John Greenleaf Whittier,
“The Mother’s Revenge”
Legends of New England (1831)
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
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
"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
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.
of New England (1831): a facsimile reproduction by John Greenleaf Whittier. Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints. Gainesville, Florida, 1965. Pages 125-131.