Hannah Duston, also alternatively referred to as Dustin, Dustan, and Durstan in early Colonial records, was a Puritan mother of nine children who was taken captive along with her infant daughter by Abenaki Indians from Canada during King William’s War. The Abenaki had taken her during a raid on Haverhill, Massachusetts on March 15, 1697, where 27 other colonists were killed.
Her captors took her to an island on the Merrimack River in present-day Boscawen, New Hampshire right outside Concord. While her captors slept, she grabbed a hatchet and killed 10 of them, scalping them for good measure, before grabbing a canoe and making her way to safety in Massachusetts with another captive woman and a boy.
She was the first American woman honored with a statue, two in fact, which reside in Boscawen and another in Haverhill, Mass. There are six different memorials honoring her in New England.
Background: Hannah Emerson was the oldest of 15 children, her younger sister, Elizabeth was hanged for infanticide. When Hannah was 20, she married a farmer and brickmaker Thomas Duston. After 20 years of marriage and nine children, they were living in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
On March 15, 1697, the Abenakis attacked Haverhill and killed 27 colonists and took 13 more as captives, to be either sold to the French as hostages or kept by the Abenaki. Hannah, her midwife Mary Neff and her infant daughter Martha were taken and forced to move on foot into New Hampshire. Her husband Thomas, seeing the Indians approaching while doing his chores had mounted his horse and fired at the Indians. While he couldn’t save everyone, he and the other eight children escaped.
The Abenaki gave chase but Thomas moved from tree to tree with his rifle and held them off until they were able to reach the garrison. Meanwhile, the Indians had captured Mrs. Neff who was holding the baby, and Hannah who they forced to dress and minus one shoe, took off into the wilderness after stealing what they could from the home.
Mrs. Neff carrying the infant was having a hard time keeping up. Before the horrified eyes of Neff and Hannah, an Indian snatched the baby from her and bashed its head in on an apple tree.
The weaker captives were dispatched and scalped immediately. Although only half-dressed, Hannah managed to move 12 miles with the Indians on their first day as they tried to make some distance from the colonists they thought were sure to follow.
For the next several days, they continued to move, eventually covering close to 100 miles The Indians had split up their raiding party into small groups and dispersed into the woods of New Hampshire. Hannah, Mrs. Neff and a young boy named Samuel Lennardson, aged 14, who had been captured the year before in Worcester, Massachusetts were with 12 Abenaki.
At the end of their nearly six-week trek, they stopped at a small island in the Merrimack River at the mouth of the Contoocook River, near what is now Penacook, New Hampshire. When reaching the island, the Indians got complacent and felt safe. They felt that Samuel was now one of them and considered the two white women too worn out to try to escape.
That is when Hannah Duston planned her escape. She woke Mrs. Neff and Samuel shortly after midnight. She grabbed a hatchet and tomahawks to do their work. At her signal, the three killed the first Indians and then Hannah, like a woman possessed, killed seven more Indians, only two, a woman and a young boy who they wanted to take as a hostage were able to escape.
They then hastily piled a canoe with food, and equipment, including a rifle the Indians had, they prepared to travel back down to Massachusetts. First Hannah used the hatchet to wreck the other canoes in the camp. They set off but hadn’t got far when Hannah turned around. She told her companions that no one would believe their story. So she went back to the camp and scalped all ten dead Abenaki as proof of what they did. Then they carefully made their way south, traveling by night and hiding during the day.
Sometime later they made it to the home of John Lovewell which was located in Old Dunstable, which is now Nashua, New Hampshire. The spent a restful night here before continuing their trek south. Where they went ashore at Lovewell’s home, there is a monument now to commemorate the event. It was erected in 1902.
The three intrepid evaders finally beached their canoe at Bradley’s Cove, where Creek Brook flows into the Merrimack River. From there they completed their journey on foot and returned Haverhill to safety.
The Massachusetts General Court found their story compelling and gave Duston 25 pounds as a bonus for killing their captors. Neff and Lennardson split another 25 pounds.
Controversy: Despite being considered a hero in New England, many Native Americans, especially the Abenaki consider the actions of Duston, racist and promoting violence.
Chief Nancy Lyons of the Coasek tribe of the Abenaki Nation said, “It’s not so much because Hannah Duston killed Indians. The biggest issue that I find absolutely appalling is that the promotion that they’re doing is extremely racist – it’s emphasizing violence and they’re promoting that to young people,” Lyons said. “More than being an Indian, being a mother I find it absolutely appalling that a community would promote violence and a violent act in a racist manner to young people today.”
But to many New Englanders, Hannah Duston is a hero and there are even some who want to make a movie about her story. Some independent filmmakers were interested in developing the story. Although set in Colonial times, it has a very modern, feminist appeal. It has a strong female lead character but also is a tale of triumph over adversity and overwhelming odds.
But whatever else the story may or may not be, it is an age-old tale. There is a real and present danger when getting between a woman and her children. Had the Abenaki not killed her six-day-old daughter, she probably would have cooperated much more with them lest the risk of bringing harm to her baby.