Scalp Condition: Hannah Duston Statues

April 4, 2014 — I write a lot about the macabre, enough that my judgment on and perspective of it can be completely contorted at times. Let me illustrate. When I was putting together The New England Grimpendium back in 2009-2010, I had to decide whether to include my visits to a pair of statues honoring a woman who scalped Native American children after the tribe captured her and brained her infant daughter. I wasn’t sure if it was the right type of macabre to include in my book or if it was “too historical.”

In my defense, writing about death can turn into writing about history real fast. History is a horror show. I assume because the present is one. But I was dead wrong for not including these companion statues, and I’m finally getting around to correcting that error.

Hannah Duston was a Haverhill, MA, native who, in 1697, was captured by the Abenaki tribe. Her husband and eight of her children escaped, but she was taken captive along with her newborn daughter Martha, and her nurse Mary Neff. During the forced march that followed, the Native Americans killed Duston’s infant daughter by bashing her head against a tree.

They were eventually taken to an island in what is now Boscawen, New Hampshire, where they were delivered to a Native American family, probably as slaves. At this point there were three captives, Duston, Neff, and a 14-year-old boy named Samuel Lennardson. Soon after, while the Native American family was sleeping, the three captors killed most of them in their sleep with tomahawks or hatchets or some such bit of handheld edged deadliness. The finally tally of Abenaki dead was two men, two women, and six children. A woman and another child escaped.

But Duston & Co. didn’t just kill and leave. They needed to desecrate those bodies. Some say it was in revenge. Others for profit, as there was a bounty on Native American scalps. Regardless and probably for both reasons, they went back and cut the scalps off the loose-necked, wide-eyed corpses.

But the grimness isn’t just in the story, it’s in the statues.

Close to 200 years later, Duston ended up getting two statues for that nightmare, in fact becoming one of the first American women so immortalized. Both show her at her most violent, neither opting to preserve one of the few moments of maternal bliss she had with her newborn.

One is in her hometown of Haverhill. Erected in 1879, the bronze statue is easily found in Grand Army Park, as it’s a small park and the statue stands on an eight-foot-tall stone pedestal. She holds a hatchet in one hand, while her other hand points a menacing finger at a space directly in front of her, calling out anybody who stands there.

It’s an extremely macho statue considering it’s of a long-haired woman in a floor-length dress.

The statue becomes even more menacing when you trace her story in the four bronze reliefs inset into the sides of her pedestal, each one with its own caption carved into the stone beneath. The first shows the attack, with Duston’s husband “blasting the savages” with his rifle from horseback. The second is the kidnapping, with Duston and Neff and the infant bookended by Abenaki. The fourth is the escape of the three captors by canoe. It’s the third one that gets you, though. It shows her in the exact same pose as the statue, but this time at the end of her finger are 12 prostrate Native Americans, some of them disturbingly diminutive.

Surrounding the sleepers are the other two prisoners, each with their own hatchets. Basically, the statue freezes her at the moment she’s saying, “Kill them all.”

Haverhill actually has quite a few Duston memorials around. The house she lived in after the attack has been preserved, and a few institutions have been named after her. Most interestingly, the Buttonwoods Museum has on display what it claims to be various Hannah Duston artifacts, including the supposed hatchet head she used on her captors and their family.

But I didn’t get a chance to check out any of those sites. I had to drive 60 miles northwest to Boscawen, New Hampshire. There, on the island of her gruesome escape, is another statue. This one predates the Haverhill statue, having been unveiled in 1874. According to the New Hampshire State Parks website, it was the first publically funded statue ever put up in the state, although elsewhere I read that it’s the first publically funded statue of a woman put up in the state.

To get to the statue, we pulled into a park and ride lot on the side of a section of US Route 4 called King Street. In that lot is a green historical sign that tells New Hampshire’s part in the tale. From that lot, another sign directed us a short way down a path and across an old railroad bridge, on the other side of which was the statue.

