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In 1697 in the midst of King William's War, Abenaki raiders struck the small Massachusetts hamlet of Haverhill. They abducted Hannah Duston, her newborn child, and nurse Mary Neff. Shortly after retreating from Haverhill, the infant was killed. Duston, Neef, and14-year-old Samuel Leonardson weresent north with a party of two warriors, three women, and seven children. After several days, Duston managed to secure a hatchet and with her fellow captives, awoke in the middle of the night and killed the Indian party. One Indian woman and boy escaped. Duston then scalped the remaining ten parties. Upon their return to Massachusetts, Duston was awarded £50. Duston's tale sparked a wave of commercial scalpings in subsequent years, and she become a regional folk hero. Her story grew in popularity in the 19th century, and in 1874 a statue was erected to her in Boscawen, NH on a small island thought to be the site of her escape. In recent decades, the monument has come under scrutiny for celebrating settler-colonial violence. Plans have been developed for a new "Unity Park" at the site which will offer new historical interpretation and an accompanying statue of an Abenaki family.

Hannah Dustan Monument in Boscawen, NH

Hannah Dustan Monument in Boscawen, NH

Junius Brutus Stearns, "Hannah Duston Killing the Indians" (1847)

Junius Brutus Stearns, "Hannah Duston Killing the Indians" (1847)

Hannah Duston Monument vandalized

Hannah Duston Monument vandalized

In the 1690s, colonial New England found itself in the midst of King William's War, the first in a series of 17th and 18th century conflicts between Britain and France. Although the war began in Europe (known there as the War of the League of Augsburg), it quickly spread to the New World, where French Canada and their Native American allies fought against British colonies along the Atlantic coast.

On March 15, 1697 Hannah Duston lay in bed in her farmhouse near Haverhill, Massachusetts, having recently given birth to her eighth child. Her husband and seven other children were in the fields, so Hannah was attended by nurse Mary Neff. A party of Abenaki Indians struck the farmstead. Hannah's husband exchanged shots with the raiders but was forced to retreat; Hannah Duston, her child, and Mary Neff were taken prisoner. Duston proved too weak to carry her child, as did Mary Neff. Unwilling to slow down, their Indian captors "dashed the Brains of the Infant, against a tree."[3] The Abenaki then fled with their captives, rendezvousing with with other raiders who had gathered a total of twenty-seven prisoners. Splitting up into smaller parties, Hannah, Mary, and 14-year-old Samuel Leonardson were given to a party of two Abenaki warriors, three women, and seven children. The Abenaki took captives for a variety of reasons, including selling them for ransom, adopting them to replace fallen loved ones, or selling them into slavery in French Canada. Though its not entirely clear what Duston and her fellow prisoner's fate would be, they were marched north.

Several weeks into the journey, Duston found an opportunity to strike back. Having secured hatchets, on April 29, Duston, Neff, and the Leonardson quietly awoke and killed their Indian captors, including the children. One Abenaki child was apparently spared for the purposes of taking him back to Massachusetts as a slave, but the boy escaped. Another wounded Abenaki woman also managed to flee. With her captors dead and gone, Duston then scalped the ten remaining Indian bodies. The liberated party escaped south via canoe and reached Massachusetts. For their escape and the scalps, the Massachusetts General Assembly awarded them 50 pounds. (Duston's hatchet is today preserved by the Buttonwoods Museum in Haverhill.)

Hannah Duston's exploits encouraged colonial governments to continue to offer financial rewards for Native scalps. Just a few years later during Queen Anne's War, Massachusetts offered £100 for each adult male Indian scalp, £10 for the scalps of females older than 10, and captive Indian children were to be sold into slavery. Of course, it was difficult to determine the origins of scalps, and Indians were often attacked indiscriminately. As scholar John Grenier has noted, "By embracing scalp hunting, American society, besides commercializing war, had made the killing of noncombatants a legitimate act of war."[3]

Hannah Duston's story was recorded by Puritan minister Cotton Mather (Duston may not have been literate), and she became something of a folk hero regionally. Her story grew to popularity in the 19th century, an era of continued Indian conflicts, through writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau who were drawn to her story. Duston came to embody the virtuous ideals of motherhood in the 19th century republic (and notably, her slaying of six Native children was often dropped from the story).

