Return to Content

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.

Updated Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Bring New England Home

Subscribe for 1 year for only $19.97!

A 44% saving!


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.

Leave a Reply

We reserve the right to remove or edit comments that are offensive or disrespectful to our readers and/or writers, cannot be verified, lack clarity, or contain profanity. Your comments may be republished by Yankee Magazine across multiple platforms.

Register Sign In

©2016, Yankee Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Yankee Publishing Inc., | P.O. Box 520, Dublin, NH 03444 | (603) 563-8111