EARLY nineteenth-century New England, apparently under the impetus of the romantic interest of the past, rediscovered its own colonial history and exploited it in novels and tales. Stories of captivity of the colonists had a wide appeal, not only because they were straight- forward and exciting, but because the ancestors of many New England men and women had been among the captives.
The story of Hannah Dustin1 is memorable among such accounts because it is both briefer and more violent than most of the narratives. From the beginning it appealed not only to the historical imagination of its readers but to the moral imagination as well. It illustrated the hardihood of New England pioneers but it raised questions about the moral cost of their triumph. As succeeding generations retold Hannah Dustin's story, it came to illustrate not only frontier conditions during King William's War, but the shifting judgements and sensibilities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It would be impossible, and probably unprofitable, to try to deal with all the printed versions of the Dustin story. The examples considered here are either primary sources or the work of writers and historians of distinction.
The account begins with Cotton Mather, not only because he heard the story
from Hannah herself and was the first to record it, but because his account
in the Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) contains the germs of all the
moral and social questions to which later writers would respond: Is the killing
of one's Indian captors justified? Is killing squaws and children ever justifiable?
Is killing Christian (although Catholic) Indians justifiable? Is scalping Indian
victims and collecting a bounty on the scalps justifiable? Should a wife and
mother be judged by standards
* Mrs. Whitford is Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
not applied to men? And finally, was Hannah admirable as well as courageous?
The authors answer these questions by their omissions and evasions as frequently as by direct judgement, yet the problems haunt the story whenever it is told.
Since Mather's account in the Magnalia served as a primary source for
all except two of the subsequent retellings, the Magnalia version is
here reprinted in its entirety. 2 It will serve both as an
introduction to the history of Hannah Dustin and as a basis for the discussion
of Mather's attitudes toward the events that he here chronicles.
On March 15, 1697, the salvages made a descent upon the skirts of
Haverhill, murdering and captivating about thirty-nine persons, and burning
about half a dozen houses. In this broil, one Hannah Dustan, having lain in
about a week, attended with her nurse, Mary Neff, a body of terrible Indians
drew near unto the house where she lay, with designs to carry on their bloody
devastations. Her husband hastened from his employments abroad un-to the relief
of his distressed family; and first bidding seven of his eight
children (which were from two to seventeen years of age) to get
away as fast as they could unto some garrison in the town, he went in to inform
his wife of the horrible distress come upon them. Ere she could get up, the
fierce Indians were got so near, that, utterly desparing to do her any service,
he ran out after his children; resolving that on the horse which he had with
him, he would ride away with that which he should in this extremity find his
affections to pitch most upon, and leave the rest unto the care of the Divine
Providence. He overtook his children, about forty rod from his door; but then
such was the agony of his parental affections, that he found it impossible
for him to distinguish anyone of them from the rest; wherefore he took up a
courageous resolution to live and die with them all. A party of Indians came
up with him; and now, though they fired at him, and he fired at them, yet he
manfully kept at the reer of his little army of unarmed children, while
they marched off with the pace of a child of five years old; until, by the singular
providence of God, he ar-
rived safe with them all unto a place of safety about a mile or two from his house.
But his house must in the mean time have more dismal tragedies acted at it.
The nurse, trying to escape with the newborn infant, fell into the hands of
the formidable salvages; and those furious tawnies coming into the house, bid
poor Dustan to rise immediately. Full of astonishment, she did so; and sitting
down in the chimney with an heart full of most fearful expectation, she
saw the raging dragons rifle all that they could carry away, and set the house
on fire. About nineteen or twenty Indians now led these away, with about half
a score other English captives; but ere they had gone many steps, they dash'd
out the brains of the infant against a tree; and several of the other captives,
as they began to tire in the sad journey, were soon sent unto their long home;
the salvages would presently bury their hatchets in their brains, and leave
their carcases on the ground for birds and beasts to feed upon. However, Dustan
(with her nurse) not- withstanding her present condition, travelled that night
about a dozen miles, and then kept up with their new masters in a long travel
of an hundred and fifty miles, more or less, within a few days ensuing, without
any sensible damage in their health, from the hardships of their travel, their
lodging, their diet, and their many other difficulties. These two poor women
were now in the hands of those whose "tender mercies are cruelties;" but the
good God, who hath all "hearts in his own hands," heard the sighs of these prisoners,
and gave them to find unexpected favour from the master who hath laid claim
unto them. That Indian family consisted of twelve per- sons; two stout men,
three women, and seven children; and for the shame of many an English family,
that has the character of prayerless upon it, I must now publish what these
poor women assure me. 'Tis this: in obedience to the instructions which the
French have given them, they would have prayers in their family not less than
thrice every day; in the morning, at noon, and in the evening; nor would they
ordinarily let their children eat or sleep, without first saying their prayers.
