Judging Hannah Duston | The Colonial Woman Famous for Scalping Her Captors

What Hannah Duston did in 1697 earned her the praise and thanks from her neighbors. Nowadays, we might recoil in horror.

By Sybil Smith

Mar 21 2019


What Hannah Duston did in 1697 earned her the praise and thanks from her neighbors. Nowadays, we might recoil in horror.

Photo Credit : Public Domain

Now a Yankee classic, “Judging Hannah Duston” was first published in January, 1995.

Hannah Duston scalped the ten Indians who had attacked her farm, dragged her from her bed, and burned her house before taking her captive and killing her week-old infant.
Hannah Duston scalped the ten Indians who had attacked her farm, dragged her from her bed, and burned her house before taking her captive and killing her week-old infant.

It is hard to imagine scalping a person. There is adhesive tissue under the dermis that must be cut and pulled at. The scalp bleeds freely, and the instrument, especially if crude, like a hand-forged iron knife, would be clumsy and slippery when wet.

And what of the revulsion one might feel at handling a dead human thus? Had Hannah Duston’s life prepared her for that? She was certainly used to wringing chickens’ necks, helping with the slaughter of cows and pigs. Further, she must have been angry when she scalped the ten Indians who had recently been her captors. They had attacked her farm, dragged her from her bed, and burned her house. They had brained her week-old infant and taken her captive, forcing her to walk many miles north in March while scantily dressed. For all she knew, the rest of her family was dead.

Moreover, she was no stranger to horror. She had been captured at the tail end of King William’s War, in an era distinguished for its savagery on both sides, and many outlying British settlements had already been plundered and burned.

When I tell Hannah’s story, when I try to imagine her acts, this context is paramount. I judge her in the light of the history that preceded her, not the history that followed.

It is March 15, 1697. There is still snow on the ground, though it has melted away in sunny spots from the bases of bushes and trees. To the northwest of the main town of Haverhill there are six or so buildings, surrounded by fields and meadow. This is where Hannah Duston lives in a small brick house.

Hannah is lying in a feather bed. She is chatting with Mary Neff, her aunt and also the local midwife. Hannah had borne a girl child six days before. She is wearing her nightclothes and a sanitary napkin made of flax. She is not bleeding a lot; that is good. And her milk is in. The babe is nursing well; she is a strong infant.

I imagine Mary at the “chimney,” the large open fireplace where they cook all their meals, where they get warm. She must start preparing dinner soon — salt pork, beans, and applesauce. There are still some apples in the cellar, punky, to be sure, wormy, but they make a nice sauce. And at the tag end of winter it’s nice to have something fresh.

The children are outside playing. They range in age from 18 to three. There isn’t much work to do in March, other than splitting wood. The fields aren’t ready to be plowed. The stock has been cared for in the barn.

Thomas, Hannah’s husband, is out in the fields. He’s looking them over, seeing where the water collects, thinking where he might ditch the meadow. He has his gun with him, the long rifle, as it is known. Last summer, in Haverhill, four were killed while in their field, picking beans. But what can he do? It’s terrible living inside the garrisons; it’s crowded and boring. Their land, their house need them. If Thomas keeps his wits about him, and if the Lord wills it, he and his family will make it through this difficult time.

If the Lord wills it. Do Thomas and Hannah Duston truly believe that? They must. They are constantly encouraged to examine all incidents in the light of how they illustrate God’s plan. A priest may be an agent of Satan, smallpox the instrument of God.

But they must be motivated by deeper, more primitive instincts as well. They are human, and they want to live. They like to eat, laugh, drink beer, smoke tobacco, have sex. They are willing to fight. When they examine their hearts, they may secretly accept their small daily lapses, their lusty appetites.

Let us meet some other instruments of God, hidden at the edge of the clearing where Thomas is staring at the sky. They have feathers in their scalp locks and their faces are painted red. They are carrying tomahawks and flintlocks.

Thomas catches a movement out of the corner of his eye. Ten Indians step from behind the trees. They level their guns at him and a series of shots break the morning stillness. Thomas leaps on his shying horse and gallops toward the house, screaming as he rides. “Indians! Run to the Marsh garrison! Now! Lord save us!”

The children drop their sticks and stones, their rag dolls, and do as bid, grabbing the young ones up. But the garrison is a mile away, the Indians are already near. Their chances of making it are slim.

Thomas rushes into the house. Hannah is getting out of bed. Mary grabs the infant and runs out the door.

“Indians,” Thomas says.

“Run,” Hannah tells him. “Save the children.”

“But,” he says.

