Clubs, Hatchets, Knives and Beams Part 3

Part three in a seven-part series on European American/Native American War Artifacts and the Ethics of Display by Zabelle Stodola, professor of literature and cultural studies at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. The series begins here.

Part 3: Hannah Dustan’s Story

Wonder Woman Comic Issue 89, 1957, “Fabulous Females.” What’s Wonder Woman got to do with it? Read on.

Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Dustan share some similarities: both were seventeenth-century Puritan women captured with one or more children in a violent raid on their home, both were devastated when one of those children died from its wounds, and both were the subjects of famous captivity narratives (Rowlandson wrote her own but Dustan, who was probably illiterate, told her story to others).

However, that’s where the correspondences end. Rowlandson bore her captivity as patiently as she could, believing that it was a special providence sent by God to test her faith.  Dustan had not been formally received into the Puritan church at the time of her capture, so theologically and temperamentally she felt justified in literally taking matters into her own hands.

Here’s what happened. In March 1697, Abenakis descended on Haverhill, Massachusetts. Thomas Dustan, Hannah’s husband, was able to shepherd seven of their children to safety when the house came under attack. But he couldn’t prevent the Indians from capturing Hannah and Mary Neff, the midwife who had attended the birth of Hannah’s baby girl only a few days earlier, and marching them towards Canada after killing the newborn.

Held on an island near Penacook, New Hampshire, Hannah masterminded a plan with Neff and another English prisoner to kill their captors (mostly women and children) and succeeded in slaying ten of them with a hatchet. But instead of immediately fleeing to safety in a canoe, they spent precious time scalping the corpses. Was it out of revenge, righteousness, fear, or greed?  Probably some combination.

What we do know is this: from 1694 to 1696, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a bounty for Indian scalps on its books. Even though the bounty had been repealed a few months before Hannah was captured, Thomas Dustan successfully petitioned the authorities for a cash reward for his wife and her accomplices. She received twenty-five pounds—a huge amount at the time— and her partners each received half that sum. The Court also presented Hannah with a pewter tankard as thanks for her actions.[i]

The pewter tankard given to Hannah Dustan by the Great and General Court of Massachusetts. Held in the Buttonwoods Museum, Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Hannah Dustan’s story is so extraordinary that it has been retold and refashioned countless times, but it has always been controversial. Was she an example of “outraged maternity” driven to extremes by the brutal death of her baby (a heroine), or was she a violent, greedy vigilante (a villain)?[ii] From contemporary versions of her story by the eminent Puritan minister Cotton Mather, to accounts by classic writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Thoreau, to a 1957 portrayal in the Wonder Woman comic series, Dustan has captured the popular imagination with a vengeance (sorry about those puns).[iii] 

–Zabelle Stodola

The controversies over memorializing Dustan’s story are developed in Part 4.


Information on this and other versions of the story at

Photo Credits: Comic:, via Google Images; tankard:  via Google Images.

Notes to Part 3

[i] See Derounian-Stodola, Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives, 55-57.

[ii] There’s been some interesting work done on the fact that Hannah (Emerson) Dustan came from a very violent family which may have predisposed her towards violence too. Puritan culture allowed parents considerable license in using corporal punishment to discipline children, believing that it promoted greater civic control. Even so, Hannah’s father, Michael Emerson, was hauled before the authorities in 1676 and fined for abusing his daughter Elizabeth, then aged eleven, whom he had brutally beaten. In 1692, still single, Elizabeth had an affair with a married man, gave birth to twins, and was accused and convicted of killing them, though she protested they had been stillborn. She was hanged in 1693 after a sensational trial. See, for example, Julie Fay, “Hannah and her Sister: The Facts of Fiction,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies  23 (1998): 1-21.

[iii] See these links for more information on the controversy about Dustan’s actions as well as the many different versions of her story and See also for a really excellent overview  with pictures of Dustan artifacts.

This entry was posted in Captivity, Commemorating Controversy, Zabelle Stodola. Bookmark the permalink.

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