Herione with a Hatchet? The Strange Story of the Statue of Hannah Duston of Haverhill

Hannah Duston's statue in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Hannah Duston’s statue in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Surrounded all around by a sea of freshly manicured green grass and the shade of mature trees, there stands a statue in complete contrast to the pastoral scene around her.  Her large and muscular frame, enmeshed in a metallic interpretation of Puritan dress, gives the impression of a lady not to be messed with. Her square-jawed face is locked into an expression of determination, whilst her eyes blaze with the fire of a warrior Queen. This is no Hester Prynne depicted – no weaker vessel woman – but a veritable seventeenth-century Boudicca. The viewer seeing her powerful stance may be reminded of Lady Liberty, yet that is no beacon of welcome in Hannah’s hand. In her grip lies a tomahawk. A tomahawk which should have been depicted covered in gore from the massacre and scalping of  a Native American family. Two women, two men and six children died at her hand. She received £50 from the General Court at Boston for her bloody harvest of scalps.

Hannah Duston’s tale lies in the murky melee of Anglo-Indian relations in the latter half of the seventeenth-century.  In the age old cycle of colonisation, traceable across the American colonies, by the time of Hannah’s capture the image of the Indian had been transformed from a pliable would-be converso to a murderous quasi-demon. Competition over resources, trade and territory shifted the attitude toward native Americans from patronisation to out and out violence and distrust. By King Philip’s War, named for the English predeliction to anglicise native names, the common people of Boston were so full of ‘animosity and rage’ toward the Indian they had set out to convert, that four hundred westernised ‘friendly’ Indians were rounded up. They were marooned upon Deer Island in Boston Harbor to face the harsh winter unprotected. Their having accepted Christianity provided them no mercy from the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay. Chalk and Johassohn’s The History and Sociology of Genocide has gone so far as to argue the treatment of the Indian in this period as an early historical example of ethnic cleansing.

It was in 1697, five years after the infamous Salem witchtrials. that Hannah, her husband and children where set upon by Abenaki Indians. Her tale of woe, the murder of members of her family and kidnap was quickly seized upon by Cotton Mather in his Decennium Luctuosum and Magnalia Christi Americana. Her tale, in a similar vein to Mary Rowlandson’s, fits into a wider genre of captivity narrative popularised in the period. Despite the odd reference to the ingenuity of the Indians oneness with nature, her tale fuses turmoil and suffering in the wilderness at the hands of a Devilish band of Indians with the ideas of religious awakening central to Puritan ideology. Her massacre of her capturers therefore portrayed through religious imagery as justified and Godly.

Such accounts of Hannah have led to her ascension to the great hall of (white) American heroines, a testament to this is of course her statues in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. A brief Google of either the name Hannah Duston or Dustan will fill your browser with a variety of webpages claiming her proudly as kin or pronouncing this ‘crazy hardass’ as ‘badass of the week‘. You can buy a bobblehead of her clutching a plastic tomahawk, grab a tee with her face on it and if you are taken sick in Haverhill visit the Hannah Duston Memorial Medical Centre (let’s hope you haven’t got a head injury – boom, boom!). Her tale has been mythologised and boiled down to a mother’s revenge against an agressor who had killed her children (pshhh Historians haven’t even agreed on whether puritans/early modern peoples loved their kids anyhoozles!) Yet such mythologising is short-sighted and injurious. Let us not forget that the colonists were as much to blame for the violent Anglo-Indian tensions of the five decades after their arrival; that a once thriving way of life was lost via those upheavals to penury, disease, starvation and reservation. Should Hannah Duston really have a statue?

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At least I’m not…

‘At least I’m not translating the King James Bible into Algonquian’ my Academic Advisor once stated to our Colonial American seminar during the process of re-drafting his latest book. So in my anxiety relating my future, my family and life who am I happy I’m not? What historical undertakings am I happy I’m not groaning under the pressure of right now as I sit here in my pyjamas in a post-final exam state of catatonic laziness?

1. ‘At least I’m not…’ in East Anglia in the mid-1640s

Matthew Hopkins stands surrounded by witches naming their familiars in a seventeenth-century wood cutting.

Matthew Hopkins stands surrounded by witches naming their familiars in a seventeenth-century wood cutting.

Hammed up by the horror hero Vincent Price in the cult classic Witchfinder Generalthe real horror lies in the true story of the East Anglian witch-hunts. Beginning with the torture and interrogation of one-legged older lady Elizabeth Clarke in Essex, her shocking sleep-deprived confessions of meetings with the Devil and suckling imps sparked a witch-hunt that claimed the lives of hundreds of men, women and children across Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Norfolk.

