Move it, leave it in park — even melt it? Debate over Haverhill's Hannah Duston statue escalates

MIKE LABELLA/Staff photoThe Hannah Duston statue in GAR Park shows the Colonial figure carrying the ax she used to kill Native Americans.

There is little agreement about the statue of Colonial figure Hannah Duston.

The debate is intensifying in Haverhill over what to do with the statue, as a national argument wages about monuments to people such as southern leaders who defended slavery during the Civil War.

During a recent community meeting to let the public have its say, some people argued the statue should remain in its prominent location in GAR Park near City Hall. Other people insisted the statue be moved because it glorifies violence — in this case against Native Americans whom Duston killed with an ax after they kidnapped her from this area in 1697. The statue shows her holding the ax.

One person said a plaque at the base of the statue should be removed because it refers to Native Americans as "savages.'' Another person even proposed the metal statue be melted down.

Those suggestions and others emerged earlier this month at a meeting of city councilors and the Haverhill Historical Commission, as the council and Mayor James Fiorentini prepare to decide the future of the statue. The community will have to wait a bit longer to find out the monument's fate, as the council's Natural Resources and Public Property Committee plans to discuss the issue before making a recommendation to the mayor and council. That recommendation will weigh community opinion from meetings such as the one this month.

Meanwhile, councilors are digesting suggestions from people who have already offered their opinions.

The Natural Resources and Public Property Committee, chaired by Councilor Thomas Sullivan, held a meeting with the Historical Commission Oct. 7. More than 25 people participated in person and remotely.

"Some want the statue moved, some want it to stay and one person wants it melted down," Sullivan said of proposals made at the meeting.

Sullivan said the committee will meet later this month or in November before making a recommendation to the mayor and council.

The debate over the statue began in early July when a local woman asked the council to move the statue to where it can be displayed in a more historical context.

The issue emerged again at the July 28 council meeting, where resident Ben Roy asked that the statue erected in 1879 be removed from city property. He called the statue a form of “hate speech” against the indigenous community and referred to Duston as a murderer who committed atrocities. 

Roy cited his interpretation of what happened following an incident on March 15, 1697, when Duston — or Dustin as it is sometimes spelled — and her nursemaid, Mary Neff, were captured in a raid on Haverhill near the end of King William’s War, a conflict among English colonists, French colonists and their Native American allies.

Kimberley Connors of the Archeology Outreach center of Acton said the primary source of Hannah Duston's story came from Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who wrote three accounts of Duston's ordeal.

"Cotton Mather stresses the savagery of the natives but at the same time downplays Hannah Duston's savagery," she said, adding that over time Hannah's story evolved, became fictionalized and the myth became better known than the facts.

During the 1697 raid on Haverhill, 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 week-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 Lennardson 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.

Diane Dustin Itasaka, a direct descendent, eighth generation, of Hannah Duston and president of the Duston Garrison House Association, said the Penacook and Abenaki people and the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources are working together toward the expansion and revitalization of the island in Boscawen, where the first statue to Hannah Duston was erected.

"The Abenaki people have a vision of their own to be carried out and the Duston Family Association supports those efforts here as well," she said.

Itasaka said the monument in GAR Park does not ask visitors to consider the broader injustices inherent in the conflict of the time. She is advocating for information provided by the tribal council to be added to the statue.

"We're each entitled to our own opinions, but please be respectful and listen to each other so that Haverhill can be a fine example of the controversy that is prevalent across our country," Itasaka said.

Resident Bill Taylor was on the other side of the argument and called for the removal of one of the four plaques mounted to the base of Duston's statue and which refers to her captors as "savages."

"When it is used to describe indigenous people, as it is on the plaque, it is a racist slur," he said. "This language dehumanizes these folks, erases their painful history and absolutely should not be displayed in a public space."

The statue was vandalized in early July when someone wrote the words "Haverhill's own monument to genocide'' on it in pink chalk. In another act of vandalism just over a month later, someone splashed red paint on the statue.

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