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[1]) was a colonial Massachusetts Puritan mother of nine who was taken captive by Abenaki people from Québec during King William's War, with her newborn daughter, during the Raid on Haverhill in 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 family members holding them hostage, with the assistance of two other captives. She claimed the Abenaki had killed her baby during the journey to the island.

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.[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 the United States used her story to defend its violence against Native Americans as innocent, defensive, and virtuous.[9]


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

Hannah Emerson was the oldest of 15 children. 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 eight children were residents of Haverhill, Massachusetts. On 15 March 1697, when she was 40 years old,[13] the town was attacked by a group of Abenaki from Quebec. In the 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 and her nurse, Mary Neff (nee Corliss), were captured and forced to march into the wilderness, Hannah carrying her newborn daughter, Martha. According to the account Hannah gave to Cotton Mather, along the way her captors killed the six-day-old Martha by smashing her head against a tree.[14]

Hannah and Mary were assigned to a family group of 12 persons and taken north. The group included Samuel Lennardson, a 14-year-old captured in Worcester, Massachusetts the year before.[13]

Six weeks later, at an island[15] 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. Hannah used a tomahawk to attack the sleeping captors, killing one of the two grown men (Lennardson killed the second), two adult women, and six children. One severely wounded Abenaki woman and a young boy managed to escape the attack.[citation needed]

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.[16] They traveled downriver, only during the night, and after several days reached Haverhill. The Massachusetts General Court later gave them a reward for killing their captors; 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).[citation needed]

Hannah lived for nearly 40 more years.


Hannah Dustin historical marker in Boscawen, New Hampshire

Written accounts[edit]

The event became well known, due in part to Cotton Mather's account in Magnalia Christi Americana: The Ecclesiastical History of New England (1702).[17]

Duston became more famous in the 19th century as her story was retold by Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry David Thoreau.[9] From the 1820s until the 1870s, Duston's story was included in nearly all books about American history, as well as many biographies, children's books, and magazine articles.[13] The story was popular among white Americans when the country was engaged in the westward expansion, which increased conflict with the Native American groups who lived in places where settlers wanted to live.[13] In the 1830s and later, the story was partially sanitized by not mentioning the six children that Duston killed.[13]


There are six memorials to Hannah Duston.

Aborted first memorial (erected 1861-1865)

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 chosen was a simple marble column that would cost about $1,350, and by 1861 the necessary funds had been raised. The monument 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]

First successful memorial (erected 1874)

Now known as Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site, the first Duston memorial actually executed was sculpted by William Andrews, a marble worker from Lowell, Massachusetts. It was erected in 1874 on the island in Boscawen, New Hampshire, where Duston 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.

Second memorial (erected 1879)

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.[citation needed]

Third memorial (inscribed in 1908)

The third memorial was created in 1908, when an inscription was placed 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 circa 1736 or 1737.[citation needed]

Fourth memorial

A mill stone was placed[when?] on the shores of the Merrimack River where Hannah, Mary, and Samuel beached their canoe upon their return to Haverhill.[citation needed]

Fifth Memorial

A memorial has been placed at the site of James Lovewell's home, in Nashua, New Hampshire, where Hannah, Mary, and Samuel rested on their way home from captivity.[citation needed]

Mount Dustan[edit]

Mount Dustan in Wentworth's Location, New Hampshire was named after Hannah Duston, using an alternate spelling of her last name.[13]

Duston hatchet[edit]

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 17th-century New England frontier.[citation needed]

Commemorative structures[edit]

Other commemorations, all in the city of Haverhill, include:


Today, Hannah Duston's actions in freeing herself from captivity are controversial. Some Americans celebrate her as a hero, while others are more tempered in their commemoration of her, given the killing of her captors. Some commentators have said her legend is racist and glorifies violence.[20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26]


