Monday, November 4, 2013

Hannah Duston took an axe

Last weekend I made my seventh fall pilgrimage to Colby College, where I serve on the committee that selects the winner of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy award for courage in journalism. Lovejoy, valedictorian of the Colby class of 1826, became an abolitionist editor in Ohio and was murdered in 1837 for his antislavery editorials. The award honors his legacy.

"Hannah Duston Killing the Indians" (1847), by Julius Brutus Stearns. 
The dogged reporting of this year’s winner, the online journalist A.C. Thompson, disclosed the callous and lethal misbehavior of some New Orleans police officers after Hurricane Katrina. Thompson gave a fine talk in Colby’s hilltop Lorimer Chapel, where he received the award and an honorary degree.

For art lovers like my wife Monique and me, my position on the Lovejoy selection committee has a fringe benefit. The Colby Museum of Art is superb. We have visited it on six of our trips to the college. A recent renovation and expansion have made it even bigger and better.

The heart of the collection is American. Especially if you like 19th and 20th century art, you’ll find many pleasant surprises in the museum galleries, including work by George Inness, Frederic Remington, Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. The collection is especially strong in paintings by artists with Maine roots or connections – Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Frederic Edwin Church, to name a few.

On this trip I lingered over a single painting that struck close to home. It is titled “Hannah Duston Killing the Indians.” Julius Brutus Stearns, a Vermont-born artist I had never heard of, painted it in 1847. This was a century and a half after Hannah Duston killed the Indians.

By coincidence, the morning after I saw the painting, a story on the front page of the Concord Monitor, my hometown newspaper, detailed the latest controversy about the Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site. I have visited Duston’s statue there several times. Erected on or near the spot where Duston killed the Indians in 1697, it is about a mile from the offices of the Monitor, which I edited for 30 years. Graffiti and trash on the Duston site have caused outrage and official hand-wringing for as long as I can remember.

The Hannah Duston statue on Contoocook Island
Now two bills before the Legislature seek to remedy these problems and to broaden the way the site tells the Duston story. As reported by Kathleen Ronayne of the Monitor, one bill would strike Duston’s name from the site and call the little park Contoocook Island State Historic Site. The bill also calls for more information at the site about the Abenaki tribe, which lived in the region before white settlers pushed them out.

The proposed name change in particular is a red flag to the historical society in Boscawen, the town where the Duston statue was dedicated in 1874. “I would think we’d probably fight this tooth and nail,” Bruce Crawford, the society’s chairman, told Ronayne.

As well they should. The effort to clean the place up and provide more context about the Native Americans who lived there is welcome. More information about the way the Duston story has been told over time would also be welcome. But a generic name for the site? No thanks.
The Stearns painting at the Colby Museum of Art captures the way the Duston story was used in the 19th century as a model for the justifiable slaying of savages. At the time it was painted, destruction of native peoples was already the basis of U.S. policy. Although the painting is inaccurate in its details, the Duston’s actions were certainly a brave response to savage treatment.    

The Abenakis captured Duston, her nursemaid Mary Neff and her 6-day-old baby during an attack on Haverhill, Mass., in March 1697. By Duston’s account, they dashed the baby’s brains out against a tree. Duston’s husband and seven other children avoided capture. The captors comprised a family of 12: two warriors, three women, seven children. One of the children was a 14-year-old white colonist whom the Abenakis had kidnapped earlier.  

After a couple of days’ travel, the party stopped on Contoocook Island to rest. As the captors slept, Duston, Neff and the 14-year-old boy killed them with clubs and tomahawks. Of the 11 Abenakis other than the 14-year-old, only an old woman and one child escaped. Duston took the scalps of the dead back to Haverhill, where she received a substantial bounty for them.

Shortly after her escape, Duston told her story to Cotton Mather, an influential Puritan preacher and writer on Boston. He included it in a book published in 1702. Mather held Duston up as a frontier hero and considered her act a wonder of Christian resolve.

Stearns’s “Hannah Duston Killing the Indians” omitted any depiction of Duston’s having killed women and children. Otherwise, it reflects little change in white Americans’ attitudes toward Indians in the 150 years after Mather’s account.

In researching a chapter in Our War about Col. Edward E. Cross Indian-fighting days, I found a quotation from a journalist who went west to Arizona with Cross in 1859. As white Americans attempted to settle the area obtained through the Gadsden Purchase, the journalist Turner M. Thompson, spelled out the Western version of an Indian policy long familiar in the East:

“Place the Indians on reservations north of the Rio Gila, establish military posts along their limits, and shoot every Indian found off the reservations. No other plan short of total extermination in an indiscriminate massacre of men, women and children, will rid the country of their continued depredations.” 

The Hannah Duston State Memorial Site is an excellent place to examine the clash of cultures that led to this policy and to the near-extermination of Native Americans. This can be done without diminishing Duston’s courageous act of self-preservation.

Making the site a more popular destination and keeping it free of vandalism are good goals. But the best way to treat the history Duston represents is to explain it. To sugarcoat the clash between the original inhabitants of America and the Puritan immigrants who took it over would be a travesty and a missed opportunity.

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