Eschewing the protected garrisons of colonial Massachusetts, a family of settlers is braving the open land. As the winter snows melt, Hannah Duston gives birth to her eighth child, a baby girl. But tragedy strikes as she is kidnapped by members of the Abenaki tribe and her life rapidly becomes a brutal battle for survival.
Hannah was born on December 23, 1657, in Haverhill, a fledgling community of colonists in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. One of the first 13 territories to make up the United States, the region took its name from the indigenous Massachusetts Indians, who were of Algonquian heritage.
By the time that Hannah was born, colonists from England had been settling along the Massachusetts shoreline for almost 30 years. Although to begin with interactions with the natives had been friendly, relations gradually turned sour. It had been during the 1630s that tensions first escalated into all-out conflict with the Pequot War (1636–38) and later King Philip’s War (1675–78).
Their population decimated by conflict, and by European diseases to which they had no natural immunity, the Native Americans fought to defend their land and people. It’s estimated their numbers fell by an astonishing 90 percent during the 1600s. For their part, of course, the colonists were fighting for a new way of life that they had traveled such a long way to find.
Then, in 1688, Europe’s Nine Years’ War reached American shores. As the French and English fought each other across the ocean, New France and New England each allied themselves with Native Americans and battled for control of the colonies. The conflict lasted for 11 years, and became known as King William’s War.
Towards the end of the war, many of Haverhill’s residents had taken refuge inside a fortified garrison. However, Hannah, who by that point had married Thomas Duston and had a family of her own, remained outside the walls. By all accounts Thomas hated the confines of the garrison, preferring to trust in the Lord to protect them.
But Mr Duston’s faith seemed to count for little on the fateful day of March 15, 1697. Thomas was tending to the fields around the family home. Hannah, who had just given birth to her eighth child, was recovering in bed. Her aunt, Mary, was caring for mother and baby, and the other seven Duston children were playing outside.
Meanwhile, hidden from view, a group of Abenaki warriors were planning an attack. Native to the north-eastern region of North America, the Abenaki were among the disparate tribes of indigenous inhabitants who had been carrying out raids against the colonists.
That day, a group of ten Abenaki emerged from the trees and opened fire on Thomas. Panicked, he instructed the children to run towards the garrison, located around a mile away. Then, he made for the house, keen to warn Hannah of the impending danger.
Still weak from giving birth, Hannah was slow to get moving. Hoping to save her children, she convinced Thomas to leave her and protect them as they fled. Meanwhile, Mary picked up Martha, the Dustons’ baby daughter, and ran. Sadly, however, she did not get very far.
In the chaos, 27 residents of Haverhill were killed. Hannah, Martha and Mary, however, were among just 13 to escape with their lives. Instead, the Abenaki took the trio hostage, forcing them to accompany them on a long and arduous trek back northwards.
At the beginning of their journey, Hannah suffered an unthinkable blow. One of the Abenaki, apparently tired of baby Martha’s crying, callously smashed the infant against a tree, killing her outright. Still bleeding from the birth and burdened with heavy, milk-laden breasts, the grieving mother was forced to trudge alongside her baby’s killer for the next 15 days.
After more than two weeks’ slog, the group parted ways. A small group of Abenaki, consisting of just two adult male warriors, seven children and three women, took custody of Hannah and Mary. It seemed the plan was to take their captives onwards into Canada.
In this smaller group, Hannah and Mary finally met a friend. Samuel Leonardson was a boy from Massachusetts taken hostage by the Abenaki some 18 months previously. He had been living among them for so long they considered him one of the tribe and he was fluent in their language. With the arrival of the two women, however, Samuel’s thoughts turned to home again.
Desperate to escape, Hannah began to consider their situation. With Samuel and Mary’s help, she reasoned, they might be able to overpower the Abenaki. At midnight on March 30, 1697, she put her terrible plan into action. Brandishing stolen hatchets, the trio stealthily approached their sleeping captors.
At Hannah’s signal, all three launched a brutal attack. Hannah and Samuel swung their hatchets at the heads of the two men, while Mary tackled a sleeping squaw. But once their blows had landed, Samuel and Mary found themselves too shocked by what they had done to continue the bloodshed.
Hannah, however, had no such qualms. One by one, she slaughtered the remaining Abenaki – including six of the seven children. In the chaos, one of the women managed to escape, taking the only child that it’s said Hannah had previously decided not to butcher. Meanwhile, the trio loaded some supplies into a canoe and prepared to make their escape.
But before they left the bodies behind, Hannah returned to claim gruesome souvenirs. Having watched the Abenaki scalp their victims in the past, Hannah performed the same macabre ritual, slicing off the top parts of their heads and packing the blood-soaked trophies into a piece of cloth.
When Hannah finally made it back to Haverhill, she found her family still alive. Once recovered, she traveled to the General Court in Boston, where she was awarded £25 in return for her scalps. After telling her story, she returned home, eventually living to see her 90th year.
Over the years, a number of memorials to Hannah have been built, including the first ever erected in honor of an American woman. But as time has passed, both colonists’ and Native Americans’ actions have begun to be viewed in a different light. Was Hannah a heroine of the New World who wreaked revenge on her baby’s killers? Or did she merely add to a bloodshed that claimed untold numbers of innocent lives?