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.
Smith's book features alternating chapters about Hannah and her less famous but equally tortured sister, Elizabeth Emerson. Elizabeth was hanged in Boston Common after being charged with murdering her babies, illegitimate twins who she claimed were stillborn.
Every couple of decades, the age-old debate over whether Hannah is a courageous heroine or a blood-thirsty villainess bubbles to the surface in Haverhill.
When Hannah was kidnapped that day in 1697, 27 inhabitants of the fledgling town were killed and 13 taken captive by the Abenaki. The dead included Hannah's infant daughter, Martha, whose head was bashed against an apple tree.
Several homes, including Hannah's, burned behind the prisoners as they were marched toward Canada.
Two weeks later on March 30, Hannah, her nursemaid and a young boy escaped from an island in the middle of the Merrimack River near present-day Concord, N.H., by killing and scalping as many as 10 of her captors as they slept. Hannah is said to have killed nine Indians herself - one male warrior, two adult women and six children. One male warrior was said to have been killed by the boy; one adult Indian woman and one Indian child escaped the bloodbath.
In a version of the story by the Abenaki tribe, Hannah is more blood-thirsty murderess and less victim. In that account, she befriended members of the tribe, got several of them drunk and then slaughtered them with a hatchet as they slept, collecting their scalps to trade for money.
Hannah returned home in a canoe, arriving with the Indian scalps at a spot along the Merrimack River that is still marked today. She was rewarded with 50 pounds of sterling silver by the Massachusetts General Court and pewter from the governor of Maryland.
In 1879, she became the first woman in America to be immortalized with a statue, and her story was told in accounts first by Cotton Mather and later by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau and Laurel Ulrich.
Hannah and her husband used the money they received for the scalps to buy land along the Merrimack and built a new house of brick to replace the wooden one burned in the Indian raid. Hannah lived to be 90 and had 12 children.
In writing her novel, Smith, who said she is a smidgen American Indian, said she put herself in the shoes of her ancestor.
"She's portrayed as a sympathetic character, which wasn't easy given that she killed Indian children," Smith said. "Although one can easily imagine that she did it in a rage, a sort of temporary insanity.
"It's a mistake to judge her through the eyes of today's world," Smith said. "You have to consider her time period and what happened to her."
Even Hannah's last name is a source of controversy, spelled Duston in some historic accounts, Dustin in others. Descendents use those spellings, and some even use Dustan. In fact, the book itself uses the spelling Duston, while the common last name for Hannah is Dustin - the spelling on her statue.
Hannah's side of the story
In Smith's book, Hannah feels great remorse for having killed the Indians, telling her own children later in her life, "Indians are humans like us."
"Regardless of whether you view her as hero or villain, she's an extraordinarily tough woman and one of the first great feminists," Smith said. "If a man had done what she did, he wouldn't have gone down in history."
Smith also believes her ancestor is an appropriate symbol for any city that values toughness, perseverance, determination and a strong sense of family.
"In today's politically correct world, it's easy to say we stole the Indian's land and paint Hannah as a murderer," she said. "But it's hard to know how someone will react when you kill their baby by bashing its head against a tree."
Miranda and Jeffrey Duston of Rock Hall, Md., are also descendents of Haverhill's celebrated daughter - as is their 6-year-old daughter, Hannah Duston. Jeffrey is the son of Robert Duston of Missouri, Miranda said.
The couple believes Haverhill should be proud of its Hannah legacy.
"We named our daughter after Hannah because she was an intelligent and strong woman," said Miranda, who noted she is part southern Cherokee Indian. "You never know how you'll react when you lose your baby."
Duston has some idea what she is talking about. Her daughter Hannah had a twin who died at birth.
"Hannah was born premature," Miranda said of her daughter, who weighed 3.6 pounds at birth. "But she came out breathing on her own and able to drink milk. She spent a month in the hospital but she was very strong. She is aptly named."
The couple traveled to Haverhill in 1998 to view Hannah's famous statue and visit the Buttonwoods Museum. They are planning a return with their daughter next year.
"We've shown her pictures and told her a dumbed-down version of the story," Miranda said of her daughter. "We've told her Hannah was daddy's great-great-great-great-grandmother, and that she fought a lot of people to save her family."
Team Haverhill, a citizen-led group that is developing short- and long-term projects to revitalize downtown Haverhill and promote the city's heritage, organized the August concert and is sponsoring the upcoming reading by Smith.