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The Story of Hannah Duston: Cotton Mather to Thoreau

The Story of Hannah Duston: Cotton Mather to Thoreau

by Robert D. Arner

On March 15, 1697/98, a band of Canadian Indians allied with the French in King William's War attacked the frontier town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, and, in a short skirmish, killed more than a score of the inhabitants, burned a number of dwellings, and carried a dozen whites into captivity. Among these twelve were Hannah Duston, her newborn infant, and her nurse, Mary Neff. Hannah's husband Thomas fought a successful rearguard action and saved his seven other children, but he could not rescue his wife or the baby. As the Indians left the burning settlement, they paused to dash out the infant's brains against an apple tree. A few days later, the war party split up, intending to re-unite at a village beyond the Penacook River in Maine, where, the two women were told, they would be stripped, scourged, and forced to run the gauntlet. Hannah and Mary, along with a boy, Samuel Lennardson, captured a year and a half earlier in a raid on Worcester, were guarded by an Indian family of twelve: two warriors, three women, and seven children of various ages. On the night of March 30,1 while still several days' distance from the village, Hannah aroused the other captives, and together the three tomahawked their sleeping captors. Only one squaw, severely wounded, and one boy escaped. Then, after scalping their victims, the whites made their way down the Merrimac River to an outlying settlement, where they were welcomed as heroes. The Massachusetts General Assembly awarded each of them fifty pounds, and Francis Nicholson, Governor of Maryland, added his own generous contribution to the reward. In later years, Mrs. Duston sought, and was granted by the state, an additional sum of money in recognition of her services as an Indian slayer. 2

A few days after her return, Mrs. Duston journeyed to Boston, where she told her tale to Samuel Sewall, who recorded it in his diary, 3 and to Cotton Mather, who reserved a place for it in his Magnalia Christi Americana. Here the story makes its first printed appearance in American literature. Predictably, Mather regarded Hannah's escape as one of the "Wonders of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION"4 and transformed her into a Puritan saint, at once a self-reliant frontier woman and an afflicted Christian saved by God's "infinite Power, Wisdom, Goodness, and Faithfulness" (I, 23). Also predictably his method of narrating her deliverance relied heavily upon Biblical parallels to elevate her stature, to define the significance of the event to the American Puritan community, and to establish continuity between Old and New World experiences. 5 To him, her name and her motherhood suggested links to the prophet Samuel's mother. Her deed made her a modern Jael, slayer of Sisera (Judges 4) and deliveress of her people. The Puritans were seen as historical types of the beleagured Israelites, chastised by death and captivity for evil done in the sight of the Lord but not entirely forsaken; as in Psalms, they will surely be preserved in the end, for God will not give His people up to destruction. "Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is their God? let him be known among the heathen in our sight by the revenging of the blood of thy servants which is shed, " wrote the Psalmist in 79:10; Mather's Indians challenged their prisoners with a similar taunt-- "What need you trouble yourself? If your God will have you delivered, you shall be so!" (II, 551)-- and the result was the same as for the Biblical heathens. Although Mather nowhere quotes it directly, the book of Psalms is nearly as important to his version of Hannah's escape as is Judges, for if the latter provided him with praise of Hannah-Jael as "blessed... above women in the tent" (5:24), the first offered him evidence that God would not entirely desert His nation. Both books, moreover, give epic dimensions to the suffering and the captivity of the New Englanders.

In his retelling of Hannah's adventures, Mather employed one other significant Biblical resource, which led him directly to the issue that would become central for later writers, Hawthorne among them. "These two poor women, " he says of Hannah and Mary--with an allusion to Proverbs 12:10--"were now in the hands of those whose tender mercies are cruelties" (11, 551), going on to explain that since Mrs. Duston found herself "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" (11, 551). Because Providence can sometimes use help, Mather is not one to raise moral objections to the slaughter of sleeping Indians. His Biblical allusions simultaneously provide him with a moral framework to justify Hannah's deed and a means of placing her exploits in an epic context related to the national destiny of the Puritan people. She emerges from his narrative as a seventeenth-century savior of her nation, her heroism unquestionably a model to be emulated. Thus interpreted, transformed, and justified, she passed into the hands of nineteenth-century New England writers, who slowly began to alter her image.

