BOSTON — A pair of fierce monuments honor an English colonist who, legend has it, slaughtered her Native American captors after the gruesome killing of her baby.
But historians and Native Americans say the monuments to Hannah Duston obscure a grim truth: most of the Indigenous people she killed and scalped likely weren’t warriors who killed her baby, but instead were children.
The statues -- one in Massachusetts where Duston grips a hatchet and another in New Hampshire where she clutches a bundle of scalps — are being reconsidered amid the nationwide reckoning on racism and controversial public monuments.
Historians, Native Americans and even some of Duston’s descendants argue Duston's 17th century tale became propaganda for European colonists as they decimated New England’s Indigenous population.
They say it served the same purpose generations later as the new nation expanded west. The Duston monuments were built in the late 1800s, as U.S. forces battled Indigenous peoples and forcibly removed them from their ancestral lands.
“The savages and this pioneer mother who stands up to them,” Craig Richardson, a Duston descendant who is on a committee reviewing the New Hampshire memorial, said Thursday. "That's really what they're trying to depict."
In Massachusetts, the Haverhill City Council voted to keep the city's memorial but remove Duston's hatchet and update the statue's inscription, which tells her tale and calls Native Americans “savages.”
Mayor James Fiorentini said he supports the council's recommendations, including adding a new memorial to Native Americans near the site. He's formed a commission headed up by members of the Native American community to pursue the idea.
But Peter Carbone, who chairs the city's historical commission, maintains the Duston monument should be moved to a museum or other place where more context could be provided, an idea some of her descendants supported during recent hearings.
In neighboring New Hampshire, the advisory committee that Richardson serves on continues to weigh changes to a memorial on a small island in Boscawen, at the alleged site of Duston’s bloody revenge.
Native Americans on the committee say the 1874 memorial, which has been the subject of decades of debate, should reflect a fuller picture of the region's long Indigenous history and the conflicts with European colonists.
“We don’t want a statue that honors Hannah, but on the other hand, we need an outlet in order to share the true history of the region,” Denise Pouliot, a citizen of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, told WBUR recently. “How many historical books have been written based on this false narrative?”
According to legend, Duston and another woman, Mary Neff, were taken captive in 1697 by Native Americans raiding the English settlement of Haverhill. Duston’s husband escaped with eight of the couple's children, but one of their babies died.
In the version popularized by Cotton Mather, the child's head was bashed against a tree, but historians have long wondered whether the influential Puritan minister, who also played a role in the infamous Salem witch trials, sensationalized those and other details.
What’s also often lost is that the Native American family that eventually took the women didn’t even keep them locked up or guarded, according to Barbara Cutter, a University of Northern Iowa professor who wrote about the Duston monuments and their controversial legacy for Smithsonian Magazine.
Still, Duston, Neff and another English captive set upon the sleeping family with hatchets, killing ten of them, including six children. They even removed their scalps to collect a reward in Massachusetts. At the time, English and French colonists and their Native American allies were embroiled in King William’s War, one of a number of conflicts between the rival settlers.
Cutter wonders if cosmetic changes, like removing the hatchet from Duston's Massachusetts monument, are enough.
“The message of two statues was that violence committed by the U.S. against Native Americans was innocent, defensive and justified violence,” she said Thursday. “Eliminating the hatchet doesn’t change that. It just makes Duston’s — and the country’s — violence a little less obvious.”