Have you ever had a fight with your neighbours? With a friend or loved one? Have a pet or ever been seen near an animal? Have a predisposition towards speaking your mind, cursing or being a little odd or eccentric? A little worse off than your peers? Then East Anglia in the seventeenth century was not for you. From ‘schollers fit for Cambridge’, to older marginal ladies, to the litigous eighty-year-old Suffolk Parson John Lowes, nobody seemed safe from the sinister perambulations of the self-titled ‘Witch Finder General’ Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne.

You can stand trial and see whether you would be found guilty of witchcraft over at the BBC History Magazine website, or see if you could survive trial in the hysteria of the emergency court of Oyer and Terminer at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 over at the National Geographic.

2. ‘At least I’m not…’ Anne Boleyn

A tired looking Anne Boleyn collapses on entry to the Tower, comforted by weeping lady-in-waiting in a nineteenth-century romantic re-imagining.

A tired looking Anne Boleyn collapses on entry to the Tower, comforted by weeping lady-in-waiting in a nineteenth-century romantic re-imagining of the events of May 1536.

The year is 1536 and the month is May, after three years of marriage and ten years (depending upon historian) of a cat-and-mouse game waiting for Henry to discard his Spanish wife, Anne Boleyn sits in the Tower awaiting execution. In a cruel quirk of fate she spent the last days of her fall imprisoned in the rooms that had once been sumptuously adorned for her Coronation; her greatest moment of triumph framing her utter destruction.

I cannot imagine the horror, pain and fear Anne would have gone through in her final moments.  During her imprisonment the Queen’s emotional state oscillated between dry humour, and hysteria to dark dejection and weeping. She famously joked with her jailer Sir William Kingston that she had but ‘a little neck’ as she clutched it within her small hands and giggled. She would tell her ladies too she would go down in history as ‘La Royne Anne sans tête’, Headless Queen Anne. A remarkable incite considering the future prevalence of ghost stories regarding the tragic Queen.

Why most of all am I not glad to be Anne Boleyn, other than brutal death? The delays in her execution allowed for her to begin to believe that Henry would forgive her, sending her into exile as he had done Catherine. Whilst the fact Bluff King Hal spent the day of her execution playing tennis and became betrothed to his next ‘sweteharte’ and Anne Boleyn’s former Lady-in-Waiting Jane Seymour within a day of her being laid to rest in that too small arrow chest has to sting!

Dipping your toes into the life of Anne Boleyn? I recommend a perusal of the Anne Boleyn Files or On the Tudor Trail.

1. ‘At least I’m not…’ in James Town in 1609 – 1610

The less attractive, non-disneyfied, real face of seventeenth-century adventurer Captain John Smith.

Rumours of cannibalism have lingered around the early English settlements in Virginia since the dry humour of seasoned soldier Captain John Smith (yes he was real, yes he knew Pocahontas, no they weren’t in love – she was a child) described in his works a particular delicacy amongst the New World colonists – ‘Powdered Wife.’

The first men who arrived under the banner of the Virginia Company in 1607 were piteously unprepared for the New World. Doting on ‘mines of gold’ to their ‘utter undoinge’ as the good Captain wrote in 1631, the men spent their time scrabbling for glittering rocks and not crops, realising their fatal mistake come winter. The worsening period from 1609 – 1610 has become known to history as ‘the Starving Times.’

Chaos prevailed with violence, disease, summary executions and political instability rife. Men ate roots and dogs before finally boiling their boots and belts desperately eating the softened leather. Historians have poo-pooed the idea that the colonists were desperate enough to eat their own, classing Smith’s tale as the wry sedition.

You can imagine then the shock, when archaeologists recently found this, the skull of a young woman they have named ‘Jane’ found with marks symptomatic of butchery hidden in a rubbish heap. It appears post-humously (I hope) Jane had the flesh scrapped from her face and her brain removed, probably to be eaten. Perhaps John Smith’s ‘powdered wife’ was no joke after all? Whilst the results of the investigation are inconclusive, I would much rather be in my bed in Norfolk with some M&S brownies then supping on boots and early modern brain in a colony that had become hell on earth.

Of course there are a million other historical figures and contexts I would rather not be in, but these three popped from my recent Undergrad. Are there any historical places, peoples or times you are glad you are not? I’d love to hear from you.

Sources:

Armstrong, Catherine, Writing North America in the Seventeenth Century (London, 2007)

Ewen, L’Estrange, Cecil, Witchcraft and Demonism (London, 1933)

Gaskill, Malcolm, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy (London, 2005)

Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (London, 2004)

Middleton, Richard, Colonial America: A History (Oxford, 2003) 

Starkey, David, The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics (London, 1985)  etc., etc.