THE STORY OF HANNAH DUSTON:
COTTON MATHER TO THOREAU
On March 15, 1697/98, a
band of Canadian Indians allied with the French in King William's War attacked the frontier town of Haverhill,
Massachusetts, and, in a short skirmish,
killed more than a score of the inhabitants, burned a number of dwellings, and
carried a dozen whites into captivity.
Among these twelve were Hannah Duston, her newborn infant, and her
nurse, Mary Neff. Hannah's husband
Thomas fought a successful rearguard action and saved his seven other children,
but he could not rescue his wife or the baby.
As the Indians left the burning settlement, they paused to dash out the
infant's brains against - an apple tree.
A few days later, the war party split up, intending to re-unite at a
village beyond the Pena- cook River in Maine, where, the two women were told,
they would be stripped, scourged, and forced to run the gauntlet. Hannah and Mary, along with a boy, Samuel
Lennardson, captured a year and a half earlier in a raid on Worcester, were
guarded by an Indian family of twelve: two warriors, three women, and seven
children of various ages. On the night
of March 30,1 while still several days' distance from the village,
Hannah aroused the other captives, and together the three tomahawked their
sleeping captors. Only one squaw,
severely wounded, and one boy escaped.
Then, after scalping their victims, the whites made their way down the
Merrimac River to an outlying settlement, where they were welcomed as
heroes. The Massachusetts General Assembly awarded each of them fifty pounds,
and Francis Nicholson, Governor of Maryland, added his own generous
contribution to the reward. In later
years, Mrs. Duston sought, and was granted by the state, an additional sum of
money in recognition of her services as an Indian slayer. 2
A few days after her
return, Mrs. Duston journeyed to Boston, where she told her tale to Samuel
Sewall, who recorded it in his diary, 3 and to Cotton Mather, who
reserved a place for it in his Magnalia Christi Americana. Here the story makes its first printed
appearance in American literature.
Predictably, Mather regarded Hannah's escape as one of the "Wonders
of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION"4 and transformed her into a Puritan
saint, at once a self-reliant frontier woman and an afflicted Christian saved
by God's "infinite Power, Wisdom, Goodness, and Faithfulness" (I,
23). Also predictably his method of
narrating her deliverance relied heavily upon Biblical parallels to elevate her
stature, to define the significance of the event to the American Puritan
community, and to establish continuity between Old and New World
experiences. 5 To him, her name and her motherhood suggested links to the prophet
Samuel's mother. Her deed made her a
modern Jael, slayer of Sisera (Judges 4) and deliveress of her people. The Puritans were seen as historical types
of the beleagured Israelites, chastised by death and captivity for evil done in
the sight of the Lord rot not entirely forsaken; as in Psalms, they will surely
be preserved in the end, for God will not give His people up to
destruction. "Wherefore should the
heathen say, Where is their God?
let him be known among the heathen in our sight by the revenging
of the blood of thy servants which is shed, " wrote the Psalmist in
79:10; Mather's Indians challenged their prisoners with a similar taunt--
"What need you trouble yourself?
If your God will have you delivered, you shall be so!” (II, 551)-- and the result was the same as
for the Biblical heathens. Although
Mather nowhere quotes it directly, the book of Psalms is nearly as important to
his version of Hannah's escape as is Judges, for if the latter provided him
with praise of Hannah-Jael as "blessed... above women in the tent"
(5:24), the first offered him evidence that God would not entirely desert His
nation. Both books, moreover, give epic
dimensions to the suffering and the captivity of the New Englanders.
retelling of Hannah's adventures, Mather employed one other significant
Biblical resource, which led him directly to the issue that would become
central for later writers, Hawthorne among them. "These two poor women, " he says of Hannah and
Mary--with an allusion to Proverbs 12:10--"were now in the hands of those
whose tender mercies are cruelties" (11, 551), going on to explain
that since Mrs. Duston found herself "where she had not her own life secured
by any law unto her, she thought she was not for bidden by any law
to take away the life of the murderers, by whom her child
had been butchered" (11, 551).
