Among my husband’s more colorful ancestors is Hannah Emerson Duston, also known as the Hatchet Lady and the Haverhill Hero.
Hannah was born in Haverhill, a town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1657. She married Thomas Duston (also spelled Dustan or Dustin) in 1677. Over the next nineteen years, she gave birth to twelve children, the last being Martha Duston, born
March 9, 1696/7. A relative of Hannah’s named Mary Neff, probably her aunt, was acting as her nurse in the days following the birth.
The French encouraged the Indians to raid English settlements during King William’s War (1689–97), and on March 15, 1697, band of Abenaki made such a raid on Haverhill. Twenty-seven women and children were killed in the raid.
Less than a week after giving birth, Hannah Duston was captured along with her infant daughter and Mary Neff. Hannah’s husband reportedly tried to persuade her to let him carry her to a safe place. Apparently she felt his energy would be better spent saving the other children and told him to save them. He rode his horse after the fleeing children, determined to save at least one, and fired on the Indians who tried to follow. He managed to escape with all seven to the nearest garrison. The Abenaki gave up the pursuit and turned back to raid the house. Mary Neff had stayed with Hannah.
|Artist's portrayal of Thomas Duston saving his children.|
The interlopers burst into the cabin and captured the two women. The baby was brutally killed, being dashed against a tree by one of the Abenaki soon after their march began. Hannah and Mary were taken northward by their captors. The thirteen captives from Haverhill were divided into smaller parties of Indians, who probably planned to take them to Canada. With Hannah's party was a boy, Samuel Lennerson or Leonardson, about 12 or 13 years old, who had been captured more than a year earlier in another raid.
|This painting portrays Hannah and Samuel in action.|
During the night, Hannah and the boy Samuel secured hatchets and attacked their captors. Ten were killed, nine of them, most accounts say, by Hannah. The three captives then used a canoe to escape, but Hannah turned back and scalped the 10 corpses to have proof of the exploit. Scalps could be handed in for a bounty during the war.
|Painting by artist Junius Brutus Stearns, depicting Hannah's escape,|
with an assist from Mary.
After facing many hardships, they reached Haverhill safely. They presented their story to the General Court in Boston on April 21, which awarded the sum of 25 English pounds to Hannah Duston and half that to each of her companions. Hannah Duston lived out the rest of her life quietly, moving to Ipswich after the death of her husband in 1732.
|Mary, Samuel, and Hannah flee the island.|
In his book The Haverhill Emersons, author Charles Henry Pope, a respected New England historian, said, Hannah’s deed “was one of the chief means of checking the cruelties of the Indians, showing them that ‘weak women’ would meet their atrocities in kind.” He also stated that Hannah “was at no other time in her life found lacking of the gentleness and peaceful character of woman; this deed was the product of maddening experience.” (Pope’s Emerson genealogy was published in Boston in 1913.)
Hannah has been memorialized in two statues of her wielding a hatchet, one in the town of Haverhill, Mass., and the other near the site of her escape in Boscawen, N.H.
|The monument at Boscawen, N.H.|
|The monument in Haverhill, Mass.|
Our family happened upon the monument on the island in Boscawen by chance while traveling in New Hampshire. I saw the sign and told my husband to stop. We were near a monument to his ancestor. We took the kids and walked down a shady path and along an old railroad track until we came upon the statue. It seemed an odd, isolated place for such a memorial, but this was the place where Hannah defended herself and made her escape.
|The historical marker in Boscawen, N.H. Photo by Craig Michaud at en.wikipedia|
You can read an article about Hannah published in Yankee Magazine in 1995 here:
In recent years, a few people have protested the honor shown to Hannah and tried to cast her as a murderer and have the statues taken down. I have to agree with the people of Haverhill who refused to remove the monuments. Hannah is a heroine.
*** In Hannah's honor, I am giving away two copies of books from my White Mountain Brides series, either paperback or digital. Leave a comment below and enter the drawing for one of these New Hampshire colonial books centered on the Dover Massacre of 1689: Return to Love, A New Joy, or Abiding Peace. ***
Susan Page Davis is the author of more than fifty published novels. A history major, she’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. She’s a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: www.susanpagedavis.com .