“Run,” she commands. And as he turns and runs out the door, neither thinks to say good-bye. There isn’t time. Several Indians have already captured Mary Neff. They are distracted by her while Thomas leaps back on his horse and gallops away. The children are only 40 rods from the house. A rod is 16-1/2 feet. Six hundred and 60 feet they have run, the older ones carrying the younger children, who don’t fully understand the urgency. Thomas rides up among them. His plan is to snatch up one child, or two, and ride away with them to save a few. But as he looks among them, their faces blanched, their braids awry, their lips chapped from the long winter, he cannot choose. He decides that he will die if necessary. The Indians are in pursuit. He stops his horse, dismounts, and using the horse as a barrier, threatens the small group of pursuers with a gun. They take cover and fire upon him. Miracle of miracles, neither he nor his horse is hit. He jumps back on the horse and rides up to his children. The Indians reload their guns and renew the pursuit. Again Thomas dismounts and menaces them. Again they fire, and he is not hit. After a time the Indians give up. There are easier spoils back at the group of undefended houses where the attack began.

Hannah and Mary, for instance. Why they are not killed outright is not clear. I am inclined to call it luck; they would call it divine providence. History gives an armature of facts, to which we must give weight and substance. And here is a fact. Twenty-seven killed. Thirteen taken. Thirty-three percent were spared. Not odds I’d care to face.

The captives are collected into a group with 20 or so Indians. The victors are carrying items rifled quickly from the now-burning houses, including a large piece of cloth torn from Hannah’s loom. Hannah is huddled beside Mary, hardly aware of her one bare foot. In her haste to dress she left a shoe behind.

Their captors do not head toward the garrisons; they have less chance of taking them. They turn back north to get away with what they have. This is a small raid; there are no French among them.

Mary, carrying the baby, stumbles. The baby begins to cry. Before Mary knows what is happening, an Indian wrests the baby from her. The baby’s name is Martha. She weighs, probably, six pounds. It is not difficult to take her by the feet and swing her in the air. It is not difficult to smash her head against a nearby apple tree. Hannah and Mary stumble on, out of sight, too afraid to protest, too shocked to weep. The Indians, it is said, were annoyed by crying.

Hannah and the others travel 12 miles that first day. And these are not easy miles on a gentle trail. Twelve miles through swamps and calf-deep snow, up hills and over brooks, all the while burdened with heavy packs given to them by their captors. The Indians know the urgency of making time. After a raid, the militia, more often than not, would try to overtake them. Several of the prisoners are not able to keep up the grueling pace. They are taken aside and tomahawked. Their scalps are added to the glistening collection already carried on poles or packs. Hannah may have scanned that array, hoping not to recognize a certain part, color, or curl.

I like to imagine them stopping that first night. Hannah and Mary sink to the ground, holding each other for warmth and comfort. Later they step aside, with frightened gestures at their captors and at their icy skirts, to squat and pee in the snow. Mary checks Hannah’s pad; it is soaked with red blood. The traveling has taken its toll. Hannah’s breasts are bothering her, full of milk. By the next day they will be taut and as lumpy as a bag of marbles. She will be at risk for milk fever. Mary does her best to care for her still. She cannot apply a poultice, but she massages Hannah’s breasts, relieves some pressure. Then she binds them with a band of cloth torn from her own skirts.

And, despite everything, they sleep like the dead. With a piece of rawhide passed over their torsos and tucked under the sleeping braves on either side, cold, frightened, hungry, grief-stricken, they sleep and do not dream of the dead.

Fifteen days they travel north. I can tell you something of that journey. I can tell you that in March the sun is high enough in the sky, during the day, to make the snow melt, to warm the upturned face. That the food they probably ate was food they would have retched on before, such as stewed horse’s hooves, half-cooked bear meat, and acorns.

And I will tell you something of the Indians. You must see them as well, or the story is not complete. They cannot be cardboard cut-outs, frozen in the act of lifting a hatchet.

Many are quite handsome, with brown, lean, muscled bodies and good teeth. They are often tall and graceful. Their black eyes are alight with various passions.

They have adapted superbly to the land in which they live. They grow corn, squash, and beans. Their arts and crafts are clever and intricate. They have a loving family structure and a complex oral history.

In the excitement of battle they kill with ease; once on the trail most are not particularly cruel. Much of what the captives suffer is what the natives themselves suffer in a harsh climate, on foot, with catch-as-catch-can provisions. It is probable that when her Indian master became aware of Hannah’s having only one shoe, he gave her a pair. He may have taken her lone leather shoe, torn the buckle from it for his own use, and then given it to his wife, thinking she could find a way to use the leather.

Of course, the danger to captives increased when the Indians encountered other war parties, when they danced at night and drank pilfered rum. But they often contented themselves with knocking someone down or pulling their hair. If some member of the tribe got carried away and looked as if he were going to kill a prisoner, women or other men might intervene. They often “bought” the prisoner’s life with a handful of wampum or cornmeal.

