On an early spring day, March 15, 1697, forty-year-old Hannah Duston was at home recovering from the birth of her twelfth child. Her husband, Thomas, was working in the fields near their house on the west side of the Sawmill River in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Widowed nurse Mary Neff attended Hannah during her lying-in.
Hannah and Thomas had been married for twenty years. Of the twelve children born to them, eight were living. Thomas was a bricklayer and a farmer. The family had prospered over the years, and Thomas was constructing a new house about half a mile from their present dwelling, using bricks of his own making.
On that day, Hannah and baby Martha were doing well. I imagine Hannah and Mary Neff gossiping about nearby families or perhaps discussing the new house, and the plans Hannah and Thomas had for their growing brood. Neither of the women or Thomas could imagine the horror that was about to befall them.
Fear of Indians was always in the back of people’s minds, but less than a mile away from where Hannah and Thomas lived was the garrison of Onesiphorus Marsh, one among six established by the town. The garrison was manned by a small body of soldiers. The existence of manned garrisons probably led to a false sense of security in the locals.
To the north, Count Frontenac, the Colonial Governor of Canada, was determined to win the New World for the French king and used propaganda and gifts to ally Indian tribes to the French cause. For motivation he established bounties on English scalps and prisoners. On this March day, warriors looking to make good on those bounties moved stealthily toward the house of Thomas and Hannah Duston.
In the field, Thomas spied the approaching Indians. He grabbed his gun, mounted his horse and raced for the house, screaming a warning. The children began running toward the garrison. From the records I’ve read, Hannah urged him to follow the children and protect them. He did as his wife asked.
Thomas and the children finally reached the garrison in safety, but for Hannah and nurse Mary Neff, the horror was only beginning. Mrs. Neff, trying to escape with the baby, was captured by Indians. They invaded he house, forced Hannah to rise and dress herself. They then took whatever they could and burned the house. Hannah and Mrs. Neff were dragged to the woods with the baby. All told, twenty-seven people were killed and thirteen captured, along with Hannah Dustin and Mrs. Neff.
I’ll continue with part two next week. I’m sorry. Once again I don’t want to make this article too long, so I’m going to leave our readers to wonder for a week about how this story ends.