Indeed, these idolaters were, like the rest of their whiter brethren, persecutors,
and would not endure that these poor women should retire to their English prayers,
if they could hinder them. Nevertheless, the poor
women had nothing but fervent prayers to make their lives comfortable or tolerable;
and by being daily sent out upon business, they had opportunities, together
and asunder, to do like another Hannah in "pouring out their souls before the
Lord." Nor did their praying friends among our selves forbear to "pour out"
supplications for them. Now, they could not observe it without some wonder,
that their Indian master sometimes when he saw them dejected, would say unto
them, "What need you trouble your self? If your God will have you delivered,
you shall be so!" And it seems our God would have it so to be. This Indian family
was now travelling with these two captive women, (and an English youth taken
from Worcester, a year and a half before,) unto a rendezvouz of salvages, which
they call a town, some where beyond Penacook; and they still told these poor
women that when they came to this town, they must be stript, and scourg'd, and
run the gantlet through the whole army of Indians. They said this was the fashion
when the captives first came to a town; and they derided some of the faint-hearted
English, which, they said, fainted and swoon'd away under the torments of this
discipline. But on April 30, while they were yet, it may be, about an hun- dred
and fifty miles from the Indian town, a little before break of day, when the
whole crew was in a dead sleep, (reader, see if it prove not so!) one of these
women took up a resolution to imitate the action of Jael upon Siseria; and being
where she had not her own life secured by any law unto her she thought she was
not forbidden by any law to take away the life of the murderers by whom her
child had been butchered. She heartened the nurse and youth to assist her in
this enterprize; and all furnished themselves with hatchets for the purpose,
they struck such home blows upon the heads of their sleeping oppressors, that
ere they could any of them struggle into any effectual resistance, "at the feet
of these poor prisoners, they bow'd, they fell, they lay down; at their feet
they bow'd, they fell; where they bow'd, there they fell down dead." Only one
squaw escaped, sorely wounded, from them in the dark; and one boy, whom they
reserved asleep, intending to bring him away with them, suddenly waked, and
scuttled away from this desolation. But cutting off the scalps of the ten wretches,
they came off: and received fifty
pounds from the General Assembly of the province, as a recompence of their action; besides which, they received many "presents of congratulation" from their more private friends: but none gave 'em greater taste of bounty than Colonel Nicholson, the Governour of Maryland, who, hearing of their action, sent 'em a very generous token of his favour.
Hannah returned to learn that her husband had been newly appointed commander of a garrison house3 and that her children were all safe. She also learned that the bounty on Indian scalps had expired; or perhaps she had known this from the beginning but trusted to the Massachusetts General Court to rectify so obvious an error. She had risked precious time to gain those scalps. The explanation sometimes given later, that her story would not be believed without evidence, is patently false. If her credibility were the only issue at stake, sooner or later there would be corroborative accounts. Actually, Hannah Bradley, another Haverhill woman, was a captive in the camp where the wounded squaw sought refuge.4 But to collect a scalp bounty Hannah needed to produce the scalps.
After a brief rest at home, Hannah and her husband, together with Mary Neff and Samuel Leonardson, carried a petition to Boston and presented it to the General Court on behalf of Thomas Dustin.
To the Right Honorable the Lieut Governor & the Great & General assembly
of the Province of Massachusetts Bay now convened in Boston The Humble Petition
of Thomas Durstan of Haverhill Sheweth That the wife of ye petitioner (with
one Mary Neff) hath in her Late captivity among the Barbarous Indians, been
disposed & assisted by heaven to do an extraordinary action, in the just slaughter
of so many of the Barbarians, as would by the law of the Province which--------a
few months ago, have entitled the actors unto considerable recompense from the
Publick. That tho the----------of that good Law--------------no claims to any
such consideration from the publick, yet your petitioner humbly----------------that
the merit of the action still remains the same; & it
seems a matter of universal desire thro the whole Province that it should not pass unrecompensed.
And that your petitioner having lost his estate in that calamity wherein his wife was carried into her captivity render him the fitter object for what consideration the public Bounty shall judge proper for what hath been herein done, of some consequence, not only unto the persons more immediately delivered, but also unto the Generall Interest
Wherefore humbly Requesting a favorable Regard on this occasion
Your Petitioner shall pray &c
Despite the missing words its purport is clear. Hannah has performed a service to the community and deserves an appropriate expression of gratitude. It also implies a justification for killing the squaws and children, if any justification were needed when the captives' safety depended upon several hours head start. Grim though the comparison may be, there is considerable resemblance between Hannah's service and that rendered by a contemporary petitioner to the town of Haverhill who asked payment for killing a large wolf on the ground that it was a "bitch wolf and that she will not bring any more whelps." 6
The assembly apparently recognized the principle as valid. It awarded £25 to Hannah Dustin, £12 10s. each to Mary Neff and Samuel Leon ardson.7
Hannah Dustin also received gifts from various well-wishers in Boston, among them Samuel Sewall. Sewall's diary for April 29 records, "signalized by the achievement of Hannah Dustin, Mary Neff, and Samuel Lenerson; who killed Two men [Indians], their masters, and two women and 6. others, and have brought in Ten Scalps." 8
On May 12, Hannah called upon Sewall and supplied him with details of her adventure not recorded by Mather.
