Part four 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 4: Hannah Dustan: Commemoration and Controversy
Hannah Duston Memorial Statue in Boscawen, New Hampshire, on the island where she killed her captors. Dedicated in 1874, it was the first permanent statue to a woman in the United States. Her right hand holds the hatchet and her left hand holds several scalps.
It’s the hatchet and the knife that really get people going. When I visited the Haverhill Historical Society over twenty years ago, it displayed the (or I should really say, “a”) hatchet blade and also sold a postcard of it. I still have the postcard which reads, “Hatchet Used by Hannah Duston to Kill the Ten Indians in March, 1697.” A booklet called “The Story of Hannah Duston,” prepared by the Duston-Dustin Family Association in 1984, was also on sale in the gift shop. It contains a photo of a knife with the caption “Knife used by Hannah Duston in escape” and of an accompanying, presumably authenticating, document. Both sources make definitive claims about authenticity, but not on a very firm basis.
Here’s what the website RoadsideAmerica.com says in its profile “Hannah Duston’s Whackin’ Hatchet”:
“Long after she was dead, the ‘Heroine of Haverhill’ was honored with a statue in town as a symbol of motherly rage (the Indians brained her baby). Haverhill also hung onto her relics. The Buttonwoods Museum [at the Haverhill Historical Society] displays several in a special case, including the hatchet head used by Hannah to kill her captors, and the knife she used to scalp them.
The curator told us that at least five other hatchet heads claim to be Hannah’s, but she was fairly certain that the one in the museum is genuine. She wasn’t as sure about the ‘scalp bag’ in which Hannah carried home her grisly human trophies, so it’s only displayed during the Duston Family’s annual reunion in Haverhill. The rest of the year the museum just displays a piece of cloth from the bag. Hannah wove it herself!”[i]
Although there are pictures of the purported hatchet that you can locate via Google or another search engine, I have decided not to include them in this posting. Further, I don’t know when RoadsideAmerica wrote its culturally insensitive profile (if you click on the link to the Haverhill statue provided in the above quotation, you’ll see they have added the punch line “I’m gonna get you, suckah!”). Hopefully not recently. Access the Buttonwoods Museum homepage today and you won’t see a single mention of Haverhill’s most infamous resident: not under “About,” not under “FAQ,” and definitely not under “Photo Gallery.”
Dustan’s story has been absorbed into popular culture, and she herself has been the subject of many artifacts, including two statues as well as a 1973 Jim Beam commemorative bottle in the company’s series of bottles shaped like statues of American women. The design for the Dustan bottle is taken from the Boscawen statue (above) and is made of china, not glass. Shockingly, it uncorks at her breasts, following the decolletage shown in the statue, thus adding sexual titillation to the mix.
Hannah Dustin statue in Haverhill, Massachusetts, erected in 1879. The hatchet is in her right hand.
Hannah Dustan and her story continue to cause controversy. In August 2006, Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter ran a feature titled “Hannah Dustin Controversy in Massachusetts,” which opened with these lines, “A debate is brewing in Haverhill, Massachusetts, over an appropriate symbol to signify the city’s rebirth. City fathers have seized upon the story of Hannah Dustin as a symbol of bravery. Others in the city are not so sure she deserves the honor.”[ii]
More recently, in 2008, when the New Hampshire Historical Society began selling bobblehead dolls of Hannah and of Chief Passaconaway, the man who formed the Penacook Confederacy and was a friend to the English, a furor broke out (I’m not including a picture of those dolls either). One employee quit and another resigned in protest. Interestingly, the New Hampshire Eagle-Tribune on 29 July 2008 had this to add, “Haverhill historian Thomas Spitalere works at the city’s Buttonwoods Museum, which began selling the dolls last week. He said the dolls promote local history and he has no problem with them.”[iii] Hmmmmm.
Photo Credits: Boscawen statue: http://people.usm.maine.edu/jdustin/hannah/statue/index0002.html, Google Images. Haverhill Statue: not sourced, Google Images.
Notes to Part 4
[i] See “Hannah Duston’s Whackin’ Hatchet” at http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/22888 and “Hannah Duston Hometown Hero Statue” at http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/21105. Both stories carry the author information “Field Review by the Team at RoadsideAmerica.com.”
[ii] See “Hannah Dustin Controversy in Massachusetts,” Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter (27 August 2006), http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2006/08/hannah_dustin_c.html, which contains other links to this debate.
[iii] Quoted in “Hannah Duston Bobblehead Sparks Controversy,” New Hampshire Eagle-Tribune (29 July 2008), at http://www.eagletribune.com/newhampshire/x1876442987/Hannah-Duston-bobblehead-sparks-controversy?keyword=secondarystory, which also includes an account of the controversy.