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Across The Fence: New England's Heroine Scalptress


Hannah Dustin has the distinction of being the first American woman to be recognized and honored for her heroism with a statue. And not by just one statue but four other separate memorial markers and also commemorated by the Hannah Dustin Health Care Center, The Hannah Dustin Rest Home and The Hannah Dustin Elementary School. Additionally the Dustin House, in Haverhill, Massachusetts is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Sculptor William Andrews created the first memorial to Hannah in 1874. The towering marble monument is topped with a likeness of the heroine is on a Merrimack River island in Boscawen, New Hampshire, the site where she accomplished her heroic deed nearly two centuries earlier. The statue portrays Hannah standing defiantly with a tomahawk in one hand and a tangled mass of scalps in the other.

It was no mere happenstance that it took 177 years for Hannah to be memorialized with that first imposing statue. As the Indian wars continued across the plains of western America the public raised an angry outcry against the atrocities committed by the U. S. military at places such as the massacre on the Washita River and at Sand Creek. Although these individual actions were denounced by many, it was important to the cause of 'manifest destiny' that public opinion be more inclined to favor the sometimes brutal revenge visited upon the non-combatant men, women and children of the Plains Indians. Hannah Dustin's story provided the heroine and the so-called justification for violence against the Native American population as being defensive in nature, virtuous and honorable.

During the later part of the 1800s Hannah Dustin was regarded as a folk hero and according to John Grenier, in his book The First Way of War, she was the "mother of the American tradition of scalp hunting".

Hannah Dustin's story began in 1697, the final year of King William's War. The French in Canada and King William's English in the Colonies recruited the local natives in their fight for control of the fur trade. The French had allied with the Abenaki Indians of Quebec to attack the English settlements in the northeastern colonies. Sizable rewards were offered the Abenaki for white scalps and any captives taken could be used for ransom or as slaves to their captors. It was these incentives that brought a war party of Abenaki to the settlement of Haverhill, Massachusetts on a late winter day in March of 1697. In 1839 John Warner Barber published an overly embellished account of the event in "Historical Collections, Being a General Collection of Interesting Facts, Traditions, Biographical Sketches, Anecdotes, &c., Relating to the History and Antiquities of Every Town in Massachusetts, with Geographical Descriptions". My less verbose telling follows:

March 15, 1697 Hannah Dustin lay in her birthing bed on the sixth day after delivering her 9th child. The infant daughter had been named Martha and the mid-wife, Mary Neff, was taking care of the infant and mother while the other eight children went about their daily routine. Hannah's husband, Thomas, a farmer and a brick maker, was some distance from their house where he was busy constructing a larger home for his growing family. The Haverhill settlement had experienced attacks in the past but construction of fortifications at the settlements' perimeter and constant patrolling had seemed to stem the frequency of those attacks. In short, the sudden onslaught of Abenaki warriors was a complete surprise. Thomas spotted the war party as it emerged from the cover of timber east of the settlement. Grabbing his rifle while raising the cry of alarm and quickly mounting his horse, Thomas rushed to the house, nearly a quarter mile away, where his wife and children huddled together.

Jumping from his horse, Thomas burst through door and scrambled to assemble the children, commanding them to make a run for the nearest fortification while he would help Hannah from her bed and along with the baby, Martha, and mid-wife Mary would follow behind. Hannah struggled to get dressed as the warriors were heard coming closer. She begged Thomas to leave her and the baby and go save at least one of their children. Thomas left the house, mounted his horse and sped away toward the fleeing children. As he sped away a group of Abenaki forced their way into the house while others pursued the fleeing father and his children. Choosing to save all or none Thomas held off the advancing warriors until he and his eight children were safely inside the fortifications. Hannah, Mary and the baby Martha were captured. In that raid 27 Haverhill colonists were killed and scalped, 13 were taken as captives.

As the warriors and their captives fled north, baby Martha was killed by her captors. Hannah and Mary were force marched for several miles on the first day and continued north for several more days. The two women were given as slaves to a large family of ten Abenaki who had set up their camp on a small island in the Merrimack River. Also enslaved to the family was a 14-year-old boy named Samuel Lennardson who had been captured a year earlier in Worcester.

After several weeks of captivity Hannah led Mary and the boy Samuel in a well planned and executed escape. While the family slept Hannah used a tomahawk to kill one of the two grown men, Samuel killed the other. Hannah also killed the remaining Abenaki family members as they slept. There were two adult women and six children killed. One of the Abenaki women and her child, although seriously wounded, escaped into the forest.

Hannah, Mary and Samuel then gathered up all of the weapons, and what provisions they could carry and made their way to the canoes that were tethered at the rivers edge. They packed everything into one of the canoes and scuttled the others. As they were ready to shove off Hannah remembered that a sizable bounty was paid for Indian scalps and so she returned to the camp and scalped all ten of the slain Abenaki, wrapping their scalps in cloth that had been plundered from the colony.

When Hannah and her companions arrived home, Thomas and Hannah left almost immediately for Boston to cash in the scalps. They arrived in Boston on the 21st of April 1697, slightly less than six weeks time since the attack. Fifty pounds, sterling was paid for the ten scalps.

It is perhaps human nature to picture Hannah Dustin as a meek, dignified and proper lady. Little is known about her personal life beyond the incredible account of her capture and escape from the Abenaki. However, one might take a different view in light of the colonial records of her father's arrest for the excessive beating that he gave his daughter Hannah when she was a young girl. Records indicate that she was raised in a physically violent household where corporal punishment was meted out in excess. Hannah's sister Elizabeth was convicted and hanged for murdering her illegitimate twin babies on the night they were born. Growing up in such a violent environment might have made the act of killing and scalping seem a bit less gruesome.

By 1723, Massachusetts was paying 100 pounds for the scalps of male Indians of 12 years of age and older. Half that amount was paid for the scalps of women and children. Pennsylvania's Lieutenant Governor Robert Morris declared war on the Delaware Indians and offered "130 Pieces of Eight, for the scalp of Every Male Indian Enemy, above the Age of Twelve Years" and "50 Pieces of Eight for the Scalp of Every Indian Woman, produced as evidence of their being killed."

In 1757 Reverend Thomas Smith of Falmouth, Maine supplied the ammunition and necessary provisions to a scalping party of his parishioners. In his diary he wrote, "Along with pious thoughts, I receive 165 part of scalp money."

Government funded bounty paid to scalp hunters, which proved to be a lucrative occupation for many professional hunters, no doubt encouraged the practice of whites scalping Indians and understandably increased the incidence of whites being scalped by Indians and the cycle of inhumanity spiraled to one of its darkest depths.

In the August 18, 1863 edition of the New York Post, a Washington correspondent wrote:

"It is undoubtedly true that a protracted residence on the Western frontier is fatal to the existence of sympathies once cherished for the "poor Indian." The feud between man and the serpent, begun in the Garden of Eden, is not more implacable than that between a frontiersman and a Sioux. Hence Minnesota will continue, without shame or remorse, to pay bounties for Sioux scalps, as other States pay for wolf scalps. It is a "State right" that will not be given up. The State scouts, and the large bounty offered for those who choose to hunt independently, is resulting in the 'taking off' of numerous red devils, and will prevent the depopulation of the frontier."

M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email:


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