The first permanent monument in this country that is dedicated to a woman
-- or so the story goes -- is the monument erected in tiny Boscawen, New Hampshire
honoring Hannah Duston or Dustin, who was captured by Indians in 1697. She and her
companions escaped by killing 10 of their captors, scalping them, and returning
with those trophies. It is hard to top that for a story of a ferocious female.
Haverhill Historical Museum
The Duston family lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in the 1690s. We had first visited this city in 2000, at the beginning of our travels, stopping at the small, somewhat eccentric, local museum. On this gorgeous 2005 Autumn day, Elsa and cousin Marilyn set out to explore the town.
The Haverhill Historical Society Museum is housed in the centuries-old home of a wealthy merchant, on a steep hill overlooking the Merrimack River. We almost gave up, because off-season touring is a chancy proposition. The house looked closed and dark, but we persevered and found our way into the central hall, where we were directed into the remembered museum room.
There is a category of museum which has been founded and continues to grow solely on the basis of contributions from local citizens. This means that the collection is, more or less, at the mercy of the donors whose feelings Hannah Dustin Memorial would be hurt if anything were turned down. Thus, we saw the giant eagle which had formerly adorned one of the major town buildings; several rifles; photos of Civil War soldiers; a button from John Hancock; calling card cases; beaded purses; many sets of children's tea sets; the first phosporus matches ever produced; many shoes (Haverhill's first prosperity came from shoe manufacturing.
But among all of these disparate items we began to notice traces of Hannah. A scrap of cloth she had woven was partially tucked into an envelope. More of her handiwork was kept in a nearby case, along with a transcription of a quotation of her religious faith. Several souvenirs from past days included a foot-high porcelain statue and a fistful of tiny tomahawks.
It is clear that to Haverhill, Hannah Dustin is the most famous resident (except possibly for John Greenleaf Whittier who was born in a farmhouse just at the edge of town). Hannah had only recently given birth to her eighth child when the Indians attacked, taking her, her infant and the baby's nurse Mary -- the father managed to get the rest of the children to safety -- along with two dozen additional settlers.
During their captivity. they walked about 100 miles, apparently mostly north through what is now New Hampshire. Learning that they were destined for sale as slaves in Canada, Hannah and Mary worked with 13-year-old Samuel Detail plaque Leonardson, who had been captured some months before. Samuel had learned the language of the captors and persuaded them to explain how they killed people, which they did, obligingly leaving a tomahawk near their prisoners.
During the night, the three killed all of the Indians and took their scalps. According to Hannah, it was to provide evidence of their deed, but the fact that bounties had been customarily paid was perhaps also a significant incentive. Legend has it that the bounty money went to Hannah's husband, to her dismay. After her return, Hannah settled down to the life of a settler's wife, and had her final child, her thirteenth, when she was 40.
Leaving the museum, we found the town's monument to Hannah Dustin in G.A.R. Park, near the center of downtown Haverhill. She looks like a most determined woman. Relief sculptures on the base illustrate the saga.
This is not the earliest monument to Hannah. A similar monument can be found in Boscawen, New Hampshire, along the route covered by the escaping trio. But the one we saw today, dating from 1879, was certainly sufficiently impressive.
Hannah is a controversial figure, of course. Nathaniel Hawthorne was Winnekenni Castle so outraged by her deed that he said she should have been drowned. And it is impossible to imagine her, her companion and the boy doing the killing (apparently some of the victims were children) without feeling queasy. All of the narratives of those times include details of savagery on both sides, but this story seems to include a particularly cold-blooded element.
We finished our exploration of Haverhill with a walk around the Duston Garrison, the sturdy two-story brick house that Thomas was just building when the Indians attacked. Now it is the oldest house in town, and has been preserved.
Even more impressive, at least architecturally, was another curiosity: Winnekenni Castle, while built in the twentieth century as a summer home, looks just like a castle should look. It must have been a great Halloween Haunted Castle just a couple of nights ago!