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Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Captors

The children drop their sticks and stones, their rag dolls, and do as bid, grabbing the young ones up. But the garrison is a mile away, the Indians are already near. Their chances of making it are slim.

Thomas rushes into the house. Hannah is getting out of bed. Mary grabs the infant and runs out the door.

“Indians,” Thomas says.

“Run,” Hannah tells him. “Save the children.”

“But,” he says.

“Run,” she commands. And as he turns and runs out the door, neither thinks to say good-bye. There isn’t time. Several Indians have already captured Mary Neff. They are distracted by her while Thomas leaps back on his horse and gallops away. The children are only 40 rods from the house. A rod is 16-1/2 feet. Six hundred and 60 feet they have run, the older ones carrying the younger children, who don’t fully understand the urgency. Thomas rides up among them. His plan is to snatch up one child, or two, and ride away with them to save a few. But as he looks among them, their faces blanched, their braids awry, their lips chapped from the long winter, he cannot choose. He decides that he will die if necessary. The Indians are in pursuit. He stops his horse, dismounts, and using the horse as a barrier, threatens the small group of pursuers with a gun. They take cover and fire upon him. Miracle of miracles, neither he nor his horse is hit. He jumps back on the horse and rides up to his children. The Indians reload their guns and renew the pursuit. Again Thomas dismounts and menaces them. Again they fire, and he is not hit. After a time the Indians give up. There are easier spoils back at the group of undefended houses where the attack began.

Hannah and Mary, for instance. Why they are not killed outright is not clear. I am inclined to call it luck; they would call it divine providence. History gives an armature of facts, to which we must give weight and substance. And here is a fact. Twenty-seven killed. Thirteen taken. Thirty-three percent were spared. Not odds I’d care to face.

The captives are collected into a group with 20 or so Indians. The victors are carrying items rifled quickly from the now-burning houses, including a large piece of cloth torn from Hannah’s loom. Hannah is huddled beside Mary, hardly aware of her one bare foot. In her haste to dress she left a shoe behind.

Their captors do not head toward the garrisons; they have less chance of taking them. They turn back north to get away with what they have. This is a small raid; there are no French among them.

Mary, carrying the baby, stumbles. The baby begins to cry. Before Mary knows what is happening, an Indian wrests the baby from her. The baby’s name is Martha. She weighs, probably, six pounds. It is not difficult to take her by the feet and swing her in the air. It is not difficult to smash her head against a nearby apple tree. Hannah and Mary stumble on, out of sight, too afraid to protest, too shocked to weep. The Indians, it is said, were annoyed by crying.

Hannah and the others travel 12 miles that first day. And these are not easy miles on a gentle trail. Twelve miles through swamps and calf-deep snow, up hills and over brooks, all the while burdened with heavy packs given to them by their captors. The Indians know the urgency of making time. After a raid, the militia, more often than not, would try to overtake them. Several of the prisoners are not able to keep up the grueling pace. They are taken aside and tomahawked. Their scalps are added to the glistening collection already carried on poles or packs. Hannah may have scanned that array, hoping not to recognize a certain part, color, or curl.

I like to imagine them stopping that first night. Hannah and Mary sink to the ground, holding each other for warmth and comfort. Later they step aside, with frightened gestures at their captors and at their icy skirts, to squat and pee in the snow. Mary checks Hannah’s pad; it is soaked with red blood. The traveling has taken its toll. Hannah’s breasts are bothering her, full of milk. By the next day they will be taut and as lumpy as a bag of marbles. She will be at risk for milk fever. Mary does her best to care for her still. She cannot apply a poultice, but she massages Hannah’s breasts, relieves some pressure. Then she binds them with a band of cloth torn from her own skirts.

And, despite everything, they sleep like the dead. With a piece of rawhide passed over their torsos and tucked under the sleeping braves on either side, cold, frightened, hungry, grief-stricken, they sleep and do not dream of the dead.

Fifteen days they travel north. I can tell you something of that journey. I can tell you that in March the sun is high enough in the sky, during the day, to make the snow melt, to warm the upturned face. That the food they probably ate was food they would have retched on before, such as stewed horse’s hooves, half-cooked bear meat, and acorns.

