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Hannah Duston
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Excerpt from

HEROISM OF HANNAH DUSTON

by Robert B. Caverly

 

HER BIOGRAPHY

Hannah Duston was born in Haverhill, Mass., Dec. 23, 1657; was the daughter of Michael and Hannah Webster Emerson; was married to Thomas Duston Dec. 3, 1677; and, up to the date of her captivity, had become the mother of a family of children, twelve at that date, thirteen in all.

 

THE INDIAN ONSET

She was captured at Haverhill March 15, 1697; her infant then being only a week old.

Mary Neff, then a widow, a neighbor, and friend, was with her, and, for the time being, was having a care for the household.

The tribes throughout New England, as appears, had, for several years prior to this attack, beset the English settlements by trespassing upon their cornfields, killing their cattle, taking and carrying away captives, and daily and nightly murdering the inhabitants, burning down their barns, their lonely cots, and their infant villages.

Always, in their depredations upon the Pilgrim settlers, they had been cunning, ferocious, coy, and cruel. Previous to this Duston massacre, they had taken at Worcester, Mass., Samuel Leonardson, a youth of some fourteen summers, and had him along with them among their captives.

At Haverhill, on that fifteenth day of March, 1697, according to the tactics of Indian warfare, they divided their tribes into small parties, and made the attack all around the town, everywhere very nearly at the same moment; so that on that day, in and about that little inland, rural village, they took and carried away thirteen captives, burned down nine dwelling-houses, and killed twenty-seven of its inhabitants, - men, women, and children.

 

THE SLAIN

The individuals then and there killed were John Keezer, his father, and son George; John Kimball and his mother Hannah; Sarah Eastman; Thomas Eaton; Thomas Emerson, his wife Elizabeth, and two children, - Timothy and Sarah; Daniel Bradley, his wife Hannah, and two children, - Mary and Hannah; Martha Dow, daughter of Stephen Dow; Joseph, Martha, and Sarah Bradley, children of Joseph Bradley; Thomas and Mehitable Kingsbury; Thomas Wood and his daughter Susannah; John Woodman and his daughter Susannah; Zechariah White; and Martha, the infant daughter of Mrs. Duston.

 

FIRST SIGHT OF SAVAGES

On that day, Thomas Duston (the husband) was in some way startled in his field at the approach of savages. He seized his gun, mounted his horse, and driving his children before him, seven in number, - ages from two to seventeen years, - all escaped. It has been said that guns were fired at him, and that he returned the shots; but this statement is beclouded with at least some doubt. It is, however, said, and perhaps correctly, that the Indians did not pursue him far, for fear of the English; and that he with the children took shelter in an old house supposed to have been used occasionally as a garrison.

In the mean time the Indians at the homestead had seized Mrs. Duston, Mary, and the infant; forced the child from Mary's arms, and killed it against an apple-tree; and, pillaging and setting fire to the dwelling-house, drove their captives away into the wilderness, - a wilderness then dense, dark, pathless, and thorny; in the confusion, Mrs. Duston having but one shoe to her feet.

The cold snows of winter had not entirely disappeared. Yet were they compelled to advance, reclining at night upon the frosty earth to obtain rest and strength, and then up at break of day, continuing their ramblings northward, by and near to the Merrimack, through the wilderness; thus onward until they reached that Indian fort on the island between the waters of the Contoocook and Merrimack Rivers.

 

ISLAND CONTOOCOOK

As appears, this island, containing about two acres, then (and now) covered with a dense forest, was the adopted home of one of the tribes; and, from its surroundings, it served to be a strong fortification against their common enemy, the English settlers.

For fifteen days they had continued their march through the forest, - a distance of seventy-five miles, according to our reckoning; but, according to the Indian computations of that time, two hundred and fifty miles.

