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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
(Hartford: H. F. Sumner & Co. , 1832); (Boston: G. N. Thomson and E. Littlefield,
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.
(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.
(Boston: Richardson, Lord & Holbrook, 1832); (Hartford: H. F. Sumner &
"The Composition of Hawthorne's ' The Duston Family,'
" The England Quarterly, (June, 1948), 236-241.
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
See Roy R. Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision (Austin:
Univ. of Texas Press, 1952 ); rpt. (N .Y. : W. W. Norton, 1964), esp. pp.
(Boston: Antiquarian Institute, 1837); (Concord, N.H.: I. S. Boyd, 1843).
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.
See the reference to Sewall, n. 3, for another piece of "oral" lore Thoreau
included in his sketch.
The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford
Torrey and Francis Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), II, 7.
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.
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.