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The Duston Family

From Gordon M. Sayre’s, American Captivity Narratives:
Selected Narratives with Introduction
, pages 179-81.

The capture and violent revenge of Hannah Dustan were initially recorded only in Mather's terse, three-page account printed here and in brief journal entries by a few other New Englanders, including the famous diarist Samuel Sewell (W. Franklin 115-16). Her own direct narrative was never set to paper. Yet her actions created a sensation when they first came to light, and the significance of her story far exceeds these brief written sources. Rather than following the common pattern that [Hannah] Swarton's experience did, Dustan's actions were extraordinary. And like the story of John Smith's rescue by Pocahontas, the captivity of Hannah Dustan assumes the status of a legend--it is a story that has grown and changed across time, through retellings by prominent writers and historians and through local oral traditions reflected in many published sources. . . . Today she continues to be a touchstone for scholars of early American culture. The site of her capture in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and the site of the murder of the captors. . .were memorialized in the 1870s with the erection at each site of a large statue of her, and she remains a local hero in Haverhill. From the fifty-pound reward she shared with her two cocaptives (a sum they collected despite the fact that the official bounty on Indian scalps had just been rescinded by the Massachusetts authorities) to the two bronze memorials, Dustan's revenge was met with applause--but it also aroused discomfort.

Thoreau's account of Dustan comes from his philosophical travel book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It is occasioned by his paddling with his brother down the same stretch of the Merrimack in 1839 that he imagined Dustan paddled down in a stolen birch bark canoe in 1697. Thoreau's reference to the apple tree was inspired by local legend about a tree in Haverhill. This led him to the seemingly unlikely equation of Hannah Dustan with Eve. The first line of the paragraph following the excerpt reads, "This seems a long while ago, and yet it happened since Milton wrote his Paradise Lost" (p. 264). For Thoreau, the lost paradise is the connection with Nature that Dustan's victims enjoyed and that was violated by her act of vengeance.

For modern scholars of the captivity narrative, Hannah Dustan offers a radical antithesis to Mary Rowlandson, an alternative archetype of the female captive and her place within Puritan society. Rowlandson was a highly literate upper-class woman, wife of a minister who capitalized on her story in his sermons, and mother of three children who shared the trial of captivity. In contrast, Dustan's family was, to use a modern term, dysfunctional. Her father was abusive. Her husband was a farmer and bricklayer who is not known to have written anything and was publicly rebuked by ministers for rebellious and abusive behavior. Worst of all, her sister, Elizabeth Emerson, was executed for killing a child she had borne out of wedlock (Ulrich 184-85). Rowlandson piously trusted in God to deliver her from the trials of captivity--Dustan took matters into her own hands with a tomahawk. Her violent action remains sensational and has been variously interpreted. June Namias regards her as the origin of the "Amazon" archetype of female captives, the opposite of the more sentimental "frail flower" type, who was more likely to faint than attempt escape (29-48). That Dustan could give birth less than a week before she was captured, endure a long forced march, then plot a bloody murder infuses femininity with a violent heroism that might threaten masculine roles. Ulrich points out that many colonial women had to be "deputy husbands" while their spouses were absent (35-50), as Thomas Dustan was at the moment of attack. Leslie Fiedler regards Hannah Dustan from a somewhat resentful masculine perspective, calling her a "Great WASP Mother of Us All" and her tomahawk the weapon of the castrating "termagant wife" akin to Mrs. Rip Van Winkle in Washington Irving's story (95). It is this folkloric and critical heritage, beginning in the I700s, that has made Dustan so significant.

Fiedler, Leslie. The Return of the Vanishing American. New York: Stein, 1968.

Franklin, Wayne, ed. American Voices, American Lives. New York: Norton, 1997. [Includes several retellings of the Dustan legend.]


Namias, June. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1993.

Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. New York: Library of America, 1985.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, I650-I750. New York: Oxford UP; 1980.


Source: Sayre, Gordon M. American Captivity Narratives: Selected Narratives with Introduction. New Riverside Editions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000. Excerpts from pages 179-81.



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