Hannah Duston was the first American woman to get a patriotic statue, but did you know she scalped 10 Native Americans?
Last year, in North Carolina, during a protest against the clashes that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of people toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier. This started a debate on who these American heroes were, whether they deserved to be honored with public monuments, and if their deeds matched today's moral standards. Well, there’s another statue that, in the past few decades, has received similar treatment, although the news has mostly stayed in New Hampshire, and its removal has been met with stony silence. This statue is of an imposing woman holding in one hand a tomahawk and in the other a set of scalps. It is one of three statues erected to commemorate this woman, who has become a patriotic symbol. She is also the first woman in the history of the US to actually have a public monument. But how did this woman who murdered ten people–six of them children– become a national heroine?
Hannah Duston was an Englishwoman living in Massachusetts during a time of constant turmoil. Besides the animosity between the English and the French, the settlers also had to grapple with the skirmishes against the Native Americans that fought against colonial expansion. During these conflicts, many Native American tribes and communities were defeated, captured, and sold as slaves.
By 1689, when King William’s War began, these tribes decided to join the French in Canada and fight against the British army. However, this wasn’t their only move against their greatest enemy: they also decided to attack in a more direct way, by conducting raids in established communities. During these raids, they would burn the houses, kill part of the population, and abduct the rest. The latter served two purposes: the first was to use the captives as ransom, and the second was that they would serve as payment for the lives they had taken from the tribes.
Long story short, it was during one of these raids that Duston, her newborn baby girl, and her nurse (in other versions, she was her neighbor), were abducted and taken to New Hampshire (the place where one of her statues proudly stands). According to historical accounts, the Native Americans killed Duston's baby by throwing her against a tree; this tragic loss would sow the seeds of revenge in the bereaved mother's heart.
After days of traveling, they finally arrived to their destination, where a family of twelve awaited them, including two men, three women, and seven children. The captured women were not treated as slaves. On the contrary, they were viewed as replacements for those family members who had been killed or sold. This particular family, for instance, had “adopted” a teenage boy called Samuel Leonardson, who had been taken a year before and had since then earned the trust of his captors. Duston saw this strange relationship as a perfect opportunity to avenge the death of her baby daughter.
It’s said that she convinced Leonardson to ask their captors to teach him how to use the tomahawk, which they agreed to do. She then learned how to wield the weapon, and one night, while her captors were asleep, she picked up one of the tomahawks and murdered ten of the family members (only one boy and an older woman managed to run away). She collected the scalps of her victims, and the three captives escaped to their hometown, where she delivered the scalps to the General Assembly of Massachusetts (she was even paid a good amount of money for them).
Duston never wrote down her story, so there's no reliable way to confirm all the events that became popular soon afterwards. What she did do was share her experience with a Puritan minister called Cotton Mather, and he published three different versions of her story and included the events in his History of New England. Mather, as a Puritan, saw Native Americans as devilish beings that worked on behalf of Satan. He justified Duston's acts and believed that she had been guided by the hand of God to purge the world from its evils.
She heartened the nurse and youth to assist her in this enterprize, and all furnished themselves with hatchets for the purpose, they struck such home blows upon the heads of their sleeping oppressors, that ere they could any of them struggle into any effectual resistance, "at the feet of these poor prisoners, they bow'd, they fell, they lay down; at their feet they bow'd, they fell; where they bow'd, there they fell down dead." Only one squaw escaped, sorely wounded, from them in the dark; and one boy, whom they reserved asleep, intending to bring him away with them, suddenly waked, and scuttled away from this desolation. But cutting off the scalps of the ten wretches, they came off: and received fifty (308) pounds from the General Assembly of the province, as a recompence of their action; besides which, they received many "presents of congratulation" from their more private friends: but none gave 'em greater taste of bounty than Colonel Nicholson, the Governour of Maryland, who, hearing of their action, sent 'em a very generous token of his favour.
Mather’s stories became extremely popular at the time, but Duston's deeds were basically forgotten by the American people until the 1820s, during the "Indian Problem." These conflicts surfaced once again with the expansion into the West, spurred mainly by Manifest Destiny. This destiny dictated that US citizens were foreordained to expand across North America and have ownership over the lands. Convenient, isn't it? At the same time, a movement was also spreading and becoming popular among the American population, claiming that Native Americans weren't barbaric savages, but rather normal people minding their own business. So, this driving force of expansion, coupled with the threatening humanizing imagery of the Native Americans, was the perfect combination that led to the resurgence of Duston's story. Her unique story was the perfect and most effective form of propaganda that would serve the interests of expansionists.
The government was orchestrating this expansion into the west, and while many supported the relocation of Native Americans from these territories, the pro-Indian campaign was also getting quite a bit of support that the government could no longer ignore. Given that their destiny was to instill their moral rectitude across North America, it would appear two-faced if they suddenly decided to eradicate all of the natives. They needed an excuse, and in came Ms. Dustan and her 12 scalps.
This image of the harmless Indian had to be erased in order to justify their expulsion. So, Hannah's story was embellished and changed, and the part where she murdered six children was omitted. They used the fact that her baby had been killed as a moral justification for her acts and to generate sympathy from the population. She soon became a household name featured in texts by renowned authors like Thoreau and Hawthorne, streets were named after her, fountains were erected in her honor, and let's not forget the three controversial statues that still stand to this day.
For as long as the expansion lasted, Duston was everyone's heroine. Then, she was forgotten by history, but her statues remained standing as a symbol of patriotism. The fact that she was the first woman in the US to have a monument in her name is irrelevant; what matters is that her vigilante actions go against the vision the US wishes to represent of itself as a country founded on the rule of law that upholds its institutions. The debate rages on, and in the meantime, the gift shop across the street sells Duston t-shirts and refrigerator magnets. I believe that the real controversy does not lie in whether she was a heroine or villain, it lies in the actual commemoration. Why is she commemorated when she doesn't uphold the values the US wishes to extol at all times? Her story is indeed riveting and tragic, but she was still a vigilante, and her actions shouldn't be commemorated or pegged as morally justified.
When we take a closer look, all we see is a statue that glorifies violence and racism, so it is little wonder people have shot off her nose and covered her up with graffiti. Her monument remains neglected and shy from crumbling, so some see this as a fitting symbol of how people feel about her story, but in my eyes this ambivalence has more to do with an inability to confront the nuances that make up our historical figures and evaluate their relevance today. It is not about the woman standing there collecting pigeon shit, it's about the reason the public and government plonked her there in the first place.