One entertainment was to make the captives sing. Not hymns, of course, but Indian songs. They would gather around a group of trembling prisoners, shouting, jeering, prodding, laughing. They would repeat the sinewy syllables carefully until the white people could repeat them. The captives, mouths dry with terror, clothes torn and stained, faces stricken, would shuffle round and round, their voices cracking. They looked so pathetic, so ludicrous, that the gathered crowd was satisfied and soon let them be. Sometimes, years later, ransomed prisoners could still remember the song.

The Indians Hannah and Mary are with pray three times a day, in Latin, having been converted by the French to Catholicism. Hannah’s captor tells her he had lived with the Reverend Rowlandson of Lancaster (whose wife was the famous captive Mary Rowlandson) for some years and been taught to pray in the English way, but that now he found the French way better. He does not allow Mary and Hannah to pray openly; they do it in secret while gathering wood or water. And, when he sees them looking dejected, he sometimes mocks them with this: What need you trouble yourself? If your Lord will have you delivered, it shall be so. Years later Hannah Duston would say, in her belated protestation of faith: I am Thankful for my Captivity, ’twas the Comfortablest time that ever I had; In my Affliction God made his Word Comfortable to me.

After 15 days the Indians split up. Hannah and Mary are parceled out to a group whose eventual destination was to be St. Francis, Canada. This smaller group consists of two warriors, three adult women, and seven children. Also among them is an adolescent boy named Samuel Leonardson, taken from Worcester, Massachusetts, 18 months before. He has been with the Indians so long he speaks their language, is considered a member of the tribe. But, by one account, Samuel was moved by the plight of these new captives, and “a longing for home had been stirred in him by the presence of the two women.”

Hannah and Mary are told that when they reach St. Francis they will be stripped of their clothes and forced to run the gauntlet, as was the custom. But before the band sets out on the next leg of their journey, they stop to rest awhile on an island at the conjunction of the Merrimack and Contoocook rivers. It is here that Hannah sees her only chance.

Her captors have grown careless. They probably reason that the two women are too weak to attempt an escape, especially on an island, with the river in flood. Guards are no longer posted at night. It seems to Hannah that with Samuel and Mary on her side, she might overwhelm the small band of Indians, particularly if one added the element of surprise. She persuades Samuel to ask Bampico, the only Indian in this drama whose name we know, how he kills the English quickly. Bampico points to his temple and says, “Strike ’em dere.” Samuel relays this to Hannah.

Her plan is rather simple. At night, when the Indians are sound asleep, she and Samuel, having filched some hatchets, will position themselves at the head of the two men. Mary’s victim will be the stronger squaw. At the signal from Hannah they will begin the attack. Only one Indian is to be spared, a young boy. Hannah has decided to take him back to Haverhill with her. There must have been something engaging about him, something that reminded Hannah of one of her own children.

Be that as it may, we have come to midnight, March 30, 1697.

Hannah, Samuel, and Mary hold hatchets in their trembling hands. There is a little light from the moon. The only sound is of wind and water. Hannah is thankful for that rushing river. Its thousand voices are her cover. Its moving body is her secret lover, calling her home. Like a woman stepping naked into the arms of a cold, strong stranger, she raises her hand. The hatchets fall.

Now all is confusion. Now all is bucking, gurgling, flailing horror. Samuel and Mary fall back, stunned by this descent into mortal sin. It is Hannah who raises her weapon again and again, detached and centered at the same time. And when she finally pauses, winded, it is quiet. Except for the water and the sound of her harsh breathing.

Most accounts say that Hannah Duston killed nine of the Indians, and Samuel one. One badly wounded squaw escaped with the young boy Hannah had intended to spare. I believe that Mary was given the less arduous task of killing one of the three Indian women, and that this was the one who survived. She was not so good at killing, it would seem.

Hannah Duston
What Hannah Duston did in 1697 earned her the praise and thanks from her neighbors. Nowadays, we might recoil in horror.
Photo Credit : Public Domain

Hannah does not scalp the dead right away. She is suddenly terrified that her plan will fail. The wounded woman is making her way to the other band, only a bit upriver. We know this because a white captive in that band will later tell of it. How the squaw staggered in, bleeding “from seven wounds,” and told her ghastly story.

So Hannah gathers up what food is at hand. She directs Mary and Samuel to dress in Indian clothes. She grabs her hatchet and her dead captor’s gun. She carries all this to the bank of the Merrimack River. She packs one of the Indians’ canoes, scuttles the others.