Because Providence can sometimes use help, Mather is not one to raise
moral objections to the slaughter of sleeping Indians. His Biblical allusions simultaneously provide
him with a moral framework to justify Hannah's deed and a means of placing her
exploits in an epic context related to the national destiny of the Puritan
people. She emerges from his narrative
as a seventeenth-century savior of her nation, her heroism unquestionably a model to be emulated. Thus interpreted, transformed, and justified,
she passed into the hands of nineteenth-century New England writers, who slowly
began to alter her image.
The first of these later authors, if we
exclude the historian Leverett Saltonstall, who told her story in his Historical
Sketch of Haverhill . . . in 1816,6 was Timothy Dwight, whose
version appears in "Letter XXXIX" of his Travels first
published in 1821,7 wherein he seems no more interested than in
other historical details he recounts.
An observant traveller, he presents it as picturesque local color; his
account written in straightforward, unadorned prose and, for the most part,
consonant with Mather: "[T]he hand of Providence, " he writes,
"[was] unusually visible in the preservation of this family" (I,
411). He defends Mrs. Duston against
exact moralists who may wish to criticize her action, although no one had yet
ventured to do so in print. Being more
comfortable with her husband's role in the story, he devotes most attention to
him. “Whatever may be thought of the
rectitude of her conduct," he notes in a transitional sentence that
perhaps betrays his lingering ambivalence, 8 "that of her husband is in every way
honourable" (I, 414). By dividing
the story into two parts, the man's and the woman's exploits, he establishes a
precedent which several later writers, including the historian B. L. Mirick and
the editor [Nathaniel] Hawthorne would follow.
The poetess Sarah Josepha Hale was to make Thomas Duston' s heroism--his
anguish over which of his children he could save, and his decision to save or
die with them all--the sole subject of her treatment in "The Father's
Dwight seems to have been responsible for
the attractiveness of the legend to illustrators. Imagining the scene as an artist would sketch it, he writes:
". . . this husband, and father, flying to rescue his wife, her infant,
and her nurse, from the approaching horde of savages; attempting on his horse
to select from his flying family the child, which he was the least able to
spare, and unable to make the selection; facing, in their rear, the horde of
hell-hounds; alternately, and sternly, retreating behind his inestimable
charge, and fronting the enemy again; receiving, and returning their fire; and
presenting himself, equally, as a barrier against murderers, and a shelter to
the flight of innocence and anguish. In the background of some or other of
these pictures might be exhibited, with powerful impression, the kindled
dwelling; the sickly mother; the terrified nurse, with the new-born infant in
her arms; and the furious natives, surrounding them, driving them forward, and
displaying the trophies of savage victory, and the insolence of savage
triumph" (I, 414).
Historical artists were quick to take the
hint and produce drawings like the one Dwight imagined, concentrating, like
him, on the husband's action rather than the wife's. Subsequent retellings of the tale, including Hawthorne's and the
ones in Samuel Goodrich' s Peter Parley's Method of Telling of the History
to Children and the anonymous Confessions, Trials, and Biographical
Sketches of the Most Cold-Blooded Murderers, 10 were accompanied
by a sketch entitled "Mr. Duston Saving His Family.” A more elaborate and romantic version of the
same theme, "Duston Covering the Retreat of His Seven Children," was
done by G. W. Fasel for Nagel and Weingartner' s Heroic Deeds of Former Times
Series in 1851.11 The idea
patently underlying these pictorial representations is heroism, the artists
seeming to agree with Dwight that the husband, and not the wife, makes the
better subject since his deed is morally unequivocal. A portrait of Hannah, hatchet in hand, standing over the sleeping
Indians or lifting a scalp in triumph might have served allegorically as
Revenge but would otherwise have invoked the moral issue.
Unlike the illustrators young Whittier,
an amateur folklorist, who had been interested in the tale for some time and
was to contribute it and other incidents
to B. L. Mirick' s History, though first to his own Legends of New
he preserves most of the historical facts, his story approaches fiction in
some of its omissions--he does not tell us, for instance, that the wounded
Indian who escapes is a woman--in its psychological emphasis, and in its use
of language borrowed from the popular "thriller." Having seen her in action, striking the "ragged
edge" of her hatchet "deeply into the skull of the nearest sleeper"
(p. 129), we find it easier than Whittier to believe that the boy escaped
not because of her compassion but rather because he was lucky enough to awake
and flee before she could dispatch him. 13 The Gothic horror which the language
communicates is at times functional. When,
for instance, Whittier wishes to justify Hannah's crucial transformation from
tender-hearted woman to revengeful mother, he focuses upon the "brains
and blood" (p. 128) of her baby on the dry leaves: "[W] hen she
gazed around her and saw the unfeeling savages, grinning at her and mocking
her, and pointing to the mangled body of her infant with fiendish exultation,
anew and terrible feeling came over her. It was the thirst of revenge; and from that moment her purpose was
fixed. There was a thought of death
at her heart--an insatiate longing for blood. An instantane-
ous change had been wrought in her very nature; the angel had become a demon,
-- and she followed her captors, with a stern determination to embrace the
earliest opportunity for a bloody retribution" (p. 128).
