Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Captors
So Hannah gathers up what food is at hand. She directs Mary and Samuel to dress in Indian clothes. She grabs her hatchet and her dead captor’s gun. She carries all this to the bank of the Merrimack River. She packs one of the Indians’ canoes, scuttles the others.
They are moving away from shore when she thinks of what she has forgotten. She turns the canoe around, heads back, and, leaving Samuel and Mary at the river’s edge, retraces her steps to the bloody encampment. She finds a knife among the scattered belongings and scalps all ten of the dead human beings, six of them children. She wraps the bloody evidence in the same cloth torn from her loom a couple of weeks ago in Haverhill. Now her deed is done. She need only wash her hands, quickly, in the river, before jumping back in the canoe and heading south.
Imagine the amazement of the first person who sees them, walking up from the bank of the river in Haverhill. They look like ghosts, gaunt and stunned. Hannah tells the story of their escape, and at some point, she unwraps the cloth from her loom. The scalps are there, tangled together, stinking.
At home her children gather round her, hugging her and exclaiming at her clothes. She sinks down in a warm place, allows herself, finally, to be weak. If there are tears to be shed, it is now that she sheds them.
She rests for a few weeks, and then she, Mary, Samuel, and Thomas go to Boston, where they petition the General Court for money for the scalps. Hannah is voted 25 pounds. Mary Neff and Samuel split 25 pounds between them. And not only that. Hannah is invited to visit Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall, the distinguished judge and diarist. Cotton Mather is the one to record her story. It is preserved in his Magnalia Christi Americana.
Hannah and Thomas use the scalp money to buy more land on the river. The governor of Maryland sends her a pewter tankard to congratulate her on her remarkable feat. They have another child in October 1698, whom they name Lydia. Hannah lives to be 90. She is the first American woman to have a statue erected in her honor. She is mentioned in Chase’s History of Haverhill and in Notable American Women. Thoreau writes about her in his book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Laurel Ulrich writes about her in her book, Goodwives. I write about her now. She is my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-aunt.
I went to Haverhill not long ago. My husband, my child (born on March 9, the same day as the long-lost Martha), some friends, and I drove through the town, looking for the statue of Hannah Duston. The outskirts were not the sort of place where one would find a statue. The only monuments were the shoe factories, gone out of business. The new settlers were Asian and Latin American and the descendants of African slaves, going about their business with shopping carts and plastic bags, impeded somewhat by the March wind, which blew grit into their faces and tugged at their caps. Haverhill seemed an uncertain place to pursue the American Dream, but I felt that if it were still there, changed or hiding, they would find it. Or some would find it. Some would struggle and die.
In the center of the old part of town we found the Haverhill Historical Society. It was a large, once-grand wooden building, fallen into some disrepair. We were admitted by a pretty blonde woman. I explained right away that I was related to Hannah Duston. She seemed impressed and uneasy. It was her first day, she said. Her first tour. I wanted to see the relics of Hannah right away, but she had other plans. We would, for our money, be given the official tour.
So there we stood in the entrance hall. The first exhibit concerned the Algonquian Indians. There was a model canoe, as I recall. There was an exhibit of stone tools, bone implements, baskets, and a tableau of the Indian method for drying fish.
Next we were led into a sort of classroom. The guide popped a video into a TV that stood in one corner. We sat there bemusedly, prepared for curious facts and pithy truths. The sound of chants and drumbeats filled the room. It seemed we weren’t done with the Indians. The film was grainy and serious. I couldn’t pay attention, bombarded as I was by the ironies of time.
Our guide stood nervously to one side. I bore down on her with my handful of genealogies. Indian singing sounded in the distance, as my fingers descended the family tree.
At last she showed me the documents encased in glass on the walls. Here was Hannah’s profession of faith. Here was Cotton Mather’s account of Hannah’s captivity and escape. And finally, in a large, cold room jammed with curios, we saw what are believed to be Hannah’s hatchet, the scalping knife, her teapot, her buttons.
It was a sunny day. in the park we slogged through the soft snow to the bronze statue. Hannah is depicted as a pretty woman, strong but not fat, with pleasant features and long, thick hair. She has a hatchet in her hand. Nearby, two men sat on a park bench, drinking out of a bottle encased in its paper sack. They had a radio with them, tuned to a rock music station. Hannah meant little to them, except as a windbreak, and later, a place for shade.
When we had seen it all, the museum, the statue, the old brick house, we repaired to Kelly’s Bar across the river. Sitting there, looking at the bar festooned with shamrocks, observing the old men held captive by the beer, I enjoyed brief, tugging currents of nostalgia, but knew I had not yet found Hannah.
I should have known she would be at the river. I left Kelly’s Bar and walked to the middle of the long bridge over the Merrimack. I looked down into the icy, dark water, dotted with floes. The wind wrapped me in the scent of spring. I would not have been surprised to see the three survivors coming toward me in their Indian canoe, cold, weary, and alive. And I realized that now I had the best tribute I could offer. I was bound to this bloody decade by only a few strands of DNA, a few fraying ropes of memory, but I could tell the story.