Hannah Dustan came to see us: I gave her part of Conecticut Flax.
She saith her master, whom she killed, did formerly live with
Mr. Roulandson at Lancaster. He told her, that when he prayed the English way, he thought that was good, but now he found the French way was better. The single man shewed the night before, to Saml Lenarson, how he used to knock Englishmen on the head and take off their scalps; little thinking that the captives would make some of their first experiment upon himself. Saml Lenarson killed him.9
Haverhill tradition, recorded chiefly in Mirick's History of Haverhill
(1832) contributes such details as that Hannah was carried off wearing only
one shoe, that the infant was brained against an apple tree from which local
people remembered eating fruit, that the captives had begun their flight before
Hannah insisted that they return to take the Indian scalps, and that the captives
paddled night and day on their escape.
Before 1860 the source or sources from which an author drew his material can be identified by recognizing details exclusive to one or another of these accounts.
Cotton Mather published the story of Hannah Dustin three times: in Humiliations
followed by Deliverances (1697), in Decennium Luctuosum (1702), and
in the Magnalia Christi Americana (1702).
R. W. G. Vail postulated that the Humiliations was based upon information
received from Hannah's pastor, John Rolfe.10 But
a careful reading of the work makes clear that Mather learned the story from
Hannah herself. Apparently all three ex-captives heard Mather preach the sermon
which, when printed, became Humiliations followed by Deliverances. The
body of the sermon is a jeremiad with probable political implications. Mather
lists community sins presumably justifying God's wrath and then proceeds to
list the humiliations God has laid in rebuke upon New England, a list including
the blasting of grain, losses on land and sea, the renewed Indian war and a
falling away of spiritual commitment. He exhorts the congregation to personal
humiliation and repentance and brings the main section to a close before recounting
the story of Hannah Dustin's captivity almost word for word as it appears in
the Magnalia. He concludes "But cutting off the scalps of the ten wretches,
who had enslav'd them they are come off; and I perceive that newly arriving among us they are in the Assembly at this time, to give thanks unto God their Saviour." 11
Read alone, the Dustin story reveals that Mather, unlike Sewall with his "six others," correctly numbers the children in the camp. But he describes their death in an almost incantatory Biblical quotation. " At the feet of those poor prisoners, They bowed, they fell, they lay down; at their feet they bowed, they fell; where they bowed, there they fell down dead." The technique cloaks the actual killing in the authority of Biblical language. Thereafter Hannah and her companions are said to take the scalps of the "ten wretches" who have, as though by magic, ceased to be men, women, and children. He justifies the Indians' deaths (apparently quoting Mrs. Dustin) on legalistic grounds. "Being where she had not her own life secured by any law unto her, she thought she was not forbidden by any law, to take away the life of the murderers by whom her child had been butchered." 12
Read in the context of the sermon to which it is appended, Hannah's story takes on strong religious overtones, but not those a modern reader might anticipate. If he is concerned with the rectitude of slaughtering one's Indian captors his concern is soon overcome by his satisfaction at this defeat of the Popish enemy. He has listed the Indian raids among the humiliations suffered by New England, and the Indians are, therefore, a necessary scourge to the people of the Lord. But in Hannah's case, and by extension New England's, if the captivity was decreed by Providence so equally was the deliverance. The Indian taunted the women saying, "What need you trouble your self? If your God will have you delivered, you shall be so." Mather responds exultantly, " And it seems our God would have it so to be." 13
Behind the entire emphasis on the Indians' Catholicism lurks a specter almost
too grim to be mentioned. The French were not only inciting the Indians and
buying captives of them, they were attempting to convert their prisoners. The
Reverend John Williams, "The Redeemed Captive," recounted the fierce contest
for the souls of the captives going on between the French and the English.14
The Reverend Mr. Williams
rejoiced at every captive who remained staunch; but the Williams family provided the classic example to nourish colonial fears. Eunice Williams, eight at the time of her capture, became a Catholic, married an Indian, and never returned to her home in Deerfield. As Timothy Dwight implied many years later, such a fate might be worse than the death of captives, for if they succumbed to conversion they were lost, perhaps, for all eternity.15
Mather, then, was a combatant in a continuing religious war which happened to coincide with King William's War.16 He was also, in his sermon, attacking the creeping secularism he discovered in the policies of Governor Dudley. By using the Dustin narrative to imply that if men would genuinely repent and humble themselves they could be delivered, Mather places himself in a position in which he must uphold Hannah ' s conduct. The chief reason for believing that the legalistic justification for Hannah Dustin's actions was offered by herself is that in telling her story in Humiliations Cotton Mather is actually advancing an entirely different thesis. He used the escape, made certain only by the Indian deaths, as a sign of God's mercy to those who bowed under humiliation. Thus Mrs. Dustin's deliverance, together with the safety of her husband and children, was the focus of Mather's concern. He was in no position to criticize the means by which it had been accomplished.