transformation is itself a major subtheme of Whit tier' s sketch. Occasion-ally, he says, men are forced to
acknowledge in women evidence of "those dark and terrible passions, which
madden and distract the heart of manhood " (p. 125). The ambiguity is interesting. In the historical Hannah, moreover, he
appears to see the composite qualities of the Dark and Pale maidens of
romance--Hawthorne' s Miriam and Hilda--a duality which he attempts to
reconcile through reference to the principle of maternal instincts. These inspire her both to loving compassion
and fierce re-venge; in the end, when she spares the Indian boy, we are to
believe that her better womanly instinct triumphed. The story thus possesses a kind of formal unity, since it leaves
us with a restored, motherly Hannah, but the style functions to undermine the
conclusion and works against the structural plan.
until Hawthorne became interested in the Duston family romance did the tale
find an artist who fully understood its moral and psychological ambiguity and
who possessed artistic ability to develop it.
A number of historians, however, were to precede him. The year that Whittier' s Legends was
published, for instance, John Lauris Blake included Hannah in The Historical
Reader, 14 and the next saw Mirick's History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, with its open condemnation of Mrs. Duston, followed
by Samuel Goodrich's Peter Parley's Method and his First Book
of History for Children and Youth and Charles Goodrich's History
of the United States of America.15
B. Bernard Cohen has
shown that Hawthorne relied most heavily upon Mather, Peter Parley' s
Method, and Mirick.16
Although Hawthorne, like Whittier, was aware of Hannah's duality, he did
not attempt to reconcile her good and evil, suggesting only that the
recollection of her child's murder "hardened Hannah Duston' s heart.” 17 Otherwise, his attitude
suggests his later, far more complex handling of Beatrice Rappaccini, in whom
purity and passion co-exist, 18 and he leaves us with the
conflicting images of a "good woman" (p. 132) and a "bloody old hag"
(p. 136). Like Dwight, he is more
comfort-able with her husband: "This awful woman, and that tender hearted,
yet valiant man. . . will be remembered
as long as the deeds of old times are told round a New England fireside. But how different is her renown from
his!” (p. 137).
Hawthorne's sketch is interesting
because it condemns Cotton Mather, whom he terms "an old hard-hearted,
pedantic bigot" (p. 135), whose self-righteousness bothered him as much as
Hannah's act. In a paragraph of
sonorous dirge-like vowels, he establishes a colloquy of voices in which the
soft, mournful voice of nature contrasts with Mather' s strident exultation
over the impending death of the savages: "The night wore on; and the light
and cautious slumbers of the red men were often broken, by the rush and ripple
of the stream, or the groaning and moaning of the forest, as if nature were
wailing over her wild children. . . . But, a little before the break of day, a
deep, dead slumber fell upon the Indians. . ..
‘See,’ cries Cotton Mather, triumphantly, ‘if it prove not so?’ “ (p. 135-136).
Hawthorne's borrowings from the Magnalia are undisguised but
integrated into his narrative, his voice
overriding even as it echoes Mather' s.
By dealing with the husband and wife separately, he restates
structurally the difference between an unequivocally noble action and a morally
ambiguous one, his imagery supporting our awareness of Hannah's duplex
nature. In the conclusion, he registers
disapproval of Hannah but distances himself somewhat by blending his voice into
that of public opinion. His narrative
method anticipates "The Maypole of Merry Mount, " in which the
revelers of Thomas Morton's plantation as children of the Gold Age gradually
invite his criticism for their idleness and frivolity. Conversely, the Puritans, who enter under a
cloud as grim, grey, heavy-hearted men, slowly reveal their positive
qualities. In the same way, Hannah, who
appears at first as a good woman, becomes a hag by the end of the piece. Her antagonists, the Indians, who initially
are pictured as bloodthirsty savages, Hawthorne humanizes until they become the
victims. Since both tales are grounded
in history, we may conjecture that this technique of reversal was
important--perhaps even necessary--to Hawthorne in converting it to fiction.
During the next fourteen years the tale
was reprinted in Confessions, Trials, and Bio-graphical Sketches in
1840; it appealed to school children in new editions of Peter Parley's
Method. In 1837, Samuel Gardner
Drake included it in his Biography and History of the Indians of North
America as did Henry White, six years later, in The Early History of New
England.19 By the time Thoreau chose it for his Week on the
Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1849,20 it was known to a
generation of New England readers.
Thoreau' s treatment reflects this wide
circulation: he does not tell the entire story; he does not raise the old
argument over the morality of Hannah's deed; he delivers printed information as
trough it were exclusively the product of oral tradition, a part of the New
England consciousness.” [T]here have
been many, " he says, "who in later times have lived to say that they
had eaten of the fruit of that apple tree [against which Hannah's baby was
killed].” 21 As a representative Yankee, he turns the
Merrimac into a river of time, a stream of consciousness, bearing upon its
spring freshets the detritus of the past and the driftwood of the present. To set oneself afloat upon it was to break
the barriers of time, to navigate backwards in the direction of a primeval era,
and to put oneself in touch with the remote sources of one's identity. The process of discovering the self through
historical (and, even, ahistorical) analogues, applied to all New Englanders
caring to make the voyage.
To attach the past to the present and the
present to the past, he depends upon nature.
With his brother he witnesses Hannah's escape in a vision made
believable by the setting. The river
serves as an emblem both of flux and stability. As details accumulate, one time becomes indistinguishable from
another: Do the ruined wigwams exist in the present, or are they part of the
landscape perceived by Hannah and her companions? "Their canoe glides under these pine roots whose stumps are
still standing on the bank. Every
withered leaf which the winter has left seems to know their story, and in its
rustling to repeat it and betray them. . . their nerves cannot bear the tapping
of a woodpecker. . . The stolen birch forgets its master and does them good
service, and the swollen current bears them swiftly along with little need of
the paddle, except to steer and keep them warm by exercise. For ice is floating in the river; the spring
is opening; the muskrat and the beaver are driven out of their holes by the
flood; deer gaze at them from the bank; a few faint-singing forest birds,
perchance, fly across the river to the northernmost shore; the fish- hawk sails
and screams overhead, and geese fly over them with a startling clangor. . .
. Sometimes they pass an Indian grave
surrounded by its paling on the bank, or the frame of a wigwam, with a few
coals left behind, or the withered stalks still rustling in the Indian's
solitary cornfield on the interval” (I,
In 1850, Thoreau went to Haverhill as a
surveyor, visiting the site of the Duston homestead, then only a "slight
indentation in a corn-field, " surrounded by cellar holes of the other
houses burned in the Indian attack. The
legendary apple tree was gone.22 On April 27, 1853, he revisited the
town and thought of Hannah Duston.
Skirting Creek Pond, he made another imaginative excursion back into
time: "It is along the east side of this pond,” he wrote, "that the
Indians are said to have taken their way with Hannah Dustin [sic] and
her nurse in 1697 toward the Merrimack.
I walked along it and thought how they might have been ambuscaded.” 23
By re-enacting history
mimetically, 24 he asserts its fundamental and continuing role in
shaping his individual and regional identity.
Although he was the last major author to
make use of the legend, it did not lose its appeal, being now
"frozen" in the New England imagination.25 Notwithstanding
this fact, Hannah never became a part of American folklore as did John Smith
and Pocahontas or the Merry Mount plantation.
Hannah is emphatically not a feminine charmer like Pocahontas, nor does
she reflect the American character.
With the decline of Puritanism, she lost her relevance as a culture hero
and became only a slayer of Indians.
Furthermore, she belonged only to a particular place--the shores of the
Merrimac, which cannot support a national legend.
University of Cincinnati
1 There is
some confusion regarding the date. Several sources give April 30 instead of
March. but I have taken the majority opinion and, incidentally, the
date engraved on the base of Hannah's statue in Haverhill.
are from Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana (London. 1702); rept.
