Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Jack: So down at the bottom of the hill away from the highway and I’m about to cross a really old railroad bridge, not an active railroad anymore.
Roman: That’s Jack Rodolico wandering around the New Hampshire woods.
Jack: It’s a pretty view.
Roman: He’s about 10 miles north of the state capital off of Interstate 93. In a pretty out of the way place. There no signs or markers on the road indicating something special is there but he’s found something.
Jack: You get out to this little island and the railroad tracks go straight across, but what you really notice is this epic looking granite monument in the middle of the island.
Roman: It looks a lot like a monument you’d see in a city park, except it’s on a forested island in the middle of a river.
Jack: It is enormous.
Roman: It’s 30 feet tall.
Roman: It’s all granite and on top of a tall pedestal, there is a woman.
Jack: She’s wearing this gown that’s falling off her shoulders. In her right hand she has a tomahawk. And in her left hand she has a fistful of scalps. And on the back of this thing, I’m gonna run around to the back here, is the inscription.
Roman: Now let’s pause for just a second here. If you are a regular listener to the show, you know how I feel about plaques and always reading them. The reason being that plaques tell stories. Sometimes they tell really amazing stories if you can decipher them.
Jack: March 15th-30th, 1697. The War Whoop Tomahawk Faggot & Infanticides Were at Haverhill The Ashes of Wigwam-Camp-Fires at Night & of Ten of the Tribe Are Here.
Roman: I got nothing from that.
Jack: Yeah, not a lot of detail there. Honestly, the whole island was strange to me, kind of creepy, actually. Not very well kept up this enormous imposing statue with the eerie plaque. The scalps? What’s crazy is this statue was erected in 1874 making it the oldest monument dedicated to a woman in the US. So you think someone would come out here and at least mow the grass, you know? Well, what I learned is that plaque does tell a story though not an obvious one. And I learned there’s a good reason why the grounds are neglected. In fact what to do with this historic site has become a bit of a problem. And it all has to do with the woman in the monument and what she did.
The story starts about 50 miles south of the monument in a town called Haverhill, Massachusetts. I went down there and met up with a local historian named Tom Spitalere in a parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts.
How you doin’?
Tom: Tom. Nice to meet you.
Jack: Nice to meet you too. Tom is a die hard New Englander. I’ll tell you he’s wearing a Boston Red Sox jacket on top of a Boston Celtics jersey on top of a New England Patriots t-shirt.
Tom: The car’s gonna get a little noisy. It need a lot of work.
Jack: Sure. And everywhere we drive in Haverhill, Tom sees signs of New England’s past. Particularly from colonial times.
Tom: And to the time of Hannah Duston. During that time we were embroiled in what some historians are now calling World War I. Most people would know it as the French-Indian war or King Philip’s, King George’s and The Seven Years War.
Roman: In the 1600s, New England was a war zone between the French, the British and the Native Americans. By the end of that century, disease and war would wipe out most Native Americans in the northeast and Haverhill was….
Tom: -the wild west. I mean it sounds funny but putting it in today’s contents, we were the outpost. There was nothing north of us, that was it.
Roman: There was nothing but wilderness around making it an easy target for attacks by Native Americans. Bands of Native Americans had shifting alliances with the British and the French. The French paid Abenakis to abduct Brits and bring them to Quebec. Then the French would sell these captives back to the British. It was a slave trade.
Tom: So I mean, this area was constantly being raided, constantly.
Jack: In 1697, a woman named Hannah Duston was recovering from delivering her 8th child when Abenakis raided Haverhill. They killed and captured dozens of colonists and burned buildings.
Roman: That’s what the word faggots on the monument refers to. A faggot was a bundle of sticks used to fuel a fire.
Jack: During the raid, Hannah Duston’s husband was outside with seven of their kids defending the homestead and his children. But Abenakis entered the house and abducted Hannah, her newborn baby girl, and her nurse, Mary Neff.
Roman: The captives were marched north through the wilderness and shortly after leaving Haverhill, when Hannah’s baby wouldn’t stop crying, one of the Abanakis smashed it against a tree. That’s where you get the word infanticide from the monument’s plaque. They kept walking north.
Tom: Most likely they were heading to the outpost of Saint Francis.
Jack: That’s up in Quebec. At some point the war party handed Hannah Duston and Mary Neff to another group of Abenakis. A group made up of a couple families.