When Mather reprinted the story in Decennium Luctuosum he captioned the story "a notable exploit; Dux Faemina Facti," or "a woman the leader in the achievement." The added title radically alters the emphasis of the story. In the sermon he had seen her chiefly as a tool of Providence and her sex was of little importance. In the Decennium he emphasizes her womanhood. The story is identical with that of the sermon except for a final paragraph supplying the sequel that the captives received £50 from the General Court of the province.
This version, together with its new title, was copied into the Magnalia; there
it strengthened the tendency of later authors, first, to marvel
that a woman should so transcend her sex, and, second, to recoil from a mother who could slay and scalp children.
Timothy Dwight probably knew the Magnalia account but he wrote of Hannah
Dustin after a journey to Haverhill where he apparently consulted local authorities
on the antiquities and places of interest. His version of the Dustin story omits
the details of Samuel Leonardson's learning to kill and scalp from the brave
who was his first victim, but includes the tradition that Hannah wore a single
shoe into captivity .The number of savages in the family is given as twelve
but they are not distinguished by age or sex and he says Mrs. Dustin "dispatched,
with the aid of her companions, ten of the twelve Indians"17
and after arriving at Boston "received a handsome reward." 18
Dwight emphasizes not only the slaughter of the infant but the tomahawking of other captives and the prospect of running the gauntlet naked. He raises the question of the morality of Hannah's conduct obliquely: "Whether all their sufferings, and all the danger of suffering anew, justified this slaughter may be questioned by you or some other exact moralist,"19 and answers:
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, ...would probably feel no necessity. . . of asking questions concerning anything, but the success of the enterprize.20
He had already recounted Thomas Dustin's successful defense of the children
but at this point he returns to say that whatever may be the judgement on Hannah's
conduct, that of her husband was in every view honorable. He recapitulates the
story by envisioning the scene of capture as an artist might draw it, concentrating
on Thomas Dustin at the rear of his band of children while in the background
was seen "the kindled dwelling; the sickly mother; the terrified nurse, with
born infant in her arms; and the furious natives surrounding them. . . ."21
Despite his oblique moral question, Timothy Dwight's sympathies seem pretty clearly with Hannah. But Dwight was from a frontier family. He remembered lookouts erected at the outskirts of Northampton during the French and Indian War and news of the massacre at Fort William Henry.
Although he speaks of Thomas Dustin's success as "providential," he does not use either Mather's legal or providential arguments in Hannah's defense. He sees her exploit in its proper historical context, although he perhaps placed a bit more emphasis on the "indecency" of nakedness than an earlier age might have done.
Whittier included the story of Hannah Dustin under the title " A Mother's
Revenge" in his first book The Legends of New England (1831). 22
His story differed significantly from the Mather account, apparently reflecting
both local tradition and conscious literary manipulation of his material. His
theme was the resolution created in a woman's character by the exigencies of
the frontier. In Whit tier's version of the story, Hannah heroically sends her
husband to protect the children. He thus adds luster to Hannah's character and
redeems Thomas Dustin from possible charges that he deserted his wife and infant
daughter. He then describes the death of the infant in terrible detail:
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.23
Possibly relying on tradition, Whittier continues:
She has often said, that at this moment, all was darkness and hor-
ror--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 flXed.24
Thus Whittier creates a defense of temporary insanity for Hannah. He makes the defense plausible by implying that her vengeance and escape followed within a few days of her capture. He omits mention of Samuel Leonardson entirely and transforms the mature widow, Mary Neff, into Hannah's "servant girl." The story concludes with an amazing shift from Gothic terror to sheer unadulterated sentimentality:
Blow followed blow, until ten out of twelve, the whole number of savages, were stiffening in blood. One escaped with a dreadful wound. The last--a small boy--still slept amidst the scene of carnage. Mrs. Dustin 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.25
Thus Whittier presents Hannah in the best and most heroic light possible.
She has deliberately sacrificed herself for the safety of her children. She appears
to kill her captors while in a black enchantment of shock and grief. And the story
seems, quite implausibly, to imply that the Indian band consisted of eleven warriors
and one small boy. "Such," concludes Whittier, "is the simple and unvarnished
story of a New En- gland woman." 26
Obviously the story is neither simple nor unvarnished. Whittier had been collecting
material for a history of Haverhill and even put out a prospectus advertising
the work. For some reason he abandoned the project and turned his material over
to B. L. Mirick, who issued the History in 1832. Chase, in a later history of
Haverhill, implies that there was little left for Mirick to do "except arrange
the material and superintend its publication." 27
If Chase is correct, Whit tier had at hand all the
information appearing in the Mirick history which cites the Magnalia and
Sewall's Diary in addition to local records and traditions.