But, before they reached the island, the tribe divided into two parts: the one with several captives (among whom was Hannah Bradley, whose brief biography will appear on a subsequent page) continued still farther onward to another place; while the other company, with Mrs. Duston, Neff, and Samuel, crossed over in their birch canoes, to dwell, at least for a night, on the island between the safe surroundings at the junction of these two beautiful rivers.

On their way the Indians had talked of another fort of theirs in Canada; and had intimated to the captives, that, upon their arrival there, they would be held to run the gantlet, according to the law and custom of the tribes.

 

GANTLET

This was usually performed thus: The group was made up by "two files of Indians of both sexes, of all ages, containing all who could be mustered in the village; and the unhappy prisoners were obliged to run between them, when they were scoffed at and beaten by each one as they passed, and were made marks of, at which the younger Indians threw their hatchets."

As if to add to these worst of cruelties, the tribes often made sale of their captives to the French in Canada, - then hostile to the English settlers in New England, - to be held to service them as slaves.

In sight of all the severities to which they had already been subjected, and in view of impending disgrace and danger, these three (Duston, Neff, and Samuel) secretly took counsel together, and resolved to liberate themselves.

 

HOW TO KILL AN INDIAN

Thereupon the boy Samuel inquired of one of the tribe ("Bampico") as to where he would strike if he would kill a man instantly, and how he would take off the scalp.

The Indian, bringing his finger against his temple, made answer, "Strike him there!" and he then proceeded to tell him how to take off the scalp.

 

SCALPING

This feat is performed by the savage as follows: Placing his foot upon the neck of his prostrate victim, he twists the fingers of his left hand into the scalplock; and then, cutting with a knife in his right hand a circular gash around the lock, he tears the scalp from the head, and fastens it to his girdle with a yell of triumph.

The scalps upon their belts on public occasions were worn to designate the warriors.

 

ON THE ISLAND

There, on that night, March 30, 1697, the campfires in front of the wigwams blazed pleasantly; and the tribe in front of them, reclining, and burdened with the fatigue of a restless journey, of course slept soundly.

Having a heed to all this, the captives patiently awaited the midnight hour; and then, cautiously, noiselessly, obtaining the tomahawks, and moving with concert of action, they struck the deadly blow. None of the Indians escaped alive, save one old squaw covered with wounds, and an Indian boy, whom the captives did not incline to pursue.

 

NUMBER OF VICTIMS

Ten of them were slain. The captives, in their haste, at first left the wigwams without full evidence of what had been done; yet soon returned, took off the ten scalps, taking also with them an Indian gun and tomahawk; and then, seeking to avoid pursuit, they scuttled the canoes, all but one; and in that they floated down the Merrimack as far as they could come for the falls, and thence along its left bank, as tradition has it, until they arrived home safely at Haverhill.

On the 21st of April in the same year (1697), they visited Boston; carrying with them, as evidence of their achievement, the scalps, the gun, and tomahawk; and, on the 8th of June thereafterwards, the General Court awarded to Mrs. Duston a gift of 25, and to Mary Neff and Samuel Leonardson 12 10s. each. Col. Nicholson, then governor of Maryland, upon hearing of the transaction, also transmitted complimentary presents to them. Many thanks, as well as material gifts, were extended to them by many others.

 

SONS AND DAUGHTERS

The children of Thomas and Hannah Duston were, -

Hannah, born Aug. 22, 1678. Abigail, born October, 1690.
Elizabeth, born May 7, 1680. Jona., born Jan. 15, 1691-92.
Mary, born Nov. 4, 1681 (died Oct. 18, 1696). Timothy, born Sept. 14, 1694.
Thomas, born Jan. 5, 1683.   Mehitable, twin-sister to Timothy (died Dec. 16, 1694).
Nath., born May 16, 1685. Martha, born March 9, 1697; slain by the Indians March 15, 1697.
John, born Feb. 2, 1686 (died Jan. 28, 1690). And Lydia, born Oct. 4, 1698.
Sarah, born July 4, 1688.