  1. ^ Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle (1998). Women's Indian Captivity Narratives. New York: Penguin Classics. p. 55. ISBN 0-14-043671-5. 
  2. ^ Tauber, Alfred I. (2001). Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. p. 241. ISBN 0-520-22527-9. 
  3. ^ Robertson, Patrick (2011). Robertson's Book of Firsts: Who Did What for the First Time (1st U.S. ed.). ISBN 1-60819-738-7. 
  4. ^ Elshtain, Jean Bethke (1987). Women and War. New York: Basic Books. p. 175. ISBN 0-465-09216-0. 
  5. ^ Danilov, Victor J. (2005). Women and Museums: A Comprehensive Guide. Lanham, MD; Toronto: AltaMira. p. 63. ISBN 0-7591-0855-2. 
  6. ^ Widmer, Mary Lou (1996). Margaret, Friend of Orphans. Gretna, La.: Pelican Pub. Co. p. 123. ISBN 1-56554-211-8. 
  7. ^ Faludi, Susan (2013). The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 313. ISBN 1-4299-2212-5. 
  8. ^ Grenier, John (2005). The First Way of War. University of Cambridge Press. pp. 40–41. 
  9. ^ a b c Cutter, Barbara (2008). "The Female Indian Killer Memorialized: Hannah Duston and the Nineteenth–Century Feminization of American Violence" (PDF). Journal of Women's History. 20 (2): 10–33. doi:10.1353/jowh.0.0007. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-07-25. Retrieved 2013-01-04. 
  10. ^ Purvis, Thomas L. (1999). Colonial America to 1763. Infobase Publishing. p. 231. ISBN 978-1-4381-0799-8. 
  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. Archived from the original on 2013-09-06. Retrieved 2014-01-22. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f Cutter, Barbara (9 April 2018). "The Gruesome Story of Hannah Duston, Whose Slaying of Indians Made Her an American Folk "Hero"". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2018-04-16. 
  14. ^ Peckham, Howard (1964). The Colonial Wars. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 51–52. ISBN 0-226-65314-5. 
  15. ^ Located at 43°17′16″N 71°35′28″W / 43.28778°N 71.59111°W / 43.28778; -71.59111
  16. ^ Allitt, Patrick (December 9, 2007). "City on a Hill". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-09. 
  17. ^ Mather, Cotton (1702). Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New England from 1620 - 1698. 
  18. ^ Associated Press (November 29, 1997). "Town near Boston hatches plan to name school for 'hatchet lady'". Deseret News. Retrieved March 16, 2017. 
  19. ^ "Hannah Duston Healthcare Center". Whittier Health Network. Retrieved March 16, 2017. 
  20. ^ Beasley, Erin; Lessing, Uri, Lesson Plan: Western Expansion and the Depiction of Native Americans (PDF), Colby College Museum of Art, retrieved 2012-01-28 
  21. ^ Associated Press (1997-11-29). "'Hatchet lady' stirs controversy for school name". Lawrence Journal-World. Lawrence, KS. p. 3. 
  22. ^ Perriello, Brad (2006-08-27). "Proposed Hannah Duston Day appalls American Indian leaders". The Eagle-Tribune. Haverhill, MA. Archived from the original on 2013-01-22. Retrieved 2012-01-28. 
  23. ^ 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. Archived from the original on 2013-01-21. Retrieved 2012-01-28. 
  24. ^ "Of Time and the Merrimack River". New Hampshire Magazine. Archived from the original on 2012-03-17. Retrieved 2012-01-28. 
  25. ^ Margaret Bruchac (2006-08-28). "Reconsidering Hanna Duston and the Abenaki" (PDF). The Eagle-Tribune. Haverhill, MA. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-04-25. 
  26. ^ Associated Press (2008-07-29). "Hannah Duston bobblehead sparks controversy » New Hampshire » EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA". Eagletribune.com. Archived from the original on 2012-07-30. Retrieved 2012-01-28. 


  • Caverly, Robert Boodey (1990). Heroism of Hannah Duston: Together with the Indian Wars of New England. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books. ISBN 978-1-55613-301-5. 
  • Mather, Cotton (1702). Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New England from 1620 - 1698. 
  • Namias, June (1993). White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2079-2. 
  • American Captivity Narratives: Selected Narratives with Introduction. New Riverside editions. Gordon M. Sayre (ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2000. ISBN 0-395-98073-9. 
  • Weis, Ann-Marie (1998). "The Murderous Mother and the Solicitous Father: Violence, Jacksonian Family Values, and Hannah Duston's Captivity". American Studies International: 46–65. JSTOR 10.2307/41279557. 
  • Humphreys, Sara (2011). "The Mass Marketing of the Colonial Captive Hannah Duston". Canadian Review of American Studies. 41 (2): 149–178. doi:10.1353/crv.2011.0014. ISSN 1710-114X. Retrieved 2013-01-04. 

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