Mirick does not record that Mrs. Dustin bade her husband save the children.
Neither does he record Hannah Dustin's description of her emotions at the death
of her infant. Of course Mirick's omissions do not prove that Whittier did not
learn such details from local tradition while he was collecting material. However,
Whit tier must surely have known the composition of the Indian party, of Samuel
Leonardson, and of the General Court's reward to the returned captives, all
recorded in the History of Haverhill and omitted in "The Mother's Revenge."
Apparently by 1832 Hannah's heroism was being questioned even in Haverhill. Mirick rises to her defense in answer to the strict moralists who would say even "fear of the gauntlet or the prospect of suffering their danger anew, would not justify the act." 28 Mirick replies as Dwight had before him that "a wife in such a situation would not be apt to critically analyze the morality of the Deed." 29 But Whit tier deliberately conceals everything but the taking of the scalps; this act he balances against the barbarity of the Indians, their mockery of Hannah's sorrow, and even this is softened by the hint that Hannah was not herself at the time she slew her captors.
Whittier dismissed Thomas Dustin in a couple of sentences. Mirick, like Dwight, turns to Dustin as a means of avoiding further discussion of Hannah: "But let what will be said of her conduct, there is something in the actions of the father and husband, disinterested perhaps, beyond comparison and noble beyond example." 30 Since Dustin obviously abandoned his wife, this inflated rhetoric makes no sense at all, unless, as Whit tier has it, Mrs. Dustin deliberately sent her husband to ensure the children's safety. But if Mirick knew any local tradition to support Whit tier's version, he never mentions it.
At Haverhill, on Apri117, 1853, Thoreau records that he was told by the owner
of a garrison house, "not a very old man," that the owner's grandfather was
seventeen at the time the French and Indians attacked
the town and killed Rolfe.31 A week later Thoreau tells of tramping to Creek Pond and back over Parsonage Hill. "It is along the east side of this pond that the Indians are said to have taken their way with Hannah Dustin and her nurse in 1697 toward the Merrimack. I walked along it and thought how they might have been ambuscaded." 32
These Journal entries testify both to Thoreau's interest in the story
of Hannah Dustin and his tendency toward imaginative participation in her history.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Thoreau in retelling the story in A
Week on the Concord and the Merrimack (1849) gives the story an immediacy
it had not had since Mather's first use of it in Humiliations.
Boating down the Merrimack in 1839 Thoreau recalls that "one hundred and forty-two
years before this, probably about this time in the afternoon,"33
the canoe carrying the erstwhile captives and "still bleeding scalps of ten
aborigines"34 had followed the same course on its
flight to Haverhill. He recalls that Hannah was carried off with only a single
shoe, the braining of her infant against an apple tree, the sexes and ages of
the Indian captors, the lesson in killing given to Samuel Leonardson, and the
canoe trip down the Merrimack. The distinctive feature of his account is that
he spends more imaginative energy on their journey home than he does on their
capture and escape. He compares his own comfort with that earlier flight in
which "they thus, in that chilly March evening...have already glided out of
sight, not to camp as we shall, at night, but while two sleep one will manage
the canoe, and the swift stream bear them onwards to the settlement, it may
be even to Old John Lovewell's house on Salmon Brook tonight." 35
Thus he calls up the ghosts of the past at the picturesque and hopeful hour
when they were approaching safety. Thereafter he concludes the story swiftly.
The Dustin family was all reunited except for the infant "whose brains were
dashed out against the apple tree, and there have been many who in later times
have lived to say that they had eaten of the fruit of that apple tree." 36
If there is judgement as well as art in Thoreau's tale it lies in that last ambiguous statement. Does it imply a peaceful, flourishing farmstead inhabited by the children and grandchildren of the Dustins, or a ghoulish tendency in humans titillated by the recollection of eating the fruit of a tree accursed-and if so does the reference hint at the Biblical apple which brought evil into the world? Thoreau merely turns to say, "This seems a long time ago, and yet it happened since Milton wrote his Paradise Lost. But its antiquity is not the less for that." 37 "From this September afternoon, and these now cultivated shores, those times seem more remote than the dark ages." 38
The reference to Milton, following directly upon the reference to the apple tree may be chance or conscious association. In either case, Thoreau does not speculate on the morality of Hannah's conduct nor mention her husband's indubitable rectitude. The tangled morality of the past belongs to history. What Thoreau perceives in consequence of his vision of the captives on the river is that the past is less remote measured in biological time, the generations, than in psychological time. The barbarities attendant on the settlement of New England belonged with the Dark Ages because they were inconceivably distant not only from the quiet farms of Haverhill but from the increasing sensibility which prevented Thoreau from hunting even small game.