And I will tell you something of the Indians. You must see them as well, or the story is not complete. They cannot be cardboard cut-outs, frozen in the act of lifting a hatchet.

Updated Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

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13 Responses to Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Captors

  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.

    • Lisa Caron February 19, 2015 at 9:55 am #

      I can’t help but wonder about the similarities of Hannah and my ancestor Mehitable “Hettie” Goodwin from Maine. Same story, same time frame.

  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.

    • Janette January 2, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

      Hey Andrea! I am Janet White’s granddaughter. Dustin White, her brother owns a dairy farm in Corinth. Not sure if you are familiar

  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.

  4. Jessica Taub March 10, 2015 at 11:01 pm #

    I am a descendent of Hannah’s. I’m not sure how many greats there are now, but I believe she is my great (etc.) grandmother. I was actually born on March 9th, like Hannah’s daughter. I visited her statue almost 15 years ago while laying my great grandmothers’s ashes to rest at a nearby cemetery. It was on this day that my mother told me the story of Hannah and her relation to us. My mother’s maiden name is Dawson, my guess is it is an iterration of Dustin. Thank you for helping to tell this story.

  5. C. A. Williams September 3, 2015 at 9:08 pm #

    I am related to Hannah through her sister Abigail Emerson Smith. Hannah is my 8th Great Aunt. I actually have lived in Haverhill for the last 17 years so I find this so interesting and reallly enjoyed this account of her story.

  6. Janette January 2, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    I am also the 9th great granddaughter of Hannah. Lydia was my 8th great grandmother. Dust on has become a regular family name given to the boys in our family. What an awesome story! Thank you for writing it in such detail. It really helps the story come to life.

  7. Mariah Larkin January 13, 2016 at 8:27 pm #

    I am also a distant relative. I am passing this information on to my mother as she is currently working on gathering family information. I’ve always been intrigued by this story and am looking forward to visiting this site.

  8. Wendy Hash February 2, 2016 at 11:12 am #

    Hannah Dustin is my 8th Great Grandma. My brother was named Dustin after this line as well. I think it is so awesome to see all these comments and think of how many of us are related! My family and I love her story. It gives us the feeling that if she could do this, we also could do great things!

  9. Phyllis Johnson Hughes April 2, 2016 at 10:41 pm #

    I too am a many great granddaughter of Hanna Dustin. I have copies of several different accounts of Hanna Dustin, but I must say this is the best I have read. Thank you. I have a website which I posted about 10 years ago. I really need to update it but some of my geneology is posted with Hanna Dustin mentioned and I think her story. I am also related to some who came over on the Mayflower. Some of you may be interested in that as you may also be related.

  10. Robert Vincelette May 20, 2016 at 7:15 pm #

    My brother-in-law jokes about the danger of messing with my sister, who, like me, is a direct descendant of Hannah Dustin. Considering what the savages did to her, I don’t blame her for what she did. I wonder what she would think of someone like me who would not be here if she had not done what she had to do to escape if she knew that I had earned a PhD in mathematical physics and applied mathematics.

  11. Gregg Evans June 1, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

    Thank you, Sybil, for your dramatic rendition of Hannah’s story. It is by far the best I’ve read. I especially appreciate your inclusion of speculative but likely details based on knowledge of the times. Great balance of the recorded/reported facts of the events, reasonable speculations based on those facts, and enough artistic license and talent for story-telling to put it all together in an engaging and informative account.

    As told way out here on our branch of the family tree, Hannah was allowed to retain the scalps – which she allegedly nailed to the door of her rebuilt house as a warning to any potential marauders. This anecdotal tidbit, apparently told only among the Dustins of the Pacific Northwest, is extremely unlikely – I mean, what colonial woman would want rotting human flesh decorating her home’s entrance? – but the idea that Hannah was forever regarded by Indians as a white woman not to be trifled with is believable.

    Thomas and Hannah are my 7th maternal great grandparents as follows: Thomas & Hannah < Jonathan (age 6 at the time of the incident) < Jonathan Jr < David < Dudley Bailey (brought his children to Oregon in 1849) < Oscar F. < Dudley Melvin < Fredrick < Beverly (my mom). Sadly, our line of Dustins ended with my two maternal uncles, neither of whom had children. My mom and her sister both had several children, but the Dustin surname was lost.

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