Tom: She was sold to those Native Americans as a slave.
Jack: So the group of Abenakis that ended up with Hannah was made up of two fathers, two mothers, a grandmother, and a bunch of children. And they already had a white boy with them, a kid named Samuel Lennardson who had been abducted from Worcester the previous year.
Roman: So that makes three white captives and twelve Abenakis. The whole crew crossed the Merrimack river to the island, the one that now has the monument on it. And they set up a camp for the night.
Jack: In the middle of the night, Hannah Duston made a decision. She rallied Mary and Samuel and led them around the sleeping Abenakis, one at a time, they brought a hatchet down on the Abenakis’ heads. They killed ten in total; two men, two women, six children. And then before making their getaway, they scalped each victim.
Roman: Two Abenakis made it out alive. The old woman who was injured and a little boy.
Jack: Hannah, Mary and Samuel left the island in a canoe. It was a dangerous time of year to be on the river. It would have been choked with ice and full of rapids. They traveled at night to avoid being seen.
Roman: And 15 days after vanishing, Hannah Duston and her companions landed in Haverhill to the total shock of her husband, her 7 children, and everyone who ever lost a family member to a raid. Hannah Duston is the woman memorialized in the monument. The scalps she is holding in the statue belonged to the 10 people including 6 children that she and her companions killed on the island.
Jack: And that statue isn’t the only Hannah Duston landmark in New England. Not by a long shot, there are others particularly in Haverhill where she’d lived. Tom Spiptalere took me on a tour.
Tom: Let me just pull off here real quick, this is the Hannah Duston rest area named after her. Is this the street? I always forget, yeah, this is it here. Here’s Hannah Duston street. The Hannah Duston nursing home. Obviously named after her. Now we’re at the Hannah Duston rock. Monument street got its name from the monument that’s there for Hannah Duston. Boscawen Avenue.
Jack: Boscawen is the town in New Hampshire where the island is. Tom even took me to an old Garrison house. A fort, essentially, where Hannah Duston lived after her captivity.
Tom: We do private tours in here.
Jack: In a glass case is a piece of Hannah Duston memorabilia I’ve seen on eBay. In the 1970s, the state of New Hampshire commissioned Jim Beam to make a Hannah Duston whiskey decanter. It’s an exact replica of the statue in New Hampshire down to the little bloody scalps in her hand. It’s made of porcelain.
Tom: Porcelain. Yeah, that hits the full of goodbye-goodnight.
Jack: It’s kinda sexy and provocative. I mean she got cleavage popping out.
Tom: Yeah, that would never have happened back in 1697. But you gotta remember this was in 1976, they did this. 1976 it was about selling.
Jack: You’re selling booze with a sexy woman with scalps and an ax in her hand?
Tom: Right. And we don’t even know what she really looked like ’cause there was no photographs of her.
Jack: That whiskey decanter is from 1976 but the New Hampshire Historical Society still sells a Hannah Duston bobblehead in it’s museum shop. On the base of that bobble head it says, “The Mother’s Revenge”. You can probably see how this kitsch-y collectors items might feel offensive. In fact, all the Hannah Duston stuff and Hannah Duston landmarks are a problem for some people who know the whole story. But the whole story, that’s a tricky thing to pin down.
Tom: You gotta understand something about the Hannah Duston story, there’s a lot of interpretation out there. And there’s a lot of New England folklore.
Roman: Hannah Duston’s kidnapping and escape happened more that 300 years ago. And the story has been told and retold a lot. And actually, the reason we know anything about it today has to do with the fact that she scalped her victims.
Jack: After Hannah came home, her husband took her and all those Abenaki scalps down to Boston to sell them. Now If you’re like me, when you heard she had scalped her victims, you may have thought she had some kind of blood lust. I thought scalping was something tribes did to white people, not the other way around. Turns out I was very, very wrong.
Roman: Colonial governments paid cash for Native Americans’ scalps, heads and even hands. They would pay most for man, less for woman, and least for a child. They would even pay Native Americans for the body parts of other Native Americans depending on who was war-ing with whom at the time.
Jack: So Duston had financial incentive for scalping her victims but here’s the reason we still know the story; when Hannah was in Boston selling her scalps, she sat down with Cotton Mather and he wrote her story down. His name might ring a bell. Cotton Mather was head of the protestant church in New England. He had ties to the Salem witch trials and he was a fire and brimstone minister who traveled around giving sermons.