If the usually forthright Thoreau was content to leave the moral ambiguities
of history unresolved, the frequently ambiguous Hawthorne was not. In 1836 while
Hawthorne and his sister were editing The American Magazine of Useful and
Entertaining Knowledge, Hawthorne contributed a sketch entitled "The Duston
Hawthorne quotes Mather at least twice and refers to him additionally, but
he dates the raid a year later than Mather does, and he gives the impression
that Samuel Leonardson was captured at Haverhill. He credits Governor Nicholson,
of Maryland, with the gift of £50 and writes that Hannah also received the bounty
on the dead Indians. Finally he provides an addendum which does not appear in
Mather, to the effect that in her old age Hannah received a pension as a "further
price of blood." 39 He here apparently confuses
Hannah with Mary Neff whose
son presented a petition in her behalf some forty years after her return from
captivity. One is forced to conclude that Hawthorne either wrote from memory of
the Magnalia or had before him an inaccurate account based upon the Magnalia.
Hawthorne divides his narrative almost equally between Thomas and Hannah Dustin. He treats Thomas sympathetically, emphasizing his distraction and giving the children characteristics which would make choice among them almost impossible.
There was his first-born; there, too the little one who, till within a week past, had been the baby;...there was one child whom he loved for his mild, quiet and holy disposition, and destined him to be a minister; and another, whom he loved not less for his rough and fearless spirit, and who, could he live to be a man, would do a man's part against these bloody Indians.40
Clearly Hawthorne is employing techniques of fiction, or fictionalized biography, to heighten the drama of an already overdramatic story.
Hawthorne magnifies Thomas Dustin's heroism even while he acknowledges that in guarding the children Dustin "quite forgot the still more perilous situation of his wife," but adds, "or as is more probable, he had such knowledge of the good lady's character as afforded him a comfortable hope that she would hold her own, even in a contest with a whole tribe of lndians." 41 Thus Hawthorne's excuse for Dustin is that he knew the character of his wife. The innuendo paves the way for Hawthorne's treatment of Hannah and her escape, although it is sometimes difficult to be sure whether he most disapproves of Hannah or of Cotton Mather. In a passage which becomes increasingly ludicrous Hawthorne reminds us that the warriors were praying Indians.
Mather, like an old hard-hearted, pedantic bigot, as he was, seems trebly to exult in the destruction of these poor wretches, on account of their Popish superstitions. Yet what can be more touching than to think of these wild Indians, in their loneliness and their wanderings, wherever they went among the dark mysterious woods, still keeping up domestic worship.42
Such sentimentality proves chiefly how wise Thoreau was to relegate the entire episode to the Dark Ages. In an apparent attempt at balanced judgement, or possibly in ill-executed irony, Hawthorne reminds the reader that Mrs. Dustin did not know the fate of her seven children and says that the recollection of her own children strengthened her resolve as she slew and scalped the young Indians. After which he ends the tale with a shocking diatribe against Hannah.
According to our notion, it [Dustin's Island] should be held ac- cursed, for her sake. Would that the bloody old hag had been drowned in crossing Contocook river, or that she had sunk over head and ears in a swamp, and been there buried, until summoned forth to confront her victims at the Day of Judgement; or that she had gone astray and been starved to death in the forest, and nothing ever seen of her again, save her skeleton, with the ten scalps twisted around it for a girdle.43
Hawthorne, whose historical sense is acute in many stories with Puritan backgrounds, here deliberately discards the evidence that Hannah acted within the established norms of her society. The General Court had voted a bounty upon Indian scalps. The ministry approved her action, and Samuel Sewall, more sympathetic to Indians than most New Englanders of the time, gave her "part of Conecticut Flax."
In the latter half of the nineteenth century two local historians treated
the Dustin story at length. George Chase, in the History of Haverhill
(1861), brought together the Mather, Sewall, and Mirick accounts, supplementing
them by use of the town records. He corrected Mirick at some points and provided
a definitive recital of the Indian raid and its aftermath. He reprints Mather's
Magnalia account in its entirety because he says it is the most reliable,
Mather having "heard the story direct from the lips of Mrs. Dustin." 44
Then, having discussed the location of the Dustin house, Chase deliberately
and needlessly turns to compare Hannah's deeds unfavorably with those of her
husband. He reasons that Hannah attacked "twelve sleeping savages, seven
of whom were children, and but two of whom were men. It was not with her
a question of life or death, but of liberty and revenge." 45
In this instance Chase, with the Mather account directly before him, discarded both of Mather's justifications for the killings. Chase judges Hannah on the basis of a revenge motive that he, Whittier, and Bancroft ascribe to her. The only support for such an interpretation is Hannah's explanation that being where she had not her own life secured to her by law she felt it lawful to kill the Indians, "by whom her child had been butchered." The context in which these words appear suggests that Hannah is not seeking vengeance but invoking the Old Testament law of "an eye for an eye" which, for people who consciously formed their legal system upon Biblical law, represented not revenge but justice.