Like the Haverhill statue, this one stands on a tall stone pedestal, although New Hampshire’s is a much larger one. The statue itself is also carved out of stone, and depicts a moment after the slaying, as Duston holds in one hand a hatchet and in the other a vague cluster that is meant to depict the Abenaki scalps.

This statue isn’t as refined as the Haverhill one, but it makes up for it with a great, natural location.

On my visit years ago, the statue pedestal was covered in graffiti, and I remember the statue itself being chipped, although I can’t find evidence of it in my pictures. The pedestal bears the names of the donors, the names of the captors, a dedication of the statue, and this strangely worded explanation:

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

There are way more vicious statues on the planet than the Haverhill and Boscawen Hannah Duston statues, certainly. And there are way more sedate ones that represent violence of a much more extreme nature (I know, we suck). But there’s something unexpectedly violent about Hannah Duston’s story and its commemoration that pulls it beyond the usual violence of historical conflict and makes it, well, grimpendium-worthy.


  1. FYI: Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a story about the historical incident that highlights the irony of making her into a hero.

  2. Great post that introduced me to some local history I've never heard before. Thank you.

    It also led me to read this book (recently published), which really fleshed out the time, the story, and what it was like to live "on the frontier" (which was Haverhill!) in the 17th century.

    Finally, I have visited both of these statues in recent months. Sorry to say that the Boscawen statue has suffered some vandalism since your visit -- Hannah has lost her nose.

  3. The indians acted like animals so they were treated that way. Horrible but do on to others as you'd have them do on to you.

  4. The Haverhill Public Library is selling Hannah Duston bobbleheads.

    1. I walked in Hannah Duston's shoes back in the early 1990's and took my young nephew Shawn along for the adventure! I had read her story of her life in Yankee Magazine, and I was riveted by it. So I took it upon myself, to find her home in Haveril, MA that is still standing, this one made of brick. For the one's that she and her husband had put up prior were made of wood and burned down by the Indians. The third one was made of brick! It is now a Museum, but only opens on week of the year, if I am remembering correctly. Also we went to her statue at the park in Haveril, MA, and the other statue of Hannah Duston where she killed the Indians that took her and her neighbor Mary Neff, and also killed her five day old baby, by slamming the new born against a tree in front of her. I do not think Hannah Duston did anything wrong. This was pure survival. She had children to get back to in Haveril. Hannang brought back all those scalps and was awarded by the Governor of Massachusetts money for each scalp, and the Governor of PA gave her a beautiful pewter tea set. She was a hero of her day, and still is in our American History. Hannah Duston went on to have five or six more children, and lived into her nineties. An odd fact of history of the state of MA, but it was a colony then, her sister was hung for being the first woman in Massachusetts to kill her own new born child! There is a not of history to this family in Haveril, MA. She became even known in England for what she did to survive her ordeal! What would you do when you saw savages take your new born and whack it against a tree and kill it before your eyes??? Was she really a bad woman? NO way...she knew what to do to survive those times...get back to her family...going back down the Merrimack River to MA, from Boscowen, NH. When she arrived into that camp area with those Indians, they had stolen a young boy named Samuel Leonardson from Worcestor, Massachusetts and killed his family. She then took him back with her and Mary Neff, and those three survived! She is truly an early American woman hero! The one and only Hannah Duston!!!!!

  5. I find myself continually disappointed. Of almost all accounts I read about this incident nobody mentions that this was part of King William's War between New France and its allies, the Wabanaki Confederacy against the Dominion of New England and their allies, the Iroquois League. The French colonials and the Abenakis relied heavily on hit and run tactics, which included raids on outlying New England towns. This was less of a random act of violence by "savages" (although the previous war, King Phillip's War, seemed to set that permanent attitude that persists to the present day), and more of an act of war perpetrated by the known enemies of the New England settlers at that time. It also adds more understanding to the actions that Hannah Duston took.

    1. I really recommend Jay Atkinson's book, which does an excellent job contextualizing Hannah's story as part of King William's war, including the machinations of colonial French and British administrators in New England and New France.