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Merrimack Valley

October 8, 2006

Hannah Dustin's descendent calls her a heroine Others say she is a villain

It is March 15, 1697.

There is still snow on the ground, though it has melted away in sunny spots, from the bases of bushes and trees. To the north of the main town of Haverhill there are six or so buildings, surrounded by fields and meadow.

This is where Hannah lives, in a small wooden house. She is lying in a feather bed. She is chatting with Mary Neff, her aunt and also the local midwife. Hannah gave birth to a girl child six days before.

Excerpt from the book "Hannah Duston's Sister" by Sybil Smith

This is how Sybil Smith, a descendent of Colonial figure Hannah Dustin, begins her fictional account of the true story of Haverhill's most controversial daughter.

It sets the scene as Hannah, still weak from giving birth, is nursing her baby, who is growing stronger by the day. It is mere moments before her husband, Thomas, who is riding his horse in a nearby meadow, will catch some movement out of the corner of his eye. Soon, 10 Abenaki Indians on horseback will step out from behind trees and a series of gunshots will shatter the morning's quiet.

Smith, 52, of Norwich, Vt., has written a book titled "Hannah Duston's Sister" which was published in January. Smith is her heroine Hannah's niece, seven generations removed. Her story defends Hannah in the face of an ongoing debate, even as her ax-wielding statue stands in GAR Park along Main Street today. Was she a heroine or villain for killing several Indians after they attacked her home and killed her child?

Interest in Hannah's story was rekindled recently when she was made official ambassador for a concert that was held in downtown Haverhill in August. Posters of Hannah holding an electric guitar, in place of the ax she wields in her statue, were hung around the city and in local stores.

In recent months, media accounts of Hannah and Haverhill have appeared in newspapers across the country about the city using her as a symbol of its burgeoning downtown revival. At the Haverhill Public Library, where Smith's book and other Hannah memorabilia are for sale, interest in Hannah books and merchandise is at a modern-day high.

Smith is coming to Haverhill this month to read from her book. The event, free and open to the public, is scheduled for Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at Buttonwoods Museum, 240 Water St. Visitors to the museum will also find Hannah's hatchet and scalping knife, as well as a teapot, buttons and other artifacts that once belonged to Hannah and her husband.

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