Roman: These little frontier towns that Cotton Mather visited, they were filled with these shell shocked colonists who had missing family members from Native American raids. Mather told Duston’s story again and again to rapt church goers. Building Duston’s status as a heroine.
Barbara: I think the Hannah Duston’s story has endured for so long because it’s not just a story about a woman who killed people. It actually has become a story about the American Nation at different points of time.
Jack: This is Barbara Cutter, historian and professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
Barbara: It was a story about the colonial battle against Native Americans in the 17th century. It was a story justifying the westward expansion of the United Stated in the 19th century. And in more recent years, it has been used as a story domestically about culture wars, really.
Jack: Cutter has researched how and why the Hannah Duston monuments were built. And she said it really hit home just how far the story had traveled when…
Barbara: I happened to cross a Salt Lake city Mormon woman’s newspaper in the 1890s that started off by saying,”Who has not heard of Hannah Duston?” I mean, Hannah Duston was from Massachusetts.
Roman: After her captivity, Hannah Duston lived in colonial obscurity. She actually had seven more kids and died at age 84.
Jack: No one talked about her through the 1700s. She was forgotten until…
Barbara: In the 1800s and the 1820s, United States was a new nation and a lot of intellectuals at that point in time were trying to create a distinctly American culture. And so they started telling American stories. And then trying to uncover American heroes and heroines.
Jack: So the country’s literary elite dug around for some good old American stories and they found Hannah Duston. Cutter says if you were an American, in say 1865…
Barbara: Well the first place you might likely come across her would be when you opened your American history textbook in school. You would also come across her story if you read famous American writers like Hawthorne.
Jack: Or John Greenleaf Whittier? or Henry David Thoreau? Popular magazines, news papers, essay collections, children’s books, paintings. In the 1800s, Hannah Duston was a household name.
Roman: Johnny Appleseed, David Crockett, Hannah Duston.
Jack: But with each retelling of the story something happened. People changed the narrative to suit their purposes.
Barbara: It becomes a moral problem for Americans that Hannah Duston killed children. Especially since, I mean, they weren’t just children, they were sleeping children.
Jack: Writers omitted details, embellished others and sometimes just made things up. They completely left out the children she killed, replacing them with warriors. That Abenaki child that escaped? The writer said Duston spared him intentionally which there’s no evidence of. Most writers depicted Hannah Duston as a sympathetic heroine. This outraged mother seeking a justifiable revenge. This was the era of manifest destiny. As in, it is America’s destiny to inherit the land, to seize it from people abducted heathens and savages.
Barbara: That’s when, I think, New Englanders really started focusing on Hannah Duston more and more as the kind of heroine they should commemorate.
Roman: In the mid 1800s as headlines screamed about the wars in the west, monuments sprung up in the northeast. When the monument in the island was built in 1874, there were a thousand people present. Again, it was the first monument ever built to a woman in the US. But when the Indian wars died down around 1900, Hannah Duston dropped out of the national spotlight again.
Jack: But a subset of New Englanders held on to her story, in 1905, Hannah Duston’s descendants created the Duston Family Association.
Barbara: They sort of littered the landscape of Haverhill with memorial boulders and millstones in her honor at sites where she landed her canoe, across from where she was buried, apparently they put one up at one place where she turned around and looked back thinking that Indians might be following her on her way home.
Jack: Then all the way into the mid 1900s there was a whole other layer of things named after those rocks and statues, a nursing home, a school, streets. Overtime the namings petered out, but the names themselves stuck. And so did the Duston family.
Cedrick: Well, my name is Cedrick H. Duston, Jr. I’m the 10th generation form Hannah. So that’ll make her my 8th great grandmother. I’m not sure, I just haven’t counted. [laughs]
Jack: Something like that, yeah.
Jack: Cedrick is the vice president and formerly the president of the Duston Family Association. He’s 88 and he’s known about Hannah Duston since he was a boy. To Cedrick, Hannah was a heroine.
Cedrick: She was concerned about her own life and those of her companions. And as such, I thought she was quite a lady to have the plan that she did and do the things she did. But basically, I think it was self-preservation.