The Heroism of Hannah Duston46 is a patchwork
of borrowings from Mirick and Chase, supplemented by long quotations from Caverly's
epic poem "Merrimack." Caverly's chief departure from previous works lies in
his unequivocal acceptance of Hannah's heroism.
Although local historians might be expected to devote considerable attention to Haverhill's most famous daughter, national historians had less reason to do so. The raid in which Hannah Dustin was captured was of no particular significance in the course of King William's War. Yet historians of stature have gone out of their way to retell the story of Hannah's captivity and escape.
As early as Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts-Bay (1764), inclusion
of Hannah 's story seems to have been obligatory. After mentioning the March
1697 raid on Haverhill, Hutchinson goes on, "There was a woman (Hannah Dustan)
a heroine, made prisoner at this time; whose story although repeatedly published...we
cannot well omit." 47 The story as he tells it
is the Magnalia version reworded, with Thomas Dustin's role reduced to
a single sentence.
Samuel G. Drake reprints the Magnalia version in the appendix to Thomas
Church's History of King Philip's War also of the French and Indian
Wars at the Eastword (1829). 48 Parkman, Bancroft,
James Truslow Adams, and, more recently, Howard Peckham have worked it into
their histories. Bancroft in the History of the United States of America
from the Discovery of the Continent (1876) accuses the Jesuits of inciting
the Abenakis against the New England frontier and then leads into the Dus-
tin story, "Once, indeed, a mother achieved a startling revenge."49 He proceeds to an abbreviated version of Hannah's story, including Thomas Dustin's agonizing decision. He includes the detail that Samuel Leonardson was instructed in killing and scalping by his Indian master, but though he says there were two families of Indians he does not indicate that seven of the twelve persons were children. He records the taking of the scalps and the escape, but not the bounty or gifts.
Francis Parkman, after describing a series of sporadic frontier raids uses the Dustin story as an illustration of the "nature of the situation and the qualities it sometimes called forth." 50 He then retells the Mather version, accurately numbering the warriors, squaws, and children. The prisoners "watched by the corpses until daylight, when the Amazon scalped them all and the three made their way back to the settlements with the trophies of their exploit." 51 In a footnote he records that "Hannah and her companions received a bounty of fifty pounds for their ten scalps." 52 Mather and all those authors who followed him in approving Hannah's deed had consistently avoided referring to the gift of the General Court as a bounty. Parkman's use of the term coupled with his use of the word " Amazon" implies his judgement.
By 1925 James Truslow Adams seems to assume that Hannah's story is common knowledge. " Although Hannah Dustin's well-known exploit is the most popular of such episodes in the war, it is but typical of what many a man and woman endured and dared before the Treaty of Ryswick brought temporary peace to the harried settlers of the border in 1697." 53
However, in 1964 Howard Peckham in The Colonial Wars 1689-1762 seizes
an opportunity to insert Hannah's story. A brief preface begins, "Maine's Indians
carried on some raids in 1697 from Saco to Kittery. One story is still recounted."
54 Then he proceeds to recapitulate the Magnalia.
Thomas Dustin is credited with rescuing his children but his role is subordinated
to that of his wife. The numbers of warriors, squaws, and children are given
and even in this abbreviated version the
fact that they were Catholic and prayed night and morning is included. The three captives moved around a circle of "twelve Indians" and killed all but "one old squaw and a boy." 55 "Then they waited by their victims until dawn when the frugal Hannah Dustin proceeded to scalp each one. ...Massachusetts promptly paid them £50 bounty for the ten scalps, and Mr. Duston was reunited with his truly formidable wife." 56
Peckham's brief recapitulation of Hannah's exploit epitomizes the critical development of the tale. He retains a vestige of the anti-Catholic bias in Mather's pragmatic and providential approval. But like Hawthorne, Chase, and Parkman before him he disapproves of Hannah. In a way, Hannah and Thomas Dustin came to epitomize the two commonest border stories-one, that of the Indian captivity and deliverance, the other, that of the successful defender of family and fort. Had their roles been reversed their story might never have attracted more than local attention. But as the role of woman and mother was softened and sentimentalized during the nineteenth century, a century which defended its rejection of women's rights not only on the ground that women were naturally inferior of body and intellect, but with the positive pronouncement that women were too pure, too spiritual, for a wicked world and had therefore to be protected for their own good and that of the nation whose conscience they enshrined, Hannah Dustin became an increasingly embarrassing national heroine.
