When the Woman is Away, the Men Will Play: Early American Folklore

Hannah Duston is a legend in American folklore. The original account of her story was written on her behalf in first person by Puritan minister Cotton Mather in 1697, 1699, and 1702. Others then retold the narrative of Hannah Duston, particularly in a small revival of the story in the 1800’s. In 1831, John Greenleaf Whittier famously wrote his own version of the account, followed by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1836 and others. These Victorian-era canonical authors, “increasingly admired women rather for their frailty than for their hardihood,” says Kathryn Whitford (324). Sarah Humphries states that Duston’s story as told by Mather “was ostensibly intended to teach lessons concerning humiliation and deliverance” (152), while her actions were both romanticized and criticized by the nineteenth century authors (158). Mather’s celebration of Duston’s heroism was substituted for disdain of the strong woman’s revengeful actions in the nineteenth century, and each male author used Duston’s fabled actions to promote their own agenda regarding women’s place. Duston’s original telling of the story was never told from her point of view, and instead male authors over the centuries have adapted her story to support their own agendas.

In general, these Hannah Duston narratives follow the same storyline, and predominantly include the same details. Most of them tell that Hannah Duston and her nurse are captured by a tribe of Abenaki Indians one week after she gives birth to her eighth child. Her infant is bashed against a tree and killed, but her husband and seven other children flee to safety. She and her nurse are forced to travel over 100 miles into Canada, their lives threatened and fellow captives murdered in the journey. Their captors become complacent as the distance from Duston’s civilization grows. Duston takes advantage of their unawareness during the night, and her, the nurse, and another captive boy murder and scalp the twelve Indians. Some accounts tell that a young Indian boy escapes the scene, while others say a Squaw runs away, or both. However, there is agreement about the deaths of seven Indian children and two men. Their scalps are taken as proof of Duston’s escape, and she is celebrated by the white community upon her return. (This is my own summary).

In the original source texts written by Cotton Mather (for this analysis, the 1702 version is used), her tale was used for political purposes from the very beginning. Mather used the publication to warn others in the Puritan community about savages, writing that “a body of terrible Indians drew near unto the house where she lay, with designs to carry on their bloody devastations” (58), and other such indications that Indians are brutal, scary, and heartless. He uses the story to encourage fear and hatred of Catholicism (the Indians were practicing Catholics trained by the French). Mather writes: “That Indian family […] for the shame of many an English family, that has the character of prayerless upon it […] in obedience to the instructions which the French have given them […] Indeed, these idolaters were, like the rest of their whiter brethren, persecutors” (59). The injection of these kinds of political comments about Natives and the French Catholics are not part of an accurate telling of the story, but instead Mather is using the publication to push his own messages about Puritan superiority.

Cotton Mather also champions Hannah Duston as a heroine called by God to get revenge on the Indians and to fulfill her destiny like Jael from the Old Testament. According to Mather, Duston “took up a resolution to imitate the action of [J]ael upon Siberia; and being where she had not her own life secured by any law unto her, she thought she was not forbidden by any law to take away the life of the murderers by whom her child had been butchered” (60). The woman Jael is a Biblical character from Judges chapter 4 that murdered the enemy nation’s leader and defeated their army. This Biblical comparison makes Hannah Duston into a war heroin to the Puritans for defeating their Indian enemies. To Mather, Duston is an example of God’s acceptance of a woman’s violent actions in defense of the white Puritan lifestyle, no matter how gruesome or fearful, and Duston is made into a hero.

John Whittier introduces his 1831 narrative with a paragraph describing the “modern role of women” in the Victorian period. “Woman’s attributes are generally considered of a milder and purer character than those of man” (125) he writes. Whittier uses Duston to re-enforce the role of nineteenth century women, and the Duston narrative is used as a relic of the more primitive past. “Her sphere of action is generally limited to the endearments of home—the quiet communion with her friends, and the angelic exercise of the kindly charities of existence” (125), he says, continuing to detail women’s meekness, piety, quietude and domesticity. He excuses Duston’s behavior as an anomaly due to the “dangers and the hardihood of that perilous period,” but these apparently shouldn’t apply to Whittier’s contemporary readers. Duston is also less brutal than in Mather’s text, as she mercifully spares a young Indian boy in a wave of motherly affection. I think Whittier most likely writes about Duston’s sympathy in order to highlight how natural it is for a woman to be motherly and affectionate, and how these murders are only a method of survival and not a natural manifestation of her womanhood. When her infant is killed, he writes that “at this moment, all was darkness and horror—that her very heart seemed to cease beating, and to lie cold and dead in her bosom, and that her limbs moved only as involuntary machinery” (126), which implies that without her child, the woman of Hannah Duston becomes soulless and mechanic, which supports the Victorian notion that women are made to be mothers. Whittier then concludes the tale saying that the horrors of Duston’s time are of the past, and that the legacy of Duston’s generation should be remembered “with a feeling of awe and reverence, as if communing, face to face, with the spirits of that stern race, which has passed away forever” (131), he writes, defining the distance between the archaic and the modern. On Whittier’s stage, Duston becomes a rebellious woman to be feared, an ancestor that the modern woman has evolved from, but is no longer.

Found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1836 narrative is perhaps the most cutting critique of Duston’s actions. In Mather’s tale Duston was a hero of Biblical proportions, in Whittier’s writing Duston was an example of a primitive woman, but in Hawthorne’s story Duston is evil incarnate. Interestingly, Hawthorne’s narrative focus is mostly on the heroism of Hannah’s husband, Thomas Duston. He discusses quite deeply his loving, fatherly affection, his strength, and his ability to protect his children against the Indians. He actually calls him “Goodman Duston.” Mr. Duston is defending his family against an Indian invasion, “Goodman Duston heard the war whoop and alarm, and, being on horseback, immediately set off full speed to look after the safety of his family” (396). Meanwhile, Mrs. Duston is seen murdering a family of Indians in cold blood: “with the doubtful gleam of the decaying fire hovering upon their ghastly visages, as they stared round at the fated slumberers. The next instant, each of the three captives held a tomahawk” (398) he writes. Hawthorne uses this contrast to reinforce the double-standard of gender expectations in Victorian times, that men were supposed to be strong and courageous, while women were gentle, motherly, and tender-hearted. When Hannah Duston’s infant son is murdered, Hawthorne’s words reflect the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament: her “heart was hardened” after the death of her infant child. This references the moment when Pharaoh refuses to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt, