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From Kathryn Whitford’s “Hannah Dustin: The Judgement of History,” pp. 324-325.

From Kathryn Whitford’s “Hannah Dustin: The Judgement of History,”
pp. 324-325.

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. Major Frost was ambushed and killed, also in revenge for an old wrong, and Mather suggests that Captain Chubb was similarly the victim of Indian vengeance. 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.

Source: Whitford, Kathryn. “Hannah Dustin: The Judgement of History.” Essex Institute Historical Collections Vol. CVIII, No. 4 (October 1972): 304-325.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11893/

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