(Hartford: Roberts and Bruce. 1820), II, 551-552. and B. L. Mirick. The
History of Haverhill. Massachusetts (Haverhill: A. W. Thayer. 1832), pp.
diary in which the story is recorded is M. D. Fairfield' s, under entry date of
April 21, 1697/ 98. Sewall' s entry
includes an anecdote that Thoreau would later make use of. Samuel
Lennardson' s asking the leader of his captors how
and where to strike to kill and scalp a victim.
I, 23. Further references to
Mather' s work are to this, the First American Edition, and
will be noted in text by volume and page number.
5 For a
discussion of the psychological significance of allusions in Puritan
histories, see Kenneth B. Murdock.
"Clio in the Wilderness: History and Biography in Puritan New
England,” Early American
Literature, 6 (Winter, 1972).
6 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1816).
7 (New Haven: [S. Converse,
Printer], 1821). Further references to
Dwight's book are to this edition
and will be made by volume and page number.
view of Hannah seems as much conditioned by his attitude toward the Indians as
by any thorough consideration of the moral implications of her deed. See esp. Book III, "Letter IV" of
in Mirich, pp. 93-95.
10 (Hartford: H. F. Sumner & Co. , 1832);
(Boston: G. N. Thomson and E. Littlefield, 1840).
seems the appropriate place to record my gratitude to the helpful and friendly
staff at the Haverhill Public Library.
Fasel' s painting hangs on a wall in the library building.
(Hartford: Hanmer and Phelps, 1831); rpt. (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints,
1965). Additional references to
Whittier’s work are taken from the 1965 edition--given in the text by page
13 This is
the position Hawthorne adopts later on.
14 (Concord, N.H. : H. Hill & Co. , 1831).
Richardson, Lord & Holbrook, 1832); (Hartford: H. F. Sumner & Co.
Composition of Hawthorne's ' The Duston Family,' " The England
Quarterly, 21 (June, 1948), 236-241.
17 See Arlin
Turner, Hawthorne as Editor
(University, La. : Louisiana State Univ.
Press, 1941), pp. 131-137, for
the text of Hawthorne's sketch.
Hawthorne originally published the sketch during his tenure as editor of
The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in volume 2
(April, 1836), 395-397. My quotations
follow Turner's edition as the more convenient text.
18 See Roy
R. Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision
(Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1952 ); rpt. (N .Y. : W. W. Norton,
1964), esp. pp. 54-55.
Antiquarian Institute, 1837); (Concord, N.H.: I. S. Boyd, 1843).
Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in The Writings
of Henry David Thoreau (Boston and
N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), I, 345. Further references to the Week
are to this edition and will be noted in text by volume and page number.
21 See the
reference to Sewall, n. 3, for another piece of "oral" lore Thoreau
included in his sketch.
22 The Journal
of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford
Torrey and Francis Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
1949), II, 7.
23 lbid., V, 113.
Thoreau' s attitude toward the Indian, see Edwin Fussell, "Thoreau's
Unwritten Epic, " Frontier: American Literature and the American West (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), p.
works preserving Hannah's glory include the following histories: Noble Deeds
Women.. . . . (Buffalo: George H. Derby, 1851); Historical, Poetical,
and Pictorial American Scenes (New
Haven: Published by John W. Barber, 1851); First Lessons in the History of
the United States (Boston: Hickling, Swan & Brown, 1856 ); American
Scenes: Being a Selection of the Most Interesting Incidents in American History
(Springfield, Mass. : D. E. Fiske & Co. , 1868); and Yankee Folk (N.
Y.: Vanguard Press. 1948). Robert
Caverly's The Merrimac and Its
Incidents: An Epic Poem (Boston: Imes & Niles, 1866) reworks
the story in verse, and his Heroism of Hannah Duston.... (Boston: B. B. Russell & Co., 1874)
returns to the theme. Finally, in 1954,
Mrs. H. R. Mann's novel, Gallant Warrior, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William
B. Eerdmans Co .) paid Mrs. Duston the longest (and latest) tribute.
Source: Robert D. Arner. “The Story Of Hannah Duston: Cotton Mather To Thoreau,” American
Transcendental Quarterly, 18 (1973).
Used with the author’s