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The Thomas and Hannah Dustin Story


From “Letter XXXIX” in

Timothy Dwight’s Travels in New England and New York, 1821-22.



Haverhill was settled in the year 1637, and incorporated in 1645.  During the first seventy-five years of its settlement it suffered often, and greatly, by savage depredations . . . .

In the year 1697, on the 5th day of March, a body of Indians attacked this town, burnt a small number of houses, and killed and captivated about forty of the inhabitants.  A party of them, arrayed in all the terrors of the Indian war dress, and carrying with them the multiplied horrors of a savage invasion, approached near to the house of a Mr. Dustin.  This man was abroad at his usual labor.  Upon the first alarm, he flew to the house, with a hope of hurrying to a place of safety his family, consisting of his wife, who had been confined a week only in childbed; her nurse a Mrs. Mary Neff, a widow from the neighborhood; and eight children.  Seven of his children he ordered to flee with the utmost expedition in the course opposite to that in which the danger was approaching, and went himself to assist his wife.  Before she could leave her bed, the savages were upon them.  Her husband, des-pairing of rendering her any service, flew to the door, mounted his horse, and determined to snatch up the child with which he was unable to part when he should overtake the little flock.  When he came up to them, about two hundred yards from his house, he was unable to make a choice, or to leave anyone of the number.  He therefore determined to take his lot with them and to defend them from their murderers, or die by their side.  A body of the Indians pursued and came up with him, and from near distances fired at him and his little company.  He returned the fire and retreated, alternately.  For more than a mile he kept so resolute a face to his enemy, retiring in the rear of his charge, returned the fire of the savages so often and with so good success, and sheltered so effectually his terrified companions that he finally lodged them all, safe from the pursuing butchers, in a distant house.  When it is remembered how numerous his assailants were, how bold when an overmatch for their enemies, how active, and what excellent marksmen, a devout mind will consider the hand of Providence as unusually visible in the preservation of this family.

Another party of the Indians entered the house immediately after Mr. Dustin had quitted it, and found Mrs. Dustin and her nurse, who was attempting to fly with the infant in her arms.  Mrs. Dustin they ordered to rise instantly; and, before she could completely dress herself, obliged her and her companion to quit the house after they had plundered it and set it on fire.  In company with several other captives, they began their march into the wilderness; she, feeble, sick, terrified beyond measure, partially clad, one of her feet bare, and the season utterly unfit for comfortable traveling.  The air was chilly and keen; and the earth covered, alternately, with snow and deep mud.  Her conductors were unfeeling, insolent, and revengeful.  Murder was their glory, and torture their sport.  Her infant was in her nurse's arms, and infants were the customary victims of savage barbarity.

The company had proceeded but a short distance when an Indian, thinking it encumbrance, took the child out of the nurse's arms and dashed its head against a tree.  What were then the feelings of the mother?

Such of the other captives as began to be weary and to lag, the Indians tomahawked.  The slaughter was not an act of revenge, nor of cruelty.  It was a mere convenience: an effort so familiar as not even to excite an emotion.

Feeble as Mrs. Dustin was, both she and her nurse sustained without yielding the fatigue of the journey.  Their intense distress for the death of the child and of their companions, anxiety for those whom they had left behind, and unceasing terror for themselves raised these unhappy women to such a degree of vigor that, notwith-standing their fatigue, their exposure to cold, their sufferance of hunger, and their sleeping on damp ground under an inclement sky, they finished an expedition of about one hundred and fifty miles without losing their spirits or injuring their health.

The wigwam to which they were conducted, and which belonged to the savage who had claimed them as his property, was inhabited by twelve persons.  In the month of April this family set out with their captives for an Indian settlement still more remote, and informed them that, when they arrived at the settlement, they must be stripped, scourged, and run the gauntlet, naked, between two files of Indians containing the whole number found in the settlement; for such, they declared, was the standing custom of their nation.  This information, you will believe, made a deep impression on the minds of the captive women, and led them, irresistibly, to devise all the possible means of escape.  On the 31st of the same month, very early in the morning, Mrs. Dustin, while the Indians were asleep, having awakened her nurse and a fellow prisoner (a youth taken some time before from Worcester), dispatched, with the assistance of her companions, ten of the twelve Indians.  The other two escaped.  With the scalps of these savages, they returned.  through the wilderness; and, having arrived safely at Haverhill, and afterwards at Boston, received a handsome reward for their intrepid conduct from the legislature.

Whether all their sufferings, and all the danger of suffering anew, justified this slaughter may probably be questioned by you or some other exact moralist.  Precedents innumerable and of high authority may indeed be urged in behalf of these captives, but the moralist will equally question the rectitude of these.  Few persons, however, agonizing as Mrs. Dustin did, under the evils which she had already suffered and in the full apprehension of those which she was destined to suffer, would have been able to act the part of nice casuists; and fewer still, perhaps, would have exercised her intrepidity.  That she herself approved of the conduct which was applauded by the magistrates and divines of the day, in the cool hours of deliberation cannot be doubted.  The truth is, the season of Indian invasion, burning, butchering, captivity, threatening, and torture is an unfortunate time for nice investigation and critical moralizing.  A wife who had just seen her house burnt, her infant dashed against a tree, and her companions coldly murdered one by one; who supposed her husband and her remaining children to have shared the same fate; who was threatened with torture and indecency more painful than torture, and who did not entertain a doubt that the threatening would be fulfilled would probably feel no necessity, when she found it in her power to dispatch the authors of her sufferings, of asking questions concerning anything but the success of the enterprise.

But, whatever may be thought of the rectitude of her conduct, that of her husband is in every view honorable.  A finer succession of scenes for the pencil was hardly ever presented to the eye than is furnished by the efforts of this gallant man, with their interesting appendages.  The artist must be destitute indeed of talents who could not engross every heart, as well as every eye, by exhibitions of 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 newborn 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.







[Source:  Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York.  S. Converse, Printer.  New Haven, 1821  (Vol. 1; Letter XXXIX).]

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