This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor's and Became a Legend

This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend

By Larry Holzwarth
This 17th Century Woman Took Down Ten of her Abenaki Captor’s and Became a Legend

Much of what is known about Hannah Duston is speculative, including what her real name was. It can be found spelled as Dustin, Duston, Dustan, and even Durstan, depending upon where one looks. Though the consensus is that her maiden name was Emerson, as hardy a New England moniker as can be found. Hardy she undoubtedly was, as history credits her with being the mother of no less than eight children. She was from a family which had its share of problems with the early Massachusetts’ authorities. She was the older sister of Elizabeth Emerson, whom the elders of Haverhill had hanged for the crime of infanticide in June, 1693. She had previously given birth to children of questionable siring, forever hanging a banner of disrepute on the family home, at least figuratively.

The Salem Witch Trials provided a backdrop for Hannah’s story in the 1690s. Wikimedia

She was not alone. An uncle and his daughter had been among the accused at the witch trials in Salem. The gentleman in question, Roger Toothaker, had long boasted of his own ability in detecting witches, a skill he passed along to his daughter before he died in custody in the jail at Boston. His daughter was later acquitted. With this family as her domestic refuge, Hannah Duston became one of colonial Massachusetts’ earliest heroines, a survivor of Indian custody and torment, and a slayer of those heathens who bore her away from her home and hearth. Her story did not become famous until nearly a century after her death, and thus is liberally laced with legend and hyperbole, intermixed with truth. Here it is as best as it can be told, the story of the woman often believed to be the first American woman to be honored with a statue.

Thanks to the behavior of certain members of her family, Hannah Duston was of questionable reputation in her hometown of Haverhill. Wikimedia

1. Hannah came from a typically large family in colonial New England

Hannah’s parents, Michael Emerson and his wife Hannah Webster Emerson, settled in the town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, where they proceeded to have fifteen children, of which Hannah was the eldest. She was born just before Christmas, December 23, 1657. As the eldest child, Hannah from an early age was responsible for the care of her younger siblings, and before she was in her teens would have been intimately familiar with the most important feature of the New England home of the time – the large fireplace which served to heat the home, prepare the meals, and provide the greater measure of the evening light. Daughters in colonial New England were considered marriageable at an early age by modern standards, though Hannah did not wed until she was twenty, much older than usual.

She may have been unable to provide a dowry for her husband, or perhaps she was not graced with the features considered attractive to suitors, or perhaps both. At any rate, once wed she, as had her mother before her, quickly produced a large brood with her husband. By the age of 40 (then considered the earliest stages of old age) she was living, in Haverhill, with her husband and eight children. Thomas, her husband, was a maker of bricks and a farmer. They lived with their children on a prosperous farm just north and east of the small cluster of buildings which made up the town of Haverhill, where tongues continued to wag over the disreputable family from which she came. Such was the situation in late winter, 1697, when events transpired to make Hannah locally famous and notorious.