A debate is brewing in Haverhill, Massachusetts, over an appropriate symbol to signify the city's rebirth. City fathers have seized upon the story of Hannah Dustin as a symbol of bravery. Others in the city are not so sure she deserves the honor.
Hannah Emerson Dustin, her husband Thomas, and their nine children were living in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1697 when Abenaki Indians attacked the town. Hannah, her one-day-old baby, and her nurse, Mary Neff, were captured and forced to march into the wilderness. Early in the forced march, the Indians took Hannah's baby daughter from the mother's arms and killed the infant by smashing its head against a tree.
Hannah and Mary were forced to travel with an Indian family group northwards, during which time they were joined by Samuel Lennardson, a 14-year-old white captive.
The Indians and their captives stopped at an island in the Merrimack River near what is now Boscawen, New Hampshire. When the Indians fell asleep, Hannah seized a tomahawk. She and her two co-captives killed ten Indians: six children, two women, and two men. A young Indian boy and a woman escaped. Hannah then scalped the dead Indians as proof of the deed.
The former captives jumped into a canoe, taking the scalps with them. They traveled down the river only during the night, and after several days arrived back in Haverhill. The Massachusetts General Assembly later gave them a reward for killing the raiders.
Hannah became famous in the nineteenth century when her story was retold by Henry David Thoreau and then was written into many genealogical histories. In the 1870s, a statue of Hannah was placed in the Haverhill town square, and another statue of her was erected on the island in New Hampshire where the killings and scalping took place.
Haverhill is now looking for a symbol of revitalization in the old mill city. Some Haverhill residents say that Hannah Dustin is just the sort of figure the city needs because she portrays bravery, tenacity, and vitality. Other city residents don't think Dustin's bloodstained story of brutal savagery is quite the image the city wants. They say Haverhill has other notable figures to choose from, including poet John Greenleaf Whittier and Archie comic creator, Bob Montana.
The Abenaki tribe, whose members Dustin killed, says in their version of the story that Dustin is a murderer and not a victim. However, that version seems to nicely ignore the Indians' treatment of Hannah's infant child and the many other white settlers killed by Indians. Indians took more than 1,600 whites as hostage in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Most hostages never returned. Histories are also full of stories about white settlers killing Indians. Both sides obviously practiced violence often in those times.
Was Hannah Dustin a murderer or a heroine? Are we reacting in an overly "political correct" fashion today to the harsh realities of frontier life in the 1600s?
You can read more about this controversy at http://www.cnhins.com/homepage/editorspicks_story_230051335.html
My thanks to Nancy Borman for telling me about this story.
You can read more about Hannah Emerson Dustin's life at http://www.hannahdustin.com.
An interesting twist is that Hannah's sister, Elizabeth, also became famous in Haverhill a few years later. However, her fame was in the form of notoriety rather than heroism when she was tried and eventually hanged for the deaths of her illegitimate twin daughters. You can read more about Elizabeth's sad life at http://wprokasy.myweb.uga.edu/Emerson2.htm