In consequence, her chroniclers, all men and increasingly removed from the
frontier, show a tendency to enlarge the figure of Thomas Dustin or to add some
derogatory judgement of Hannah. Though Mather told Thomas Dustin's story, Hannah's
exploit clearly dominated his narrative. Sewall did not mention Thomas Dustin,
but Dwight gave him equal importance with his wife. Although Whit tier and Thoreau
almost ignore him, Hawthorne writes not about Hannah but "the Duston Family"
and ends by comparing Hannah's conduct unfavorably with that of her husband,
as does Chase. Parkman refers to her as an "Amazon" and Peckham speaks of Thomas
being reunited with his "truly formidable wife." Thus, increasingly these men
judge her in terms of nineteenth-century views of the role of women. Parkman's
" Amazon" and Peckham's "truly formidable wife" are gratuitous
judgements not on the morality of her conduct but on the womanliness of her achievement.
The history of this brief narrative might well serve to underline the importance of judging more important literary works within their proper historical contexts. Over a period of two and one-half centuries the story of Hannah Dustin's heroism has undergone patterns of mutation and interpretation which not only reflect changing religious and social patterns in the United States but which might make the story in- comprehensible to Cotton Mather whose record of Hannah's captivity elevated her to national prominence.
No author fails to acknowledge Hannah's endurance and enterprise, but thereafter her historians diverge not only in their judgements of her conduct, but more interestingly in the reasons underlying their judgements. Cotton Mather justifies Hannah's killing of her Indian captors on two grounds: the legalistic argument which, one suspects, is the justification advanced by Hannah herself, and the providential argument which served Mather simultaneously against his Catholic foes abroad and his political foes at home. Mrs. Dustin's contemporaries seem to have subscribed tacitly to the view that Indians could be eliminated like wolves, to which they are frequently compared in frontier literature.
As time passed Hannah's legal argument lost its Old Testament authority and came to be interpreted, or misinterpreted, as a justification for vengeance. As Hannah's historians became further removed from frontier life, they increasingly admired women rather for their frailty than for their hardihood. The new crop of authors, fascinated by Hannah's story, yet deploring her conduct, insisted upon the harsher details of her exploit, while religious ardor and ethical judgement faded before social convention.
Yet in the 275 years since that day in March when the Abenakis burst into
the Dustin house, no critic of Hannah has ever so much as speculated on the
Indians' attitude toward the escaped captive. There are a good many recorded
instances of Indian vengeance upon men who had betrayed them. One thinks immediately
of the horrible death of Major Waldron even when he was confident he was secure.57
Major Frost was ambushed and killed, also in revenge for an old wrong, 58
suggests that Captain Chubb was similarly the victim of Indian vengeance.59 All these men were contemporaries of Hannah Dustin. Yet there is no record or tradition of any subsequent attempt upon Hannah's life, or any determined attack upon the Dustin garrison, although Haverhill was subjected to sporadic forays for nine years after her return and was the target of another major raid in 1707. It almost seems as though the Indians recognized that they and Hannah approached border warfare in the same spirit and that they owed her no grudge.
B. L. Mirick, History of Haverhill, Massachusetts
(Haverhill, 1832), p. 86.
There are at least four spellings of this name in the
accounts of the Dustin captivity. 8. Samuel Sewa1l, "Diary," in the Collections
of Massachusetts Historical Society (Cambridge, 1878), I, 452.
Samuel Sewall, "Diary," in the Collections of Massachusetts
Historical Society (Cambridge, 1878), I, 452.
Sewall, 1,453. Mirick in History of Haverhill, p. 89, says the Indian had lived with the "Rev. Mr. Rowlandson of Lancaster." The Indian may have been a servant, or slave, in the family of Mary Rowlandson, the famous captive during King Philip's War.
Vail, The Voice of/he Old Frontier (Philadelphia,
1949), p. 189.
Cotton Mather, Humiliations followed by Deliverances
(Boston, 1697), p. 47.
John Williams, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion
(Boston, 1795), pp. 89,90.
Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York
(New Haven, 1821), II, 87. A similar thought may have prompted Mary Rowlandson's
comment about her son's captivity, "It might have been worse with him had
he been sold to the French, than it proved to be in his remaining with the
Indians." Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682;
rpt., Boston, 1930), p. 42.
This view is supported by the position of the Dustin
story in Magnalia.. The Seventh Book, in which Hannah's story is told,
is entitled Ecclesiarum Praelia or, "a book of the wars of the Lord."
Whittier, p. 128. The implication in this passage, that
Hannah underwent a sudden change of character, verging perhaps on madness,
makes Whittier's Hannah Dustin the progenitor of the dedicated Indian killers
in such novels as Robert M. Bird's Nick of the Woods and Zane Grey's
The Spirit of the Border.