Hannah Duston has been memorialized in several monuments, the first being built in Haverford in 1861. The monument in Boscawen, New Hampshire was the second monument to Hannah Duston, and it is located on a small island in the Merrimack River, thought to be the site where Duston killed her captors. Sculpted by William Andrews, the 24 foot statue features Duston wearing a nightgown, clutching a lowered tomahawk in one hand and ten scalps in the other. She stands atop a granite pillar. It cost $6,000 to create and is thought to be one of the earliest public monument sculptures of a woman in the U.S. The monument was erected on June 17, 1874, the anniversary of the Revolutionary War Battle of Bunker Hill. As one scholar noted, the date makes "the link between Duston, her violent acts, and American patriotism explicit." Several thousand people attended the dedication, including New Hampshire Governor James Weston. The small site eventually came under the stewardship of New Hampshire State Parks.

In recent decades, the Hannah Duston monument has received closer scrutiny and criticism. Some have called for the statue's removal, others for its reinterpretation. Currently only one interpretative marker offers context, and it's located in a nearby parking lot, not near the monument itself. In 2014, a local legislator unsuccessfully pushed to rename the historic site. Native Americans have decried the monument as a legacy of violence.

In 2020, as the nation grappled with the history of racism, slavery, and Confederate monuments across the country, the Duston statue was vandalized with red paint. Locals once again reconsidered the legacy and future of the Hannah Duston site. As Dr. Meghan Howey of the University of New Hampshire noted, "This is our Confederate monument. We don't have a Columbus statue, we don't have a Confederate monument, but we have Hannah Duston."[7]

Dr. Howey and Denise Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Penacook Abenaki developed a "Unity Park" proposal to offer new interpretation at the historic site, as well as a statue of an Abenaki family nearby. The state approved the project, and fundraising is expected to begin soon. As Howey stated, "Let’s put signage up and have people engage in the real story and learn something about their state’s history they didn’t know, that our beginnings were very complicated." The goals of the Unity Park N'dakinna (Abenaki for "Our Land") project include offering deeper historical interpretation, engaging with modern Native communities, connecting with the wider public, and to "transform a site focused on a single moment of horrific violence into a place where resilience, growth, and understanding can be possible."

1. "Hannah Duston Memorial Historic Site." New Hampshire State Parks. Web. Accessed August 4, 2020.

2. Howard W. Peckham. The Colonial Wars, 1689-1762. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

3. John Grenier. The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

4. Laura Knoy, et. al. "Re-Assessing the Legend of Hannah Duston." July 31, 2020. The Exchange. New Hampshire Public Radio. Web. Accessed August 4, 2020.

5. Mary Steurer. "Changes in the works for site honoring Hannah Duston, woman known for killing Native Americans." July 15, 2020. Concord Monitor. Web. Accessed August 4, 2020.

6. Barbara Cutter. "The Gruesome Story of Hannah Duston, Whose Slaying of Indians Made Her an American Folk 'Hero.'" April 8, 2018. Smithsonian Magazine. Web. Accessed August 4, 2020.

7. Shawne K. Wickham. "History lessons: Monuments, namesakes and mascots all under scrutiny." July 18, 2020. New Hampshire Union Leader. Web. Accessed August 4, 2020.

8. "Editorial: Improve the Duston site, but think twice before changing its name." October 30, 2013. Concord Monitor. Web. Accessed August 4, 2020.

9. Brady Carlson. "Hannah Duston Historic Site Will Keep Its Name For Now." January 14, 2014. All Things Considered. New Hampshire Public Radio. Web. Accessed August 4, 2020.

10. Unity Park N'dakinna. Web. Accessed August 4, 2020.

11. "Hannah Duston, (sculpture)." Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). Web. Accessed August 4, 2020.!siartinventories&view=subscriptionsummary&uri=full=3100001~!331040~!0&ri=1&aspect=Keyword&menu=search&ipp=20&spp=20&staffonly=&term=Hannah+Duston&index=.SW&uindex=&aspect=Keyword&menu=search&ri=1

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Craig Michaud,

Colby College Museum of Art,

Elizabeth Frantz, Concord Monitor,