The first of these later authors, if we exclude the historian Leverett Saltonstall, who told her story in his Historical Sketch of Haverhill . . . in 1816,6 was Timothy Dwight, whose version appears in "Letter XXXIX" of his Travels first published in 1821,7 wherein he seems no more interested than in other historical details he recounts. An observant traveller, he presents it as picturesque local color; his account written in straightforward, unadorned prose and, for the most part, consonant with Mather: "[T]he hand of Providence, " he writes, "[was] unusually visible in the preservation of this family" (I, 411). He defends Mrs. Duston against exact moralists who may wish to criticize her action, although no one had yet ventured to do so in print. Being more comfortable with her husband's role in the story, he devotes most attention to him. "Whatever may be thought of the rectitude of her conduct," he notes in a transitional sentence that perhaps betrays his lingering ambivalence, 8 "that of her husband is in every way honourable" (I, 414). By dividing the story into two parts, the man's and the woman's exploits, he establishes a precedent which several later writers, including the historian B. L. Mirick and the editor [Nathaniel] Hawthorne would follow. The poetess Sarah Josepha Hale was to make Thomas Duston' s heroism--his anguish over which of his children he could save, and his decision to save or die with them all--the sole subject of her treatment in "The Father's Choice." 9

Dwight seems to have been responsible for the attractiveness of the legend to illustrators. Imagining the scene as an artist would sketch it, he writes: ". . . 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 new-born 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" (I, 414).

Historical artists were quick to take the hint and produce drawings like the one Dwight imagined, concentrating, like him, on the husband's action rather than the wife's. Subsequent retellings of the tale, including Hawthorne's and the ones in Samuel Goodrich' s Peter Parley's Method of Telling of the History to Children and the anonymous Confessions, Trials, and Biographical Sketches of the Most Cold-Blooded Murderers, 10 were accompanied by a sketch entitled "Mr. Duston Saving His Family." A more elaborate and romantic version of the same theme, "Duston Covering the Retreat of His Seven Children," was done by G. W. Fasel for Nagel and Weingartner's Heroic Deeds of Former Times Series in 1851.11 The idea patently underlying these pictorial representations is heroism, the artists seeming to agree with Dwight that the husband, and not the wife, makes the better subject since his deed is morally unequivocal. A portrait of Hannah, hatchet in hand, standing over the sleeping Indians or lifting a scalp in triumph might have served allegorically as Revenge but would otherwise have invoked the moral issue.

Unlike the illustrators young Whittier, an amateur folklorist, who had been interested in the tale for some time and was to contribute it and other incidents to B. L. Mirick's History, though first to his own Legends of New England.12 Although he preserves most of the historical facts, his story approaches fiction in some of its omissions--he does not tell us, for instance, that the wounded Indian who escapes is a woman--in its psychological emphasis, and in its use of language borrowed from the popular "thriller." Having seen her in action, striking the "ragged edge" of her hatchet "deeply into the skull of the nearest sleeper" (p. 129), we find it easier than Whittier to believe that the boy escaped not because of her compassion but rather because he was lucky enough to awake and flee before she could dispatch him. 13 The Gothic horror which the language communicates is at times functional. When, for instance, Whittier wishes to justify Hannah's crucial transformation from tender-hearted woman to revengeful mother, he focuses upon the "brains and blood" (p. 128) of her baby on the dry leaves: "[W]hen 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 fixed. There was a thought of death at her heart--an insatiate longing for blood. An instantane- ous change had been wrought in her very nature; the angel had become a demon, -- and she followed her captors, with a stern determination to embrace the earliest opportunity for a bloody retribution" (p. 128).

