Deodonne Bhattarai, Resident Blogger (’12, Northeastern University School of Law)
Hannah Dustin is my great aunt thirteen generations removed. As a direct descendant, Hannah’s story was as common to me growing up as any fairytale or children’s book. In 1697, Hannah was kidnapped, along with her infant daughter and midwife during an Abenaki raid on her farm in present day Haverhill, MA. At some point during her abduction, Hannah’s days-old baby was brutally killed by her captors when they smashed her against a tree to stop her from crying. During a night on a small island in NH, Hannah, with the help of her midwife and a teenage boy who had been taken from another town, escaped after killing and scalping many of the Abenaki. Hannah then made her way back to her family in Haverhill, where she received a generous bounty and eventual notoriety for her actions.
In 1874, a statue of Hannah was erected on the small NH island. It is believed to be the first publically funded statue of a woman in the country – no small feat in a nation where only 8% of all outdoor sculptures of individuals depict women. The island also took on the name of the Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site. However, like many strong, independent women, Hannah’s motives have been called into question and her legacy is wrought with controversy. What is seen by some as a grieving mother’s desperate fight for survival and self-preservation is countered by claims that she was a vengeful, murderous women who should be seen as no more than a mercenary.
This past fall, a representative of the New Hampshire state legislature introduced a bill that would have, in response to this on-going controversy, stripped Hannah’s name from the island, returning it to its original name of the Contoocook Island State Historic Site. The bill was withdrawn once it was determined that the state didn’t actually own most of the island.
Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to reflect upon how we view female historical figures and I can’t help but wonder if this story would continue to garner so much ire if Hannah had been a man. The reductionist, ‘mercenary’ view denies Hannah’s experience justice in a similar way many would deny women their justice in the realm of reproductive health services. By focusing on the broader context at the expense of the individual experience we are posed to miss out on the lived reality of women past, present, and future.
Removing Hannah’s name from the island would not change this discreet episode of violence within the broader context of our country’s contentious and painful history with the Native Americans and it is disappointing that this revisionist approach to history would come at the expense of one of our nation’s few female historical figures. For now though, it appears that Hannah’s name will remain and other elements added to the landmark. In this way, we can recognize and honor the Abenaki experience without literally erasing Hannah’s.