion and the Depiction of Native Americans, Colby College Museum of Art, retrieved 2012-01-28 
  17. ^ Associated Press (1997-11-29). "'Hatchet lady' stirs controversy for school name". Lawrence Journal-World (Lawrence, KS). p. 3. 
  18. ^ Regan, Shawn (2012-01-24). "Hannah Duston:Heroine or villainess? Festival posters rekindle age-old debate". The Eagle-Tribune (Haverhill, MA). Retrieved 2012-01-28. 
  19. ^ Perriello, Brad (2006-08-27). "Proposed Hannah Duston Day appalls American Indian leaders". The Eagle-Tribune (Haverhill, MA). Retrieved 2012-01-28. 
  20. ^ Regan, Shawn (2006-10-08). "Hannah Dustin's descendent calls her a heroine Others say she is a villain". The Eagle-Tribune (Haverhill, MA: Eagletribune.com). Retrieved 2012-01-28. 
  21. ^ "Of Time and the Merrimack River". New Hampshire Magazine. Retrieved 2012-01-28. 
  22. ^ Margaret Bruchac (2006-08-28). "Reconsidering Hanna Duston and the Abenaki". The Eagle-Tribune (Haverhill, MA). 
  23. ^ Associated Press (2008-07-29). "Hannah Duston bobblehead sparks controversy » New Hampshire » EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA". Eagletribune.com. Retrieved 2012-01-28. 


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