In the wake of vandalism to the statue of Hannah Duston, a descendant of the much-debated Colonial woman is calling for more education about her centuries-old story so it can be better understood.
Diane Dustin Itaska, an eighth-generation direct descendant of Duston, said she works alongside other family members at the historic Dustin-Duston Garrison House in Haverhill to improve visitors' understanding of the Hannah Duston story that happened in 1697.
Itaska said recent vandalism to the statue, on which someone scrawled the phrase "Haverhill's own monument to genocide" in pink chalk, can be turned into a teaching moment.
The Hannah Duston story involves her killing several Native Americans after they captured her and others in a raid in what is now Haverhill.
For decades, the story has caused an off-and-on debate over whether Duston was a hero or villain. The debate has reemerged as tensions over racial issues rage nationally and locally, with one woman demanding the City Council remove the statue memorializing Hannah Duston from GAR Park in the center of Haverhill.
"We don't sugarcoat the killings and we present both sides," Itaska said of information about the story provided by the Garrison House. "What we say is that everyone had their place in survival at the time. When we talk about it, we want to hear conversations, but we're realizing that there are so many people who haven't shared their interpretation of it."
Itaska suggested residents looking to get a historical view of Duston's life read Jay Atkinson's book "Massacre on the Merrimack: Hannah Duston's Captivity and Revenge in Colonial America." Itaska also hopes Haverhill public schools will reintroduce the Hannah Duston story into its curriculum. In the past, Itaska has visited local schools with another Duston relative, Jennifer Emerson of Salem, Massachusetts, a historical actress and museum educator who portrays her eighth great-aunt in presentations to school children.
Emerson said she too sees value in retelling Duston's story.
“As it was explained to me, the statue of Hannah Duston was erected to celebrate the strength of Colonial women,” Emerson said.
As Haverhill police continue to seek tips about who is responsible for vandalizing the Hannah Duston monument last week, Mayor James Fiorentini said he plans to appoint people with Native American backgrounds to the Haverhill Historic Commission in an effort to bring more diversity to city boards.
Haverhill resident Judy Matthews recently went before city councilors and asked them to consider moving the Hannah Duston statue from the park to a less public location, where it could be displayed in a more historical context. Matthews said the statue is offensive to Native Americans and that it glorifies revenge.
“It’s a racist depiction of what may or may not have actually happened in 1697 to people who were caught up in King Phillip’s War,” Matthews said. “It’s a bloodthirsty revenge fantasy and it’s inappropriate.”
Councilors said they sympathized with Matthews but that they had other, more pressing issues to deal with at the time.
Following the council discussion, petitions for and against removing the monument surfaced on social media, sparking conversation on community Facebook pages.
In 1697, Duston — or Dustin — and her nursemaid, Mary Neff, were captured in a raid on Haverhill near the end of King William’s War, a conflict involving English colonists, French colonists and their Native American allies.
Duston was taken north to an encampment on an island in the Merrimack River in present-day Boscawen, New Hampshire. Along the way, the captors killed Duston’s 6-day-old daughter, according to historians, by dashing the baby’s head against a tree.
According to some contested accounts, after being told that she and her other captives would be “stripped, scourged and made to run a gauntlet while naked” once they arrived at another camp, Duston led an early morning revolt against her captors as they slept.
Using a small ax or possibly a club, Duston, Neff and an English boy named Samuel Leddardson killed their captors, taking their scalps as proof of their ordeal. They scuttled the natives’ canoes, except for one, then traveled down the Merrimack River, landing in Haverhill where Merrimack River Park is located today along Route 110. A stone marker designates the place of their landing.
Staff writer Mike LaBella contributed to this story.