Return to Content

Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Captors

Judging Hannah Duston | Woman Scalped Captors
2 votes, 5.00 avg. rating (92% score)
Print Friendly
Hannah Duston scalped the ten Indians who had attacked her farm, dragged her from her bed, and burned her house before taking her captive and killing her week-old infant.
Hannah Duston scalped the ten Indians who had attacked her farm, dragged her from her bed, and burned her house before taking her captive and killing her week-old infant.

It is hard to imagine scalping a person. There is adhesive tissue under the dermis that must be cut and pulled at. The scalp bleeds freely, and the instrument, especially if crude, like a hand-forged iron knife, would be clumsy and slippery when wet.

And what of the revulsion one might feel at handling a dead human thus? Had Hannah Duston’s life prepared her for that? She was certainly used to wringing chickens’ necks, helping with the slaughter of cows and pigs. Further, she must have been angry when she scalped the ten Indians who had recently been her captors. They had attacked her farm, dragged her from her bed, and burned her house. They had brained her week-old infant and taken her captive, forcing her to walk many miles north in March while scantily dressed. For all she knew, the rest of her family was dead.

Moreover, she was no stranger to horror. She had been captured at the tail end of King William’s War, in an era distinguished for its savagery on both sides, and many outlying British settlements had already been plundered and burned.

When I tell Hannah’s story, when I try to imagine her acts, this context is paramount. I judge her in the light of the history that preceded her, not the history that followed.

It is March 15, 1697. There is still snow on the ground, though it has melted away in sunny spots from the bases of bushes and trees. To the northwest of the main town of Haverhill there are six or so buildings, surrounded by fields and meadow. This is where Hannah lives in a small brick house.

Hannah is lying in a feather bed. She is chatting with Mary Neff, her aunt and also the local midwife. Hannah had borne a girl child six days before. She is wearing her nightclothes and a sanitary napkin made of flax. She is not bleeding a lot; that is good. And her milk is in. The babe is nursing well; she is a strong infant.

I imagine Mary at the “chimney,” the large open fireplace where they cook all their meals, where they get warm. She must start preparing dinner soon — salt pork, beans, and applesauce. There are still some apples in the cellar, punky, to be sure, wormy, but they make a nice sauce. And at the tag end of winter it’s nice to have something fresh.

The children are outside playing. They range in age from 18 to three. There isn’t much work to do in March, other than splitting wood. The fields aren’t ready to be plowed. The stock has been cared for in the barn.

Thomas, Hannah’s husband, is out in the fields. He’s looking them over, seeing where the water collects, thinking where he might ditch the meadow. He has his gun with him, the long rifle, as it is known. Last summer, in Haverhill, four were killed while in their field, picking beans. But what can he do? It’s terrible living inside the garrisons; it’s crowded and boring. Their land, their house need them. If Thomas keeps his wits about him, and if the Lord wills it, he and his family will make it through this difficult time.

If the Lord wills it. Do Thomas and Hannah truly believe that? They must. They are constantly encouraged to examine all incidents in the light of how they illustrate God’s plan. A priest may be an agent of Satan, smallpox the instrument of God.

But they must be motivated by deeper, more primitive instincts as well. They are human, and they want to live. They like to eat, laugh, drink beer, smoke tobacco, have sex. They are willing to fight. When they examine their hearts, they may secretly accept their small daily lapses, their lusty appetites.

Let us meet some other instruments of God, hidden at the edge of the clearing where Thomas is staring at the sky. They have feathers in their scalp locks and their faces are painted red. They are carrying tomahawks and flintlocks.

Thomas catches a movement out of the corner of his eye. Ten Indians step from behind the trees. They level their guns at him and a series of shots break the morning stillness. Thomas leaps on his shying horse and gallops toward the house, screaming as he rides. “Indians! Run to the Marsh garrison! Now! Lord save us!”

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.

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