This transformation is itself a major subtheme of Whittier' s sketch. Occasion-ally, he says, men are forced to acknowledge in women evidence of "those dark and terrible passions, which madden and distract the heart of manhood " (p. 125). The ambiguity is interesting. In the historical Hannah, moreover, he appears to see the composite qualities of the Dark and Pale maidens of romance--Hawthorne' s Miriam and Hilda--a duality which he attempts to reconcile through reference to the principle of maternal instincts. These inspire her both to loving compassion and fierce re-venge; in the end, when she spares the Indian boy, we are to believe that her better womanly instinct triumphed. The story thus possesses a kind of formal unity, since it leaves us with a restored, motherly Hannah, but the style functions to undermine the conclusion and works against the structural plan.

Not until Hawthorne became interested in the Duston family romance did the tale find an artist who fully understood its moral and psychological ambiguity and who possessed artistic ability to develop it. A number of historians, however, were to precede him. The year that Whittier' s Legends was published, for instance, John Lauris Blake included Hannah in The Historical Reader, 14 and the next saw Mirick's History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, with its open condemnation of Mrs. Duston, followed by Samuel Goodrich's Peter Parley's Method and his First Book of History for Children and Youth and Charles Goodrich's History of the United States of America.15 B. Bernard Cohen has shown that Hawthorne relied most heavily upon Mather, Peter Parley' s Method, and Mirick.16

Although Hawthorne, like Whittier, was aware of Hannah's duality, he did not attempt to reconcile her good and evil, suggesting only that the recollection of her child's murder "hardened Hannah Duston' s heart." 17 Otherwise, his attitude suggests his later, far more complex handling of Beatrice Rappaccini, in whom purity and passion co-exist, 18 and he leaves us with the conflicting images of a "good woman" (p. 132) and a "bloody old hag" (p. 136). Like Dwight, he is more comfort-able with her husband: "This awful woman, and that tender hearted, yet valiant man. . . will be remembered as long as the deeds of old times are told round a New England fireside. But how different is her renown from his!" (p. 137).

Hawthorne's sketch is interesting because it condemns Cotton Mather, whom he terms "an old hard-hearted, pedantic bigot" (p. 135), whose self-righteousness bothered him as much as Hannah's act. In a paragraph of sonorous dirge-like vowels, he establishes a colloquy of voices in which the soft, mournful voice of nature contrasts with Mather' s strident exultation over the impending death of the savages: "The night wore on; and the light and cautious slumbers of the red men were often broken, by the rush and ripple of the stream, or the groaning and moaning of the forest, as if nature were wailing over her wild children. . . . But, a little before the break of day, a deep, dead slumber fell upon the Indians. . .. 'See,' cries Cotton Mather, triumphantly, 'if it prove not so?' " (p. 135-136).

Hawthorne's borrowings from the Magnalia are undisguised but integrated into his narrative, his voice overriding even as it echoes Mather' s. By dealing with the husband and wife separately, he restates structurally the difference between an unequivocally noble action and a morally ambiguous one, his imagery supporting our awareness of Hannah's duplex nature. In the conclusion, he registers disapproval of Hannah but distances himself somewhat by blending his voice into that of public opinion. His narrative method anticipates "The Maypole of Merry Mount, " in which the revelers of Thomas Morton's plantation as children of the Gold Age gradually invite his criticism for their idleness and frivolity. Conversely, the Puritans, who enter under a cloud as grim, grey, heavy-hearted men, slowly reveal their positive qualities. In the same way, Hannah, who appears at first as a good woman, becomes a hag by the end of the piece. Her antagonists, the Indians, who initially are pictured as bloodthirsty savages, Hawthorne humanizes until they become the victims. Since both tales are grounded in history, we may conjecture that this technique of reversal was important--perhaps even necessary--to Hawthorne in converting it to fiction.

