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John Greenleaf Whittier,  “The Mother’s Revenge”

From Legends of New England (1831)

 

 

[Hannah Duston]

 

WOMAN'S attributes are generally considered of a milder and purer character than those of man.  The virtues of meek affection, of fervent piety, of winning sympathy and of that "charity which forgiveth often," are more peculiarly her own.  Her sphere of action is generally limited to the endearments of home—the quiet communion with her friends, and the angelic exercise of the kindly charities of existence.  Yet, there have been astonishing manifestations of female fortitude and power in the ruder and sterner trials of humanity; manifestations of a courage rising almost to sublimity; the revelation of all those dark and terrible passions, which madden and distract the heart of manhood.

The perils which surrounded the earliest settlers of New-England were of the most terrible character.  None but such a people as were our forefathers could have successfully sustained them.  In the dangers and the hardihood of that perilous period, woman herself shared largely.  It was not unfrequently her task to garrison the dwelling of her absent husband, and hold at bay the fierce savages in their hunt for blood.  Many have left behind them a record of their sufferings and trials in the great wilderness, when in the bondage of the heathen, which are full of wonderful and romantic incidents, related however without ostentation, plainly and simply, as if the authors felt assured that they had only performed the task which Providence had set before them, and for which they could ask no tribute of admiration.

In 1698 the Indians made an attack upon the English settlement at Haverhill—now a beautiful village on the left bank of the Merrimack.  They surrounded the house of one Duston, which was a little removed from the main body of the settlement. The wife of Duston was at that time in bed with an infant child in her arms.  Seven young children were around her.  On the first alarm Duston bade his children fly towards the Garrison-house, and then turned to save his wife and infant.  By this time the savages were pressing close upon them.  The heroic woman saw the utter impossibility of her escape—and she bade her husband fly to succor his children, and leave her to her fate.  It was a moment of terrible trial for the husband—he hesitated between his affection and his duty—but the entreaties of his wife fixed his determination.

He turned away, and followed his children.  A part of the Indians pursued him, but he held them at a distance by the frequent discharge of his rifle.  The children fled towards the garrison, where their friends waited, with breathless anxiety, to receive them.  More than once, during their flight, the savages gained upon them; but a shot from the rifle of Duston, followed, as it was, by the fall of one of their number, effectually checked their progress.  The garrison was reached, and Duston and his children, exhausted with fatigue and terror, were literally dragged into its enclosure by their anxious neighbors.

Mrs. Duston, her servant girl and her infant were made prisoners by the Indians, and were compelled to proceed before them in their retreat towards their lurking-place.  The charge of her infant necessarily impeded her progress; and the savages could ill brook delay when they knew the avenger of blood was following closely behind them.  Finding that the wretched mother was unable to keep pace with her captors, the leader of the band approached her, and wrested the infant from her arms.  The savage held it before him for a moment, contemplating, with a smile of grim fierceness the terrors of its mother, and then dashed it from him with all his powerful strength.  Its head smote heavily on the trunk of an adjacent tree, and the dried leaves around were sprinkled with brains and blood.

"Go on!" said the Indian.

The wretched mother cast one look upon her dead infant, and another to Heaven, as she obeyed her savage conductor.  She has often said, that at this moment, all was darkness and horror—that her very heart seemed to cease beating, and to lie cold and dead in her bosom, and that her limbs moved only as involuntary machinery.  But when 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, a new 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 instantaneous 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.

The Indians followed the course of the Merrimack, until they had reached their canoes, a distance of seventy or eighty miles.  They paddled to a small island, a little above the upper falls of the river.  Here they kindled a fire; and fatigued by their long marches and sleepless nights, stretched themselves around it, without dreaming of the escape of their captives.

Their sleep was deep—deeper than any which the white man knows, —a sleep from which they were never to awaken.  The two captives lay silent, until the hour of midnight; but the bereaved mother did not close her eyes.  There was a gnawing of revenge at her heart, which precluded slumber.  There was a spirit within her which defied the weakness of the body.

She rose up and walked around the sleepers, in order to test the soundness of their slumber.  They stirred not limb or muscle.  Placing a hatchet in the hands of her fellow captive, and bidding her stand ready to assist her, she grasped another in her own hands, and smote its ragged edge deeply into the skull of the nearest sleeper.  A slight shudder and a feeble groan followed.  The savage was dead.  She passed on to the next.  Blow followed blow, until ten out of twelve, the whole number of the savages, were stiffening in blood.  One escaped with a dreadful wound.  The last—a small boy—still slept amidst the scene of carnage.  Mrs. Duston lifted her dripping hatchet above his head, but hesitated to strike the blow.

"It is a poor boy," she said, mentally, "a poor child, and perhaps he has a mother!”  The thought of her own children rushed upon her mind, and she spared him.  She was in the act of leaving the bloody spot, when, suddenly reflecting that the people of her settlement would not credit her story, unsupported by any proof save her own assertion, she returned and deliberately scalped her ten victims.  With this fearful evidence of her prowess, she loosed one of the Indian canoes, and floated down the river to the falls, from which place she travelled through the wilderness to the residence of her husband.

Such is the simple and unvarnished story of a New-England woman.  The curious historian, who may hereafter search among the dim records of our "twilight time"—who may gather from the uncertain responses of tradition, the wonderful history of the past—will find much, of a similar character, to call forth by turns, admiration and horror.  And the time is coming, when all these traditions shall be treasured up as a sacred legacy—when the tale of the Indian inroad and the perils of the hunter—of the sublime courage and the dark superstitions of our ancestors, will be listened to with an interest unknown to the present generation, —and those who are to fill our places will pause hereafter by the Indian's burial-place, and on the site of the old battle-field, or the thrown-down garrison, with a feeling of awe and reverence, as if communing, face to face, with the spirits of that stern race, which has passed away forever.

 

 

 

 

Courtesy of the The American Verse Project, the University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative (HTI), and the University of Michigan Press.

 

John Greenleaf Whittier, Legends of New England (1831): a facsimile reproduction /with an introduction by John B. Pickard [electronic text]:

 

http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=amverse;idno=BAH8738.0001.001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source:  Legends of New England (1831): a facsimile reproduction by John Greenleaf Whittier.  Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints.  Gainesville, Florida, 1965.  Pages 125-131.



Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11868/


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