April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
Hannah Dustin’s War
On April 21 Hannah Dustin, of Haverhill, Massachusetts, who had recently been kidnapped by Indians, turned up in Boston. She brought along two fellow captives, ten scalps, and a harrowing tale of her abduction. The Abnakis had struck Haverhill on March 15, when Dustin, age thirty-nine, was recovering from the birth of her eighth child. Her husband and the rest of their children managed to escape, but Hannah and her nurse, Mary Neff, were taken prisoner. After watching her house get set on fire and her infant’s brains dashed out against a tree, Dustin (wearing only one shoe) and Neff were marched about 150 miles and set to work as slaves for an Indian family of twelve on an island near what is now Concord, New Hampshire.
Not long afterward the Indians prepared to set out for (in the words of Cotton Mather) “a rendezvouz of salvages, which they call a town.” With them they planned to bring the two women and a boy named Samuel Lennardson, kidnapped from Worcester a year and a half earlier. One of the Indians told them, possibly in jest, that on their arrival in the town, the captives would be stripped, whipped, and made to run the gantlet. Not relishing this prospect, Dustin devised a plan of escape.
At her instigation Lennardson innocently asked the unsuspecting chief about the best method of killing someone with a tomahawk. The chief obligingly demonstrated, and a little before dawn on the morning of March 30, Lennardson and Dustin applied their newly acquired knowledge. As Mather, with the punster’s eternal penchant to poke an elbow in the ribs, explains: “The whole crew was in a dead sleep , (reader, see if it prove not so!).” They silently approached their dozing captors and began swiftly and efficiently dispatching them. One woman escaped badly wounded, and a boy whom they had befriended and meant to spare suddenly awoke and ran off. The other ten died before they could raise a murmur: nine killed by Dustin and one by Lennardson.
Dustin and her comrades immediately departed in one of the Indians’ canoes. Before going very far, however, she realized that people back home might be skeptical of her story without proof. The party turned back, scalped the corpses, and set off again. After stopping at Haverhill, they arrived in Boston, whose residents invited the celebrities to their homes and showered them with presents. The Massachusetts General Assembly gave twenty-five pounds “unto Thomas Dustan of Haverhill, on behalf of Hannah his wife,” and twelve and a half pounds apiece to the others. Francis Nicholson, the royal governor of Maryland, got wind of the massacre and sent a generous gift as well.
Following her season of fame, Dustin returned to the routine of a colonial farm wife. She had one more child and lived until 1736, surviving her husband by four years. Late in the nineteenth century, when Indian raids were a distant memory, monuments depicting her with tomahawk raised were erected in Haverhill and on the site of the massacre, an islet at the confluence of the Merrimack and Contoocook Rivers now known as Dustin’s Island.