Yesterday wasn’t the first time I’d stopped at the Park ‘n’ Ride off Route 93 in Penacook, NH to cross the old railroad trestle onto the island where an all-but-forgotten monument to Hannah Dustin stands. But given that I’d never taken photographs of said monument–and given the fact that I’d driven to nearby Concord, NH to meet with a student who’s doing a senior capstone project on captivity narratives by Asian American descendents of Korean comfort women–it made sense to pay a second visit to old stone Hannah.
In a previous lifetime, I wrote a paper about American Indian captivity narratives: stories written by white settlers who had been taken hostage during Indian raids, were later redeemed from captivity, and subsequently told their stories of capture and redemption. Hannah Dustin, however, never wrote a captivity narrative, which is a shame since her story is so vivid.
According to historical accounts, Dustin and her neighbor Mary Neff were taken captive by Abenaki Indians during a 1697 raid on Haverill, MA. Dustin had recently given birth, and during the forced march from Haverill, her Abenaki captors killed her infant by smashing its skull against a tree. After her forced removal from Haverill to an island in the Merrimack River near what is now Penacook, NH, Dustin conspired with Neff and Samuel Lennardson, a white teenager who was also being held hostage, to kill their captors. Lennardson nonchalantly asked one of his captors to show him how he would kill and scalp a man, then Dustin applied this knowledge after the Abenaki family they were traveling with had fallen asleep.
It is here that Dustin’s story gets complicated. Popular versions of Dustin’s story–such as the text on the highway marker on the road to Penacook, NH–simply say that Dustin, a victim of an Indian raid, killed ten Indians before escaping to freedom: a clear act of self-defense. Of the ten Indians that Dustin and her compatriots killed, however, only two were grown men: also killed were two women and six children.
If Dustin and her fellows were acting only in self-defense, why was it necessary to kill children? Presumably, the captives didn’t want survivors to flee and fetch other Abenakis; as chance would have it, one badly injured woman and an Abenaki child did indeed escape to tell the tale. But if Dustin and her fellow captives were motivated purely by self-preservation, why did Dustin stop after they’d begun their escape down the Merrimack River, return to the Abenakis they’d killed, and scalp their dead bodies?
The larger-than-life statue of Hannah Dustin in Penacook, NH shows her carrying an axe in one hand and a cluster of scalps in the other. Presumably, Dustin returned to scalp her captors as “proof” of her and her co-captives’ story…but why? What did Dustin want to prove, and to whom? Did she think her husband and neighbors in Haverill, MA wouldn’t believe that she, a woman, had escaped from captivity by her own hands? Did she feel a need to prove where she, a woman, had been during the several weeks she’d been away from her family? Or did Hannah Dustin, a woman who had seen her newborn infant murdered at the hands of people she considered “savages,” feel a need to show bloody proof of the horrors of guerilla warfare? Revenge is a dish best served cold and bloody, and Hannah Dustin’s “bouquet” of Indian scalps shows just how brutal an otherwise mild-mannered mother of twelve can be when things turn ugly.
As a woman, I can’t say I blame Hannah Dustin for taking vengeance into her own hands, but as a human being I’m still troubled by those bloody scalps. Yesterday as I walked under partly cloudy skies from the Park ‘n’ Ride to the isolated spot where Dustin’s monument stands, I was mindful of the headline on the newspaper I’d picked up from my porch before leaving Keene: “Woman victim of sex attack.” If it’s no longer safe for women to walk the night-time streets of Small Town, NH without protective male escort, what was I doing walking in an isolated spot along the side of the road to Penacook, NH without a dog, bodyguard, or axe of my own?
Had some savage leapt from the bushes intending to do me harm as I walked under partly cloudy skies yesterday, would you have blamed me for defending myself by any means available? At the same time, having vanquished and even killed my attacker, would you raise an eyebrow had I gone one step further, returning to that attacker to glean trophies as “proof” from his subjugated body?
I don’t know if Hannah Dustin was a “hero” as her historical marker proclaims…but she’s definitely a survivor, and I suppose that deserves its own kind of commemoration. It’s a cold, cruel, and bloody world out there, and sometimes only the ugliest bouquet, clutched to one’s breast like a handbag, can serve as proof to that sad, inevitable fact.
Click here for more photos of New Hampshire’s Hannah Dustin monument.