Monday, January 09, 2012


Hannah's statue in
Haverhill, Massachusetts
shows her holding scalps
and a tomahawk

Usually, I talk about Southwestern events, places, or trivia. Today's post is one I originally wrote for the Hearts Through History online chapter of Romance Writers of America blog, Seduced By History. Forgive my reusing the story now, but life has interfered with art again and I’m under the weather. Besides, I was very impressed with this woman, who was once called “The Most Famous Woman In America.”

Ever heard of Hannah Dustin? In her lifetime, folk figure Hannah Emerson Dustin became a role model for pioneer women as her exploits spread across Anglo America. She is the first woman in the U.S. to have a statue erected in her honor. In fact, she has two statues . . . but I’ve gotten ahead of the story.

The time is March 15, 1697 and toward the end of King William’s War. When she learned they were being attacked, Hannah urged her husband, Thomas, to take their other eight children, aged two to seventeen, and flee to the nearby garrison and safety. Reluctantly, he left her in order to save their children. Less than a week after the birth of Martha, her ninth child, forty-year-old Hannah and her young aunt who cared for her, Mary Neff, were captured by Abnaki at Haverhill, Massachusetts.

For fifteen days the Abnaki marched the two women north and into New Hampshire. On the way, the Abnaki smashed baby Martha to death against an apple tree. Taken with at least ten other people from Haverhill, those who couldn’t keep up the Abnaki’s pace were killed. Hannah and Mary were parceled out as slaves to another Abnaki group consisting of half a dozen adults and several children, including an adolescent captive boy, Samuel Leonardson, who had been taken from Worcester eighteen months earlier.

The band set up camp at the conjunction of the Merrimack and Contoocook Rivers (now known as Dustin Island) near what is now Boscawen, New Hampshire and near Concord. One of the Abnaki men told Samuel that they would soon be moving to Canada where the captives would be stripped and forced to “run the gauntlet.” The white women knew they would never live through that experience.

Hannah Dustin, Mary Neff, and
Samuel Leonardson escape

As the story goes, Hannah led a captive rebellion. One of the Abnaki men had been teaching Samuel to fight and had showed him how to kill with a tomahawk. Hannah, Mary, and Samuel tomahawked ten Abnaki men, plus two women, and several children to death as they slept. They left only one elderly woman and a small boy. Hannah had the foresight to take scalps before leaving the enemy camp.

Hannah, Mary, and Samuel scuttled the enemy canoes except for one, which they used to travel down river at night. They reached Haverhill in three days. After some weeks of recovery, the now famous trio traveled to Boston where they requested bounty money for the scalps. The Massachusetts Bay courts had enacted a bounty on scalps in 1694, but it had been repealed. However, the Massachusetts General Court made an exception for Hannah and her two companions.

Accounts vary, but the most widely mentioned is that Hannah received twenty-five pounds and Mary and Samuel each received half that amount. In 1697, that was a considerable amount of money.

Hannah's statue at
Boscawen, New Hampshire
Hannah became famous for her escape and exploits. A statue of her stands in Haverhill, Massachusetts showing her with a tomahawk in one hand and scalps in the other. Another statue is located in Boscawen, New Hampshire, site of the escape. Her story is retold in “The History of Haverhill, in “Notable American Women,” in Henry David Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and in Laurel Ulrich’s “Goodwives” and other accounts too numerous to mention. In some accounts, Dustin is recorded as Dustan, Durstan, or Duston.
Hannah's grave. She died in 1737

Was she a heroine or a murderer? Don't view her from a politically correct perspective, but from the ideas and practices of colonial life. Imagine the grief of seeing your baby killed in front of you, of watching others murdered because they couldn't keep up the pace. Imagine her concern for her other eight children and her husband. Were they all right? Who was helping care for them? None of us knows whether or not we could have followed in her steps. Would I have been able to kill and then scalp people? I don't know, but I doubt it. If they stood between me and my family, and to protect my aunt and a teenage boy, perhaps I could. It's hard to imagine ourselves in that terrorizing setting.

Regardless of your thoughts on whether or not you could follow her example, don’t you agree she was a formidable woman?

Please also stop in to visit me Tuesday, January 10th, at Calisa Rhose’s blog at

And please return here on January 11-12 for a new post and a chance to win lots of free books with the Amazing Authors Tour.

Thanks for stopping by!


Marianne said...

Formidable, yes! And who knows how courageous we would be until we are faced with it? Women are like tea - you don't know how strong they are until they are in hot water!

Mari Stroud said...

Hi, I just nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award! It means you get a shiny graphic!

Jacquie Rogers said...

It certainly is interesting how political correctness can sway our perceptions. No matter what, I agree with your viewpoint of her as a mother. Seeing your baby killed would bring most of us to our knees, even so she was determined to do what she could to save herself and others. It sounds like that teenage boy needed a statue, too, because without his help, she might not have made it.