They are moving away from shore when she thinks of what she has forgotten. She turns the canoe around, heads back, and, leaving Samuel and Mary at the river’s edge, retraces her steps to the bloody encampment. She finds a knife among the scattered belongings and scalps all ten of the dead human beings, six of them children. She wraps the bloody evidence in the same cloth torn from her loom a couple of weeks ago in Haverhill. Now her deed is done. She need only wash her hands, quickly, in the river, before jumping back in the canoe and heading south.

Imagine the amazement of the first person who sees them, walking up from the bank of the river in Haverhill. They look like ghosts, gaunt and stunned. Hannah tells the story of their escape, and at some point, she unwraps the cloth from her loom. The scalps are there, tangled together, stinking.

At home her children gather round her, hugging her and exclaiming at her clothes. She sinks down in a warm place, allows herself, finally, to be weak. If there are tears to be shed, it is now that she sheds them.

She rests for a few weeks, and then she, Mary, Samuel, and Thomas go to Boston, where they petition the General Court for money for the scalps. Hannah is voted 25 pounds. Mary Neff and Samuel split 25 pounds between them. And not only that. Hannah is invited to visit Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall, the distinguished judge and diarist. Cotton Mather is the one to record her story. It is preserved in his Magnalia Christi Americana.

Hannah and Thomas use the scalp money to buy more land on the river. The governor of Maryland sends her a pewter tankard to congratulate her on her remarkable feat. They have another child in October 1698, whom they name Lydia. Hannah Duston lives to be 90. She is the first American woman to have a statue erected in her honor. She is mentioned in Chase’s History of Haverhill and in Notable American Women. Thoreau writes about her in his book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Laurel Ulrich writes about her in her book, Goodwives. I write about her now. She is my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-aunt.

I went to Haverhill not long ago. My husband, my child (born on March 9, the same day as the long-lost Martha), some friends, and I drove through the town, looking for the statue of Hannah Duston. The outskirts were not the sort of place where one would find a statue. The only monuments were the shoe factories, gone out of business. The new settlers were Asian and Latin American and the descendants of African slaves, going about their business with shopping carts and plastic bags, impeded somewhat by the March wind, which blew grit into their faces and tugged at their caps. Haverhill seemed an uncertain place to pursue the American Dream, but I felt that if it were still there, changed or hiding, they would find it. Or some would find it. Some would struggle and die.

In the center of the old part of town we found the Haverhill Historical Society. It was a large, once-grand wooden building, fallen into some disrepair. We were admitted by a pretty blonde woman. I explained right away that I was related to Hannah Duston. She seemed impressed and uneasy. It was her first day, she said. Her first tour. I wanted to see the relics of Hannah right away, but she had other plans. We would, for our money, be given the official tour.

So there we stood in the entrance hall. The first exhibit concerned the Algonquian Indians. There was a model canoe, as I recall. There was an exhibit of stone tools, bone implements, baskets, and a tableau of the Indian method for drying fish.

Next we were led into a sort of classroom. The guide popped a video into a TV that stood in one corner. We sat there bemusedly, prepared for curious facts and pithy truths. The sound of chants and drumbeats filled the room. It seemed we weren’t done with the Indians. The film was grainy and serious. I couldn’t pay attention, bombarded as I was by the ironies of time.

Our guide stood nervously to one side. I bore down on her with my handful of genealogies. Indian singing sounded in the distance, as my fingers descended the family tree.

At last she showed me the documents encased in glass on the walls. Here was Hannah’s profession of faith. Here was Cotton Mather’s account of Hannah’s captivity and escape. And finally, in a large, cold room jammed with curios, we saw what are believed to be Hannah Duston’s hatchet, the scalping knife, her teapot, her buttons.

It was a sunny day. In the park we slogged through the soft snow to the bronze statue. Hannah is depicted as a pretty woman, strong but not fat, with pleasant features and long, thick hair. She has a hatchet in her hand. Nearby, two men sat on a park bench, drinking out of a bottle encased in its paper sack. They had a radio with them, tuned to a rock music station. Hannah meant little to them, except as a windbreak, and later, a place for shade.

When we had seen it all, the museum, the statue, the old brick house, we repaired to Kelly’s Bar across the river. Sitting there, looking at the bar festooned with shamrocks, observing the old men held captive by the beer, I enjoyed brief, tugging currents of nostalgia, but knew I had not yet found Hannah.

I should have known she would be at the river. I left Kelly’s Bar and walked to the middle of the long bridge over the Merrimack. I looked down into the icy, dark water, dotted with floes. The wind wrapped me in the scent of spring. I would not have been surprised to see the three survivors coming toward me in their Indian canoe, cold, weary, and alive. And I realized that now I had the best tribute I could offer. I was bound to this bloody decade by only a few strands of DNA, a few fraying ropes of memory, but I could tell the story.

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