Jack: Just to make something clear, the Duston Family Association isn’t lobbying for statues anymore. They mostly spend time tracing their lineage and they get together for a barbecue every summer. And Cedrick Duston says he understands why some aren’t such a big fan of his grandmother, 8th generations removed. But he is disappointed the statue in the island are in disrepair. Hannah’s nose were shot off of the rifle. There’s graffiti and the grass hasn’t been mowed in years.
Cedrick: When I was a young man, I could go up there and cut the whole thing but right now, age won’t let me do that. But I think the state of New Hampshire should make good use of the fact that they have in their confines, the first statue ever erected to woman in this country. Perhaps a new sign should be put at that location indicating that, as opposed to the sign that’s there now indicating the deed that happened on that island.
Jack: So this is the island?
Paul: This is the island.
Jack: I went back to the island with the 30-foot tall Hannah Duston monument with someone who says he’s avoided going out there for years.
Paul: She doesn’t look very heroic. She looks more like an opportunist, angry opportunist that went back and then bragged about it and then history has become history.
Jack: This is Paul.
Paul: I’m Paul Puleo, I’m the Sagamo which roughly translated to principal speaker of the grand council of the Koasek band of the Penobscot and Abenaki people.
Jack: Paul doesn’t buy Cotton Mather’s version of the story. The one where the Abenakis smashed Duston’s newborn baby against the tree. He says it doesn’t mesh with other captivity stories of the era. We have many many accounts of captives saying that being taken by the Abenaki was not a death sentence. Many went to Canada, some of them were traded back. Paul think Hannah’s captors were probably treating her well.
Roman: Well, presumably as well as one can be treated in captivity.
Jack: And he says Abenakis revered children, so idea of a warrior bashing a baby against a tree as Cotton Mathers’ story portrays, sounds unlikely to him.
Roman: It’s impossible to know how the baby was killed or how Hannah Duston was treated by her captors. And I hesitate to judge from my 21st century vantage point what she should or shouldn’t have done in order to make her escape. But it’s clear that the Hannah Duston story is complicated.
Jack: Paul thinks the monument to her should just be forgotten.
Paul: I mean I really don’t think this monument should be preserved in any way. It’s gonna last here for a millennia so it’s unfortunate it’s here. It’s not going away.
Jack: And that’s the problem now. The Hannah Duston monuments, the one on the island and all the others are mostly fading relics in out of the way places. But every few years, some politician or history buff or native American point to one and says, “Tear this thing down!” or “Clean this thing up!”. And every time people argue, “Is she a heroine or is she a villain?” The same thing over and over and over.
Roman: Just in the last couple of months, there’s been renewed talk about the monument. People are suggesting putting up additional plaques that showed the Abenaki history or changing the name from the Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site to the Contoocook Island State Historic Site.
Jack: But even as small as cleaning up graffiti on the monument or mowing the grounds could be seen as taking a stance about whether Hannah Duston deserved a monument in the first place. About whether she was actually a hero or a villain. Before we left the island Paul Puleo said there was something he wanted to do off the record.
Jack: Sure. No recording? Okay.
Jack: He pulled out a drum and some tobacco. He paced around the monument twice. One time he scattered a little tobacco on four sides of the statue. The other time he beat the drum and sang. He didn’t want me to record the ceremony, but he talked about it afterwards.
Paul: We don’t want to forget our ancestors in the past. So we did a little honoring song and we made an offering of tobacco to purify the grounds, where we were walking around there.
Jack: And does it provide you with any relief or satisfaction to do that?
Paul: Well it was appropriate. You know, just asking earth mother, honing earth mother. Take him back and understanding, with some kind of closure they are now.
Jack: Spiritual closure if nothing else. In lieu of any public decision on how to include Paul’s ancestors in this history, this private ceremony would have to be enough. For now the statue with her shot off nose and vague haunting plaque remains neglected and crumbling, which actually is probably the most accurate symbol of how we feel about Hannah Duston today. Ambivalent about who she was but not quite ready to let her go.
Jack: March 15th-30th, 1697. The War Whoop Tomahawk Faggot & Infanticides Were at Haverhill The Ashes of Wigwam-Camp-Fires at Night & of Ten of the Tribe Are Here.
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Jack Rodolico with Katie Mingle, Sam Greens, Avery Truffleman, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco. And produced are the offices of Arc sign just steps away from the 12 in Broadway Bart stop in beautiful downtown, Oakland, California.