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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.

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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