Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Last week I featured the first part of Hannah Duston’s story (click to link to read it). The forty-year-old mother of twelve children (eight living) had been snatched from her home by Indians during her “lying in” period after giving birth to a baby girl. Local widow Mary Neff was attending Hannah at the time. Hannah’s husband, Thomas, and their other children made it to a garrison safely, but Hannah, Mrs. Neff, and baby Martha were taken hostage.

After plundering the house and capturing the two women, the Indians took their captives and sped away, fearing pursuit. Because of the baby, Hannah was unable to run as quickly as the Indians wished, so they seized the infant and dashed her against a tree, killing her.

Hannah Duston by Stearns (Public Domain)
The raiding party then met up with other Indians who also had captives and goods they’d plundered. During the next few days, the group traveled about a hundred miles through the wilderness. The trail was rough. Some places were still snow covered. The ground that had thawed was mud. The group crossed icy creeks. Rocks tore at Hannah and Mrs. Neff’s poorly shod feet. Any captives who couldn’t keep up were hit on the head and scalped. The journey was cold and terrifying for the grieving Hannah and Mrs. Neff.

Near the junction of the Contoocook and Merrimack rivers, twelve of the Indians left the main group, taking Hannah, Mrs. Neff, and a fourteen-year-old boy, Samuel Lennardson. He had been taken prisoner near Worcester eighteen months previous, and had made himself useful to the Indians, who kept him as part of the tribe. The small group proceeded to what is now the present town of Penacook, New Hampshire. The island was home to the Indian who claimed the women as his captives, and he planned to stop and rest there for a while before continuing to Canada.

During the journey, Hannah had been trying to figure out how to escape. The murder of her baby, the cruel treatment by the Indians, and threats of what would happen when they reached Canada, spurred her on. Although Samuel was accepted by the Indians, he was homesick and wanted to return to his family. He was the one who told Hannah how the Indians killed—first striking the temple, then taking the scalp.

After reaching the island, the Indians grew careless. They regarded Samuel as one of their tribe and considered the women too worn out to escape, so no watch was set at night. Hannah knew the time had come to act. Their lives hung in the balance. If their escape attempt failed, they would be killed for trying. But if they succeeded, they might make it home to their families.

Some accounts of Hannah’s story claim she doctored the Indians’ evening meal with an herb that made them sleep soundly. Whether she did or didn’t, according to the stories I read, she, Mrs. Neff, and Samuel took stolen tomahawks, killed and scalped all the Indians but a woman and a child, who escaped into the woods. The three then took a canoe, supplies and headed down the Merrimack River, traveling by night and hiding by day. After a one-night stop in what was then called old Dunstable, they continued to Bradley’s Cove, and from there, continued on foot to Haverhill.

I can imagine the happy reunion Hannah and Thomas had, although it would be tinged with grief at the loss of their baby, and with horror for what the women had endured. Hannah was given a bounty for the Indian scalps. Then she was immortalized with a rather fierce statue that still exists in Haverhill.

At the time, Hannah was regarded as a heroine. A woman to be admired and emulated. But in recent years, her actions have been called into question. A few scholars whose work I read insinuate that Hannah was a murderer. One compares her to Lizzie Borden because many of the scalps she took that night belonged to Indian children. But it’s easy in our settled country, with the mindsets of our current society, to second guess the actions taken by historical figures. None of us know how we would respond in the same circumstances. I’m sure Hannah was terrified and angry. Her baby had been brutally smashed to death before her eyes. She and Mrs. Neff were being threatened with a future of slavery in Canada, never to see their families again. The possibiity of brutality and abuse of all kinds was probably utmost in their minds.Their circumstances were desperate. Black and white. Kill everyone in order to safely escape, or risk being killed by those left alive—even Indian children, who could easily run for help.

No matter how anyone feels about what Hannah did, it's amazing that a forty-year-old woman, who had just given birth to her twelfth baby, traveled all that distance over rough terrain in clothes and shoes not made for that kind of journey. Then, instead of falling into a heap of nerves and fear, she had the wherewithal to plot an escape. And after that, she and her companions traveled through the wilderness to get back home. (And we think we have it rough when we lose electricity during a snowstorm!)

After her captivity, Hannah seems to have settled back into the relatively peaceful life of a wife and mother. The only records about her after her captivity indicate she had one more child and then she died of old age. What she did with the rest of her life is lost in history.

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