Day 140: Don’t Mess With A White Woman – The Hannah Duston Story

originally published May 19, 2012

If high school history classes were filled with the world’s most extreme displays of badassery, no one would ever ditch to go smoke behind the A&W. History needs more wow-factor. It needs more Hannah Duston.

This is the story of a Puritan woman who was forced into an awful situation. Then she John-McClained the hell out of it.

The tale opens on March 15, 1697, in the colonial town of Haverhill, Massachusetts (home of lovable TV personality Tom Bergeron). King William’s War was raging – this was one of numerous wars between the English and French over pissing rights in the New World. Both nations had allied themselves with various native tribes, which made for a lot of blood running through what would eventually be streets.

Like any good Puritan family, Hannah and her husband, Thomas, liked to reproduce. At this point they had nine kids, one of whom had been born only a week earlier. Thomas was out working his field when he first noticed the Natives approaching.

The Natives’ strategy was to break off into small groups and attack multiple buildings in the town at once. It worked; they torched nine homes and killed twenty-seven people in the attack. But not Thomas Duston. Thomas Duston took the hell off.

I’ve read a number of articles on this subject, and I’m not really clear on whether Hannah told Tom to take the kids and go, or whether Tom just couldn’t get back to save her. I’m going to assume the former; it would make for a powerful movie moment. Hannah and her baby couldn’t move with haste, so they stayed behind with Mary Neff, a family friend and widow who’d been helping the Dustons out with their massive brood.

Thomas got clear; he and the other eight young’uns hid out in an abandoned garrison. Hannah, Mary and the baby were captured. The natives, not being too keen on prisoners who cried and gurgled and pooped uncontrollably, grabbed the infant from Mary’s arms, and smashed her against an apple tree.

Having just watched her young baby murdered in front of her, Hannah was thrown in with the day’s prisoners. In those frantic few moments, she’d only grabbed a single shoe to protect her feet from the remnants of the cold New England winter. The parallels between her and John McClane are getting eerie.

The group of prisoners included some who’d been taken from an earlier raid on Worcester (future home of the J. Geils Band!). Among them was a 14-year-old kid named Samuel Leonardson. The plan was to march the POWs to an Indian fort on a small island between the Contoocook and Merrimack rivers.

At this point, I can’t imagine what thoughts were elbowing their way to the forefront of Hannah’s mind: the murder of her baby, the uncertain fate of her husband and other eight kids, or what the hell was going to happen to her and Mary.

The answer to that last question was, of course, not a pleasant one. The plan was usually to strip prisoners down, then force them to run a gauntlet. This meant running between two rows consisting of everyone in the tribe, while the Natives beat them and threw hatchets at them. Survivors were taken to French camps and sold as slaves. Hannah knew she wasn’t getting off with a warning.

For two weeks they marched across the thawing wilderness of New England. Shortly before reaching the island, everyone split up. The majority of prisoners continued the march into Canada, while Samuel, Mary and Hannah were kept behind with the group heading to the island fort. There were two warriors, three women, and seven kids ranging from the really young to teens, all guarding the three prisoners. I have no idea why they split up, or what they had planned for these three, but in the end it doesn’t really matter.

Hannah was not about to go gentle into that good night. She had a score to settle, and in Mary and Samuel she had two allies with nothing more to lose.

They arrived at the island on March 30. After their captors had called it a day, Hannah indicated that it was time to attack. She grabbed a tomahawk and, after uttering a battle cry (“Yipee-ki-yay, motherfucker!” for example), introduced it to the side of a warrior’s head. What ensued was a bloodbath action sequence that would make Tarantino squeal like a little girl. Hannah, Mary and Samuel slaughtered everyone they could, probably in slow motion while a Johnny Cash song played overtop. At one point, I’d bet the three of them stood back to back, poised to attack while the camera slowly rotated around them… I might be getting carried away here.

One of the Native women and one of the children survived. They were probably sent off to warn the rest of the tribe not to mess with an angry white woman. I’m hopeful that the guy who murdered Hannah’s baby was among the dead.

Not content to slash and run, Hannah turned around and returned to the scene of the massacre. She and her gang then scalped every last one of their victims. If they’d known about action movie after-kill lines back then, I’m sure they would have used every one of them.

A couple weeks later, Hannah, Mary and Samuel returned to Haverhill, and were crowned heroes. They received a cash reward, and have had their tale written into American folklore through the brilliant quills of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau.

But is Hannah a hero? In 2006 Haverhill used her likeness to promote a music festival, and it ignited a controversy. Modern Native Americans do not, unsurprisingly, view Hannah as a role model. They claim that using her image is insensitive and offensive. I don’t buy it. Regardless of what side she was on, Hannah was a woman who was being marched to her death. She turned on her captors, kicked ass, and instead of taking names, she took scalps. Way more bad-ass than names.

This is Hannah’s statue. She was the first woman in American history to have been honored with her own statue. She was reunited with Thomas, and the family of ten (soon eleven – their welcome-home sex created another kid) lived peacefully for years.

But I bet Thomas was really careful not to piss her off.

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