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The Duston Family

From Kathryn Whitford’s “Hannah Dustin: The Judgement of History,”
pp. 318-320.

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 Family."

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.” 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.
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 Indians." 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.
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 accursed, 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.
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."

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



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