Strange States: Massachusetts' Hannah Duston Memorial
If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.
This week we’re heading to The Codfish State: Massachusetts.
In March 1697, a group of Abenaki Native Americans from Quebec raided the town of Haverhill, Massachusetts. During the chaos, colonists Thomas and Hannah Duston were separated, allowing Thomas and eight of the couple’s children to escape. However, Hannah and her nurse, Mary Neff, were not so lucky, and they were among the 13 settlers taken captive. Sadly, Hannah’s newborn daughter, Martha, was killed shortly after their capture, when an Indian smashed the baby against a tree. Six weeks later, the raiding party marched their hostages through the wilderness, stopping to camp on an island in the Merrimack River in present-day New Hampshire. And it was here where Hannah would get her revenge. In the night, while the Indians slept, Hannah, Mary, and a 14-year-old boy named Samuel Lennardson used their captors’ tomahawks to hack and slash their way to freedom, killing two men, two women, and six children in the process. Before they escaped downriver in a canoe, the settlers took the scalps of their captors as a macabre trophy.
Despite the shocking nature of Hannah Duston’s story, it went virtually ignored throughout the 18th century, but became a propaganda tool as the United States began a more concentrated campaign against Native Americans in the 19th century. Her story was often cited as an example of how Native American savagery sometimes forced the hand of otherwise peaceful white settlers, which was used to defend the violent actions of those pressing westward into Indian Territories in the 1800s.
As a symbol of Manifest Destiny, the country was swept up in Duston fever. To that end, a memorial was commissioned in 1874 in New Hampshire where Duston’s revenge actually took place, making it the first statue built to honor a woman in the United States. The statue shows Duston in flowing, angelic robes with an axe in one hand and the Indian scalps in the other. Not to be outdone, the town of Haverhill received their own Duston statue in 1879. This statue shows a stern, scowling Duston in a simple settler’s dress, armed with the tomahawk, pointing down at her unseen, sleeping captors. Along the base are carved reliefs showing Duston’s story. The statue, “The Mother’s Revenge” can still be seen today in Haverhill’s Grand Army Park. Just down the street at the Haverhill Historical Society, you can actually see the head of the hatchet allegedly used during Duston’s escape.
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Peruse the whole Strange States series here.