Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Captors
Many are quite handsome, with brown, lean, muscled bodies and good teeth. They are often tall and graceful. Their black eyes are alight with various passions.
They have adapted superbly to the land in which they live. They grow corn, squash, and beans. Their arts and crafts are clever and intricate. They have a loving family structure and a complex oral history.
In the excitement of battle they kill with ease; once on the trail most are not particularly cruel. Much of what the captives suffer is what the natives themselves suffer in a harsh climate, on foot, with catch-as-catch-can provisions. It is probable that when her Indian master became aware of Hannah’s having only one shoe, he gave her a pair. He may have taken her lone leather shoe, torn the buckle from it for his own use, and then given it to his wife, thinking she could find a way to use the leather.
Of course, the danger to captives increased when the Indians encountered other war parties, when they danced at night and drank pilfered rum. But they often contented themselves with knocking someone down or pulling their hair. If some member of the tribe got carried away and looked as if he were going to kill a prisoner, women or other men might intervene. They often “bought” the prisoner’s life with a handful of wampum or cornmeal.
One entertainment was to make the captives sing. Not hymns, of course, but Indian songs. They would gather around a group of trembling prisoners, shouting, jeering, prodding, laughing. They would repeat the sinewy syllables carefully until the white people could repeat them. The captives, mouths dry with terror, clothes torn and stained, faces stricken, would shuffle round and round, their voices cracking. They looked so pathetic, so ludicrous, that the gathered crowd was satisfied and soon let them be. Sometimes, years later, ransomed prisoners could still remember the song.
The Indians Hannah and Mary are with pray three times a day, in Latin, having been converted by the French to Catholicism. Hannah’s captor tells her he had lived with the Reverend Rowlandson of Lancaster (whose wife was the famous captive Mary Rowlandson) for some years and been taught to pray in the English way, but that now he found the French way better. He does not allow Mary and Hannah to pray openly; they do it in secret while gathering wood or water. And, when he sees them looking dejected, he sometimes mocks them with this: What need you trouble yourself? If your Lord will have you delivered, it shall be so. Years later Hannah would say, in her belated protestation of faith: I am Thankful for my Captivity, ’twas the Comfortablest time that ever I had; In my Affliction God made his Word Comfortable to me.
After 15 days the Indians split up. Hannah and Mary are parceled out to a group whose eventual destination was to be St. Francis, Canada. This smaller group consists of two warriors, three adult women, and seven children. Also among them is an adolescent boy named Samuel Leonardson, taken from Worcester, Massachusetts, 18 months before. He has been with the Indians so long he speaks their language, is considered a member of the tribe. But, by one account, Samuel was moved by the plight of these new captives, and “a longing for home had been stirred in him by the presence of the two women.”
Hannah and Mary are told that when they reach St. Francis they will be stripped of their clothes and forced to run the gauntlet, as was the custom. But before the band sets out on the next leg of their journey, they stop to rest awhile on an island at the conjunction of the Merrimack and Contoocook rivers. It is here that Hannah sees her only chance.
Her captors have grown careless. They probably reason that the two women are too weak to attempt an escape, especially on an island, with the river in flood. Guards are no longer posted at night. It seems to Hannah that with Samuel and Mary on her side, she might overwhelm the small band of Indians, particularly if one added the element of surprise. She persuades Samuel to ask Bampico, the only Indian in this drama whose name we know, how he kills the English quickly. Bampico points to his temple and says, “Strike ’em dere.” Samuel relays this to Hannah.
Her plan is rather simple. At night, when the Indians are sound asleep, she and Samuel, having filched some hatchets, will position themselves at the head of the two men. Mary’s victim will be the stronger squaw. At the signal from Hannah they will begin the attack. Only one Indian is to be spared, a young boy. Hannah has decided to take him back to Haverhill with her. There must have been something engaging about him, something that reminded Hannah of one of her own children.
Be that as it may, we have come to midnight, March 30, 1697.
Hannah, Samuel, and Mary hold hatchets in their trembling hands. There is a little light from the moon. The only sound is of wind and water. Hannah is thankful for that rushing river. Its thousand voices are her cover. Its moving body is her secret lover, calling her home. Like a woman stepping naked into the arms of a cold, strong stranger, she raises her hand. The hatchets fall.
Now all is confusion. Now all is bucking, gurgling, flailing horror. Samuel and Mary fall back, stunned by this descent into mortal sin. It is Hannah who raises her weapon again and again, detached and centered at the same time. And when she finally pauses, winded, it is quiet. Except for the water and the sound of her harsh breathing.
Most accounts say that Hannah killed nine of the Indians, and Samuel one. One badly wounded squaw escaped with the young boy Hannah had intended to spare. I believe that Mary was given the less arduous task of killing one of the three Indian women, and that this was the one who survived. She was not so good at killing, it would seem.
Hannah does not scalp the dead right away. She is suddenly terrified that her plan will fail. The wounded woman is making her way to the other band, only a bit upriver. We know this because a white captive in that band will later tell of it. How the squaw staggered in, bleeding “from seven wounds,” and told her ghastly story.