Now dusty and disremembered, a statue stands In Haverhill, Massachusetts. It is the first monument erected honoring a woman in North America. Engraved in the base of this of this monument are four distinguishable scenes: the taking of prisoners by Indians, the retaliation of Indians by a father protecting his children, the killing of several Indians, and a journey by canoe. These are not simply artist engravings in stone; they are the story of the courage and determination of one woman.
On March 15, 1697 the Indians descended upon Haverhill Massachusetts for the purpose of acquiring scalps, slaves and portable goods. Slaves were a valuable commodity in the Indian economy as they were in all parts of the world. Many early colonials suffered enslavement or death at the hands of Indians, taken while tilling their fields or traveling from one place to another or during raids. Some captives were ransomed. Most were never seen or heard of again.
In their raid of Haverhill, the Indians captured and murdered about 39 people, and burned a dozen houses. "In this broil, one Hannah Dustin, having lain-In about a week, attended with her nurse, Mary Neff, a widow, a body of terrible Indians drew near unto the house where she lay, with designs to carry on their bloody devastationů" (Mather, 1702).
Dustin, the mother of 12 children, was then 39 years of age and recovering from the birth of her baby daughter, Lydia. Her husband, after a shoot out and mile long pursuit, evaded the Indians and escaped with their children. Unable to return home, he left his wife and the nurse, Mary Neff, to the ungentle mercies of the Indians who had invaded their home.
The two women were captured and marched, partially clad and shod, into the forest, along with other captives from the town. The weather this time of year is harsh in New England, yet they were forced to withstand winter cold. Within an hour, the hungry cries of the newborn baby had given the captors reason to kill her by throwing her against a tree. Several others were killed before the completion of the journey, but Mary and her nurse endured the two- day hike.
The hike was followed by a canoe ride that brought the captives to a small island at the mouth of the Contoocook River. They had made it safely, but this was only a pit stop and the woman feared that, if transported, they would be forced to run the gauntlet. This Indian tradition forced captives of both genders, and all ages to run nude between 2 lines of Indians who taunted, and in some cases aimed tomahawks and blows at the running hostages. If they could out run the Indians they were safe, if they were caught, the Indians could do whatever they pleased. Not all Individuals forced to run the gauntlet died. But many did, especially the young, the old and the frail. This reality left Hannah with few prospects, so she, her maid and a young boy that they had befriended planned a daring escape.
Hannah Dustin took charge and organized their strike for freedom with the help of Mary Neff and the boy, Samuel Leonardson. She gave them tomahawks and carried out the necessary killing getting them away in a canoe and returning briefly to take the scalps that would prove their words were true. They were a long way from help; it took them many days to return to Haverhill, then on the very edge of colonial habitation. Still they remained calm and watchful as they pursued their journey home.
Other than this brief history recorded at the time, not much is known about their escape or captivity, because the three did not discuss what had happened beyond the barest outline. We will never know how Hannah Dustin accomplished their escape or what depths of courage she plumbed to enable her to act.
Although, we do know the very location of Hannah's gravesite was unmarked because for the rest of her life she and the entire community feared reprisal from the Indians. Hannah's descendents continue to remember and celebrate her courage and the pewter tankard given to her to commemorate her escape still remains in their hands today. Hannah's life still offers women today an example of courage worthy of remembering.
So, If and when you find yourself in Haverhill, Massachusetts, visit the monument, go to the graveyard where she is buried without a marker. Take the Short walk that ties together the Dustin Homestead, the church, the statue and the grave, and then follow the route, to Dustin's island where a second monument stands to commemorate the unfathomable fortitude of one extraordinary woman.
© Melt Magazine 2002