Veiled in the forests of the Contoocook River in Boscawen stands a 35-foot statue of Hannah Dustin, a settler who killed ten Abenaki people and handed their scalps to the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1697. The statue depicts Dustin wearing a “gown that’s falling off her shoulders. In her right hand, she has a tomahawk, and in her left hand, she has a fist full of scalps. And on the back […] is the inscription” (Monumental Dilemma 1:05 – 1:22). The statue was erected in 1874 which makes it the oldest monument dedicated to a woman in the United States (Monumental Dilemma 2:05).
The inscription on the monument reads:
“March 15 1697 30
The War Whoop Tomahawk Faggot & Infanticides Were At Haverhill The Ashes of Wigwam-Camp-Fires At Night & Of Ten Of The Tribe Are Here”
Allegedly, there was a skirmish in Haverhill, Massachusetts between Abenaki and Colonists. Dustin had been recovering from giving birth to her eighth child when a group of Abenakis came into her home and took her, her baby, and her nurse, Mary Neff captive (Monumental Dilemma 4:20). In some renditions of the story, an Abenaki captor killed Dustin’s baby in front of Dustin. Hannah Dustin, Mary Neff, and unrelated young colonist boy were given to a different Abenaki family as slaves (Monumental Dilemma 4:51). There are divergent accounts. For example, according to Paul Pouliot, “[w]e 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” (Monumental Dilemma 17:36). He argues that it is unlikely that the Abenaki would kill a child since the Abenaki admired children (Monumental Dilemma 17:55).
The Abenaki family that held the captives consisted of a grandmother, two mothers, two fathers, and children. They all crossed the river and slept on the island where the monument stands. While the Abenaki family were asleep, Dustin and the two other captives took a tomahawk to the heads of six children, two women, and two men, and severely injured others. Once they were dead, Dustin took their scalps and made her escape back to Haverhill (Monumental Dilemma 5:45). The next day, Hannah Dustin and her husband traveled down to Boston and “presented their ten scalps to the Massachusetts General Assembly and was rewarded with bounties for two men, two women, and six children” (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014: 64).
These stories about Hannah Dustin have been passed down, changed, and retold throughout history. In the podcast, Tom Spitaleri reminds the audiencethat “[y]ou gotta understand something with the Hannah Dustin story. There’s a lot of interpretation out there, and there’s a lot of New England folklore” (Monumental Dilemma: 8:57).
A colonial narritive often depicts that “scalping” as an Indigenous practice when, in fact, it was the colonists who introduced the custom. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that it was Hannah Dustin who had introduced the practice of scalping around 1697 (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014: 64). After this instance, colonist authorities were said to promote retrieving scalps in trade for reward money (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014: 65).
[T]he scalp hunter could take the children captive and sell them into slavery. These practices erased any remaining distinction between Indigenous combatants and noncombatants and introduced a market for Indigenous slaves. Bounties for Indigenous scalps were honored even in absence of war. Scalps and Indigenous children became means of exchange, currency, and this development may even have created a black market (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014: 65).
Hannah Dustin was praised as a tough frontier heroine. Her story, in time, became American folklore. In the 19th century, she was popularized by famous writers, poets, and two monuments were erected in her honor; one in Haverhill, Massachusetts and another one in New Hampshire at the site of the massacre. Thus, Hannah Dustin became the first female to be erected as a monument in the United States. It is Important to think critically about the story and the monument. The inscription is vague and the statue holds the scalps of the Abenaki family Dustin killed. We encourage you to think critically about the details of the Hannah Dustin story: who passed down the story, how it was shared and embellished, and whether and what reliable evidence is available to substantiate its versions.
Dunbar-Otriz, Roxanne. 2014. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Rodolico, Jack. “Monumental Dilemma” Episode 113. Audio Blog Post. 99% Invisible. May 5, 2014.