Abenaki Perspective – Hannah Duston

The following article re-contextualizes the 17th century narrative of Hannah Dustin’s kidnapping and how she escaped by killing and scalping an Abenaki family that was sleeping. This historic retelling from the Abenaki perspective was written by Brian Chenevert, Historic Preservation Officer for the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe, with help from Sherry L. Gould and Madeleine Gosselin Wright. Published on this website with the permission of the author.

The Abenaki People, the People of the Dawn Land, refer to ourselves as Alnôbak, Human Beings. We are the original inhabitants of what is now known as the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, parts of Western Maine, parts of Northern Massachusetts, and parts of Southern Quebec. This area is known to the Abenakias N’dakinna, meaning Our Land. We have called this area home since time immemorial.

Prior to contact, we numbered in the hundreds of thousands. However, sickness and epidemics as a result of contact with early European fishermen caused a major blow to the population. Historically the Abenaki Nation consisted of a number of villages to include Androscoggin, Amoskeag, Coosuk, Kennebec, Missisqoui, Nashaway, Norridgewock, Ossipee, Pawtucket, Penacook, Pigwacket, Sokoki, Squakheag, Wawenoc, Winnipesaukee, and Winooski. Then because of migration
due to war and colonial settlement, we took in a number of refugees from the Pocumtuck, Mahican, and Nipmuc. The Abenaki people were very fluid, traveling, and living among many of these villages throughout their lifetimes. Additionally, many English and French records lumped the Abenaki into generic group names such as North Indians, River Indians, Loups, Schaghticoke Indians, and St. Francis Indians.

During the period of 1642 – 1760, we fought in many wars and completed many raids on the New England frontier in an attempt to take back land and property that was squatted on and stolen from us.

One of these events happened on March 15, 1697, when a party of about 20-30 Abenaki raided the settler town of Haverhill, MA. During the raid, 27 colonists were killed and 13 taken captive, including 39-year-old Hannah Duston, her newborn daughter Martha and her nurse Mary Neff. Abenaki captives were treated kindly as they were generally either adopted by a family that had lost someone or sold to the French in Canada to be ransomed back to the English.

Soon after leaving Haverhill, during the trek north the infant Martha died. The Minister Cotton Mather, in one of his three different versions of Hannah’s story, would write that the six-day-old infant was killed by the Abenaki by smashing her head against a tree as she was slowing down the group. However, this does not add up from a historical context.

This version by Mather would make no sense when compared to other captivity stories. Particularly, since baby Martha had her mother Hannah and nurse Mary Neff to both carry her and take care of her and not slow down the group. This baby would have been of value to the Abenaki at that time either as a potential adoptee or for ransom to the French. The Abenaki would typically only mercy kill captives who were either severely injured or too weak to survive if they were left alone on the trail. In addition, pregnant Abenaki women would continue work in the fields
and in the village right up to birth often giving birth in the cornfields. They would immediately begin carrying the child on their backs in cradleboards and complete their work.

Women captives such as Hannah and Mary were never mistreated, they were usually put into the care of an extended family who would treat their wounds, feed them, shelter them, and treated them like potential family.

Soon after starting the trek north, the Abenaki party split up dividing the captives among them and headed towards individual villages.

One of the other captives from the Haverhill raid, Hannah Bradley, was taken to the village of Norridgewock where she was later part of a prisoner exchange and returned to the English.

Hannah Duston and Mary Neff went with a group that met up with a family of Abenaki somewhere north of Haverhill. This family consisted of 13 people, 2 Men, 3 Women, 7 children, and one other white captive, 14 year old Samuel Leonardson of Worcester MA. Leonardson had been captured 18 months prior from Lake Quinsigamond.

One of the men of this family group told Hannah that he formerly lived with a Mr. Rolandson in Lancaster, MA. He also told her that he formerly prayed the English way and now prayed the French way which he liked better. This leads us to believe that he was a “Praying Indian” or Christian Indian possibly from one of John Elliots “Praying Towns”. It is likely that this entire family were Christian Indians.

This family continued their journey north, likely heading to one of our many villages in Northern Vermont and New Hampshire or possibly to the mission village of Saint Francis where they could trade the captives with the French.

According to Mather, Hannah and Mary were told that once they got to the village they would be stripped, scourged and forced to “run the gauntlet”. However, here again, Mather is inconsistent in his retelling as there is not another single documented case where a women captive was made to run the gauntlet by the Abenaki. As stated previously, women were treated with the utmost respect and in fact, almost 1/3 of all white female captive chose to stay with us and continue living as Indians. This was a direct result of the fact that our women had much greater freedom, choices and influence then their Puritan counterparts in New England.

For further context on what running the gauntlet was, I would like to point out that it was a test of manhood for male captives. Men of the village would gather in two lines, then using clubs, sticks or just using their hands and feet they would hit the male captives as they ran down the alley made by the two rows of men. The male captives who could make it through the gauntlet without falling, crying out or wailing would then be considered for adoption into a family. Those who did not pass this test were sent with the women and likely traded to the French for ransom back to the English.

On the night of March 29th-30th, 1697, Hannah gathered Mary and Samuel and while their Abenaki family was asleep took hold of their tomahawks. Together they murdered the two Abenaki men, two women and six children in their sleep. In Mather’s account, he states that they let one boy sleep as they had planned to take him with them back to Haverhill, however he awoke and managed to escape along with one severely wounded woman.

Hannah and her partners then began to make their escape, however, before
departing in the canoes she convinced Mary and Samuel to go back with her and scalp the bodies of the deceased Abenaki so that they could claim the scalp bounty. In 1695, the Province of Massachusetts had set a scalp bounty on our heads in the amount of 25 pounds per scalp. Once they had their victims’ scalps in hand they took a canoe, tomahawk, and a musket, traveling only at night they reached Haverhill several days later.

Once home, Thomas Duston took Hannah, Mary, Samuel, the scalps, tomahawk, and gun to Boston to claim the bounty. As Hannah had no right to make a claim in those days, her Husband had to make the claim for her.

On June 16, 1697, the Province of Massachusetts awarded them 50 pounds as a reward for their service, 25 to Hannah and 25 for Mary and Samuel to split.

Outside of Cotton Mather’s account, this event went relatively unknown for more than 100 years until the 1800’s when the story was dramatized and embellished to change the narrative for use during the time of the Indian removal act. The story of Hannah was later used again for the feminist movement by making Hannah out to be heroine and erecting the first statue of a woman in the United States.

We, the Abenaki, continue to persevere and seek to have our side of this story and history in general made known.

Historical Retelling by Brian Chenevert, Nulhegan Abenaki Tribal Historian
©2020. Brian Chenevert. All Rights Reserved.