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Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Indians Who Took Her Captive

Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Indians Who Took Her Captive
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Hannah Duston scalped the ten Indians who had attacked her farm, dragged her from her bed, and burned her house before taking her captive and killing her week-old infant.

Hannah Duston scalped the ten Indians who had attacked her farm, dragged her from her bed, and burned her house before taking her captive and killing her week-old infant.

It is hard to imagine scalping a person. There is adhesive tissue under the dermis that must be cut and pulled at. The scalp bleeds freely, and the instrument, especially if crude, like a hand-forged iron knife, would be clumsy and slippery when wet.

And what of the revulsion one might feel at handling a dead human thus? Had Hannah Duston’s life prepared her for that? She was certainly used to wringing chickens’ necks, helping with the slaughter of cows and pigs. Further, she must have been angry when she scalped the ten Indians who had recently been her captors. They had attacked her farm, dragged her from her bed, and burned her house. They had brained her week-old infant and taken her captive, forcing her to walk many miles north in March while scantily dressed. For all she knew, the rest of her family was dead.

Moreover, she was no stranger to horror. She had been captured at the tail end of King William’s War, in an era distinguished for its savagery on both sides, and many outlying British settlements had already been plundered and burned.

When I tell Hannah’s story, when I try to imagine her acts, this context is paramount. I judge her in the light of the history that preceded her, not the history that followed.

It is March 15, 1697. There is still snow on the ground, though it has melted away in sunny spots from the bases of bushes and trees. To the northwest of the main town of Haverhill there are six or so buildings, surrounded by fields and meadow. This is where Hannah lives in a small brick house.

Hannah is lying in a feather bed. She is chatting with Mary Neff, her aunt and also the local midwife. Hannah had borne a girl child six days before. She is wearing her nightclothes and a sanitary napkin made of flax. She is not bleeding a lot; that is good. And her milk is in. The babe is nursing well; she is a strong infant.

I imagine Mary at the “chimney,” the large open fireplace where they cook all their meals, where they get warm. She must start preparing dinner soon — salt pork, beans, and applesauce. There are still some apples in the cellar, punky, to be sure, wormy, but they make a nice sauce. And at the tag end of winter it’s nice to have something fresh.

The children are outside playing. They range in age from 18 to three. There isn’t much work to do in March, other than splitting wood. The fields aren’t ready to be plowed. The stock has been cared for in the barn.

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3 Responses to Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Indians Who Took Her Captive

  1. Christian Whitton April 9, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

    I am a volunteer at the Buttonwoods Museum (Haverhill Historical Society). I’m currently renovating the Hannah Duston exhibit. I’ve done a lot of extensive research on the saga of Hannah Duston, and your story is the best I’ve read. It paints such a detailed and rich picture in my mind, that no other narrative has been able to do. Hopefully you’ll come back to our once great city and see that there is a small group of us that still care about her story, and the plight of our ancestors. Thank you.

  2. Andrea Neahusan June 12, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

    I am so thrilled to find your poignant account of Hannah Duston! Thank you!

    Hannah was my maternal great, great, great, . . . great grandmother. I’ve always admired her courage, her strength, and her fortitude to overcome the odds. My brother was named Dustin because of that family line. I have four daughters of my own. One of them we gave the middle name of Hannah, after our ancestor, and it fits. Over the years I have occasionally told my girls the story of Hannah. I’ve always wanted my daughters to grow-up knowing they can BE anything and DO anything they want in life. They can surpass any and all barriers and obstacles that life may throw at them. With the Lord’s help, and with their own inner strength, they can overcome and thrive no matter what. Just like Hannah.

    I hope I too can visit Haverhill someday and have my own cathartic moment of nostalgia.

  3. Linda Carpenter July 26, 2014 at 10:12 pm #

    What a wonderful telling of the story of Hannah Duston. I, too, am descended from her, but the specifics of the genealogy remain with my mother who died in 1993.

    I visited the town of Haverhill in 1987, & the Historical Society & the statue. I don’t recall the area being as run down as described by the author. I walked through the little museum at the Society, but I don’t recall a guide being there, although there must’ve been someone there to keep it open & looked after. I remember visiting a nearby farm that was owned & operated by a cousin in my father’s father’s generation (born around the turn of the 19th-20th century – 1895 or thereabouts). He was elderly at the time, but he & his wife were keeping up with the work & the farm appeared well-run. There was a cemetery I also visited with tombstones of other ancestors of mine who had lived in the area.

    I ran across this magazine story on a lark. I was cleaning out a drawer & found a notebook I had stashed away around 2002. In the notebook was a list of accounts of Hannah Duston’s story which I had intended to find & read. Sybil Smith’s account is on that list, along with Notable American Women, A Weekend on the Concord & Merrimack Rivers, & Cotton Mather’s account. That’s as far as I had gotten. Glad I reconnected with this, & that Smith’s account has been posted online to read.

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