During the next fourteen years the tale was reprinted in Confessions, Trials, and Bio-graphical Sketches in 1840; it appealed to school children in new editions of Peter Parley's Method. In 1837, Samuel Gardner Drake included it in his Biography and History of the Indians of North America as did Henry White, six years later, in The Early History of New England.19 By the time Thoreau chose it for his Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1849,20 it was known to a generation of New England readers.

Thoreau' s treatment reflects this wide circulation: he does not tell the entire story; he does not raise the old argument over the morality of Hannah's deed; he delivers printed information as though it were exclusively the product of oral tradition, a part of the New England consciousness." [T]here have been many, " he says, "who in later times have lived to say that they had eaten of the fruit of that apple tree [against which Hannah's baby was killed]." 21 As a representative Yankee, he turns the Merrimac into a river of time, a stream of consciousness, bearing upon its spring freshets the detritus of the past and the driftwood of the present. To set oneself afloat upon it was to break the barriers of time, to navigate backwards in the direction of a primeval era, and to put oneself in touch with the remote sources of one's identity. The process of discovering the self through historical (and, even, ahistorical) analogues, applied to all New Englanders caring to make the voyage.

To attach the past to the present and the present to the past, he depends upon nature. With his brother he witnesses Hannah's escape in a vision made believable by the setting. The river serves as an emblem both of flux and stability. As details accumulate, one time becomes indistinguishable from another: Do the ruined wigwams exist in the present, or are they part of the landscape perceived by Hannah and her companions? "Their canoe glides under these pine roots whose stumps are still standing on the bank. Every withered leaf which the winter has left seems to know their story, and in its rustling to repeat it and betray them. . . their nerves cannot bear the tapping of a woodpecker. . . The stolen birch forgets its master and does them good service, and the swollen current bears them swiftly along with little need of the paddle, except to steer and keep them warm by exercise. For ice is floating in the river; the spring is opening; the muskrat and the beaver are driven out of their holes by the flood; deer gaze at them from the bank; a few faint-singing forest birds, perchance, fly across the river to the northernmost shore; the fish- hawk sails and screams overhead, and geese fly over them with a startling clangor. . . . Sometimes they pass an Indian grave surrounded by its paling on the bank, or the frame of a wigwam, with a few coals left behind, or the withered stalks still rustling in the Indian's solitary cornfield on the interval" (I, 344).

In 1850, Thoreau went to Haverhill as a surveyor, visiting the site of the Duston homestead, then only a "slight indentation in a corn-field, " surrounded by cellar holes of the other houses burned in the Indian attack. The legendary apple tree was gone.22 On April 27, 1853, he revisited the town and thought of Hannah Duston. Skirting Creek Pond, he made another imaginative excursion back into time: "It is along the east side of this pond," he wrote, "that the Indians are said to have taken their way with Hannah Dustin [sic] and her nurse in 1697 toward the Merrimack. I walked along it and thought how they might have been ambuscaded." 23 By re-enacting history mimetically, 24 he asserts its fundamental and continuing role in shaping his individual and regional identity.

Although he was the last major author to make use of the legend, it did not lose its appeal, being now "frozen" in the New England imagination.25 Notwithstanding this fact, Hannah never became a part of American folklore as did John Smith and Pocahontas or the Merry Mount plantation. Hannah is emphatically not a feminine charmer like Pocahontas, nor does she reflect the American character. With the decline of Puritanism, she lost her relevance as a culture hero and became only a slayer of Indians. Furthermore, she belonged only to a particular place--the shores of the Merrimac, which cannot support a national legend.

