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Around New England

How to expand, rather than obliterate, history

The imposing 25-foot granite statue of Hannah Duston was erected in Boscawen in 1874, on the site where she became a folk hero for a daring escape from Native American captors nearly 200 years before.

The Hannah Duston Monument, showing the colonial-era woman carrying the scalps of Native American children.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

BOSCAWEN, N.H. — The historical marker honoring labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn lasted only two weeks in Concord before state workers unceremoniously removed it in May, following complaints from Republican legislators and Governor Chris Sununu about Flynn’s communist beliefs.

But just 10 miles north of the capital, in sleepy Boscawen, another dispute over a historical site has played out over recent years in a far different manner.

The imposing 25-foot granite statue of Hannah Duston was erected in Boscawen in 1874, on the site where she became a folk hero for a daring escape from Native American captors nearly 200 years before. It depicts her in a flowing gown, holding a tomahawk in one hand and the scalps of Native Americans she killed in the other.


It stands, partially obscured, on a small island on a relatively remote bank of the Merrimack River, accessible by a narrow footpath over a bridge for an abandoned railroad line, behind a park-and-ride lot on Route 4.

If it’s not exactly easy to access, neither is it a full, accurate telling of the story it depicts. The only contemporary account of what happened was written by Cotton Mather, the influential Puritan minister and writer, whose bias against Native Americans is well documented.

Duston, a Puritan woman whose name is alternatively spelled Dustin; her newborn daughter; and a neighbor were kidnapped from Haverhill, Mass., presumably for ransom, by Native Americans during King William’s War, when English colonists fought the French and their Indigenous allies.

Mather wrote that her captors murdered her infant daughter by bashing the baby against a tree. Then Hannah and two other captives took their revenge by killing and scalping their captors.

The statue, the first of a woman anywhere in the United States, was put up as Western American expansionism accelerated dramatically. The timing, nearly 200 years after the events it depicted, was widely seen as an endorsement of Manifest Destiny, the belief that white settlers were divinely entitled to take over the whole continent. If dispossessing Native Americans of their land, or killing them, was the price of that destiny, so be it, the thinking went, because the Indigenous people were savages, like those who killed Hannah Duston’s baby.


But more recently Indigenous people and historians have pushed back against the simplistic good v. evil narrative that was first popularized by Mather, who extolled Duston’s heroism and her captors’ savagery. Most other historical accounts were based on Mather’s.

For the last few years, a group including Indigenous people, descendants of Duston, historians, and state officials have been trying to come up with a plan to revise and expand the history surrounding Hannah’s story, at the very least to commemorate the Native Americans who were slaughtered by her, her neighbor, and a 14-year-old boy who were held captive before their bloody escape.

The collaborative, respectful, open-minded approach of the state’s Hannah Duston Advisory Committee stands in stark contrast to the unilateral decision to remove the Flynn sign in Concord.

Local Indigenous leaders don’t want to remove the Duston statue. Instead, they want the state to provide more context and nuance to the historical site where it stands.

“At the end of the day, this is a massive site of propaganda,” said Denise Pouliot, head female speaker of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People. “So much of the story is myth. It is a statue honoring someone who murdered Indigenous people, so I understand why some want to tear it down. But if we tear it down, where else do we tell the story? We believe we should talk about it so that future generations don’t face this same kind of historical disinformation.”


Pouliot and her husband, Paul, the head male speaker of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, have an ally in Craig Richardson, a descendant of Hannah Duston and the historian of the Duston-Dustin Family Association, who sits on the advisory committee with them.

“It would be good to have a more complete history,” Richardson said. “The Pouliots have the right idea when they talk about adding additional interpretive material. They want to add to the site and tell more of the story of the Abenaki there.”

It should be noted, the Pouliots say, that of the 10 Native Americans killed prior to Hannah Duston’s escape, seven of them were children. At least two of the adults were women. The dead were scalped for a bounty.

“Seven children were killed,” Paul Pouliot said. “It wasn’t seven warriors.”

While both sides believe more context needs to be added to the historical site, they differ on some of the details of the story.

Richardson said it’s an accepted fact that Hannah Duston’s baby died in captivity, and he suspects the captors killed the infant because its crying might attract the search parties dispatched to find Duston.


The Pouliots, however, aren’t convinced that the Indigenous captors killed the child.

“We don’t really know who killed the baby,” Denise Pouliot said. “In our customs, if we had an infant like that, we would have taken them back to the village and raised them in our culture. We wouldn’t have killed them. We were losing people. We needed people.”

Barbara Cutter, a professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa who sits on the advisory committee, said the committee’s purpose is not about revising history as much as expanding it.

“From 1697 on, the stories were not about Hannah as a person but what she represented,” Cutter said. “It was about justifying Puritan colonization. Then, when the statue was built, it was about justifying the forced removal of Indigenous people. You try to expand the story to include all the relevant people and to create a more complete history that’s more accurate.”

Over the years, those who oppose the statute have demonstrated that opposition by shooting off its granite nose and splattering the statue with red paint. While the state cleaned off most of the paint, red splotches are still visible.

The Pouliots consider vandalizing the statue an empty gesture that polarizes rather than brings people together.

As the Pouliots showed a reporter and photographer around the site, David Murphy, a California resident who grew up in Boscawen, brought a friend to see the statue. Murphy, 47, hadn’t seen the statue since high school.


He said locals learned the story by osmosis.

“Apparently, her baby was crying too much and they killed it,” he said.

Asked how to verify the story he heard growing up, Murphy said, “You can’t. It’s all up to interpretation.”

Murphy never knew that of the 10 Native Americans killed, the majority were children. The historical marker that stands in the park-and-ride lot merely notes that Hannah was a “famous symbol of frontier heroism,” who after being taken captive escaped by “killing and later scalping ten Indians.”

The advisory committee’s work has been slowed and complicated by figuring out the various ownership interests of the land around the statue and historical site, and by a change in leadership of the state agency in charge of historical sites. The committee hasn’t met for a year, but hopes to resume meetings soon.

In the meantime, the Pouliots are working on a documentary film that will tell the Hannah Duston story with more context, humanizing all involved.

“When you get done looking at all of this, it’s a sad situation all around,” Denise Pouliot said. “No one walked away a winner. There’s a lot that has to be said here, and a lot of humanity that has to be taken into account.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at