University of Cincinnati


  1. There is some confusion regarding the date. Several sources give April 30 instead of March. but I have taken the majority opinion and, incidentally, the date engraved on the base of Hannah's statue in Haverhill.
  2. Details are from Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana (London. 1702); rept. (Hartford: Roberts and Bruce. 1820), II, 551-552. and B. L. Mirick. The History of Haverhill. Massachusetts (Haverhill: A. W. Thayer. 1832), pp. 86-95.
  3. Another diary in which the story is recorded is M. D. Fairfield' s, under entry date of April 21, 1697/ 98. Sewall' s entry includes an anecdote that Thoreau would later make use of. Samuel Lennardson' s asking the leader of his captors how and where to strike to kill and scalp a victim.
  4. Magnalia. I, 23. Further references to Mather' s work are to this, the First American Edition, and will be noted in text by volume and page number.
  5. For a discussion of the psychological significance of allusions in Puritan histories, see Kenneth B. Murdock. "Clio in the Wilderness: History and Biography in Puritan New England," Early American Literature, 6 (Winter, 1972). 201-219.
  6. (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1816).
  7. (New Haven: [S. Converse, Printer], 1821). Further references to Dwight's book are to this edition and will be made by volume and page number.
  8. Dwight's view of Hannah seems as much conditioned by his attitude toward the Indians as by any thorough consideration of the moral implications of her deed. See esp. Book III, "Letter IV" of the Travels.
  9. Reprinted in Mirich, pp. 93-95.
  10. (Hartford: H. F. Sumner & Co. , 1832); (Boston: G. N. Thomson and E. Littlefield, 1840).
  11. This seems the appropriate place to record my gratitude to the helpful and friendly staff at the Haverhill Public Library. Fasel' s painting hangs on a wall in the library building.
  12. (Hartford: Hanmer and Phelps, 1831); rpt. (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1965). Additional references to Whittier's work are taken from the 1965 edition--given in the text by page number.
  13. This is the position Hawthorne adopts later on.
  14. (Concord, N.H. : H. Hill & Co. , 1831).
  15. (Boston: Richardson, Lord & Holbrook, 1832); (Hartford: H. F. Sumner & Co. 1833).
  16. "The Composition of Hawthorne's ' The Duston Family,' " The England Quarterly, (June, 1948), 236-241.
  17. See Arlin Turner, Hawthorne as Editor (University, La. : Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1941), pp. 131-137, for the text of Hawthorne's sketch. Hawthorne originally published the sketch during his tenure as editor of The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in volume 2 (April, 1836), 395-397. My quotations follow Turner's edition as the more convenient text.
  18. See Roy R. Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1952 ); rpt. (N .Y. : W. W. Norton, 1964), esp. pp. 54-55.
  19. (Boston: Antiquarian Institute, 1837); (Concord, N.H.: I. S. Boyd, 1843).
  20. Henry Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Boston and N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), I, 345. Further references to the Week are to this edition and will be noted in text by volume and page number.
  21. See the reference to Sewall, n. 3, for another piece of "oral" lore Thoreau included in his sketch.
  22. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), II, 7.
  23. lbid., V, 113.
  24. For Thoreau' s attitude toward the Indian, see Edwin Fussell, "Thoreau's Unwritten Epic, " Frontier: American Literature and the American West (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), p. 73.
  25. Later works preserving Hannah's glory include the following histories: Noble Deeds of American Women.. . . . (Buffalo: George H. Derby, 1851); Historical, Poetical, and Pictorial American Scenes (New Haven: Published by John W. Barber, 1851); First Lessons in the History of the United States (Boston: Hickling, Swan & Brown, 1856 ); American Scenes: Being a Selection of the Most Interesting Incidents in American History (Springfield, Mass. : D. E. Fiske & Co. , 1868); and Yankee Folk (N. Y.: Vanguard Press. 1948). Robert Caverly's The Merrimac and Its Incidents: An Epic Poem (Boston: Imes & Niles, 1866) reworks the story in verse, and his Heroism of Hannah Duston.... (Boston: B. B. Russell & Co., 1874) returns to the theme. Finally, in 1954, Mrs. H. R. Mann's novel, Gallant Warrior, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Co .) paid Mrs. Duston the longest (and latest) tribute.

Source: Robert D. Arner. "The Story Of Hannah Duston: Cotton Mather To Thoreau," American Transcendental Quarterly, 18 (1973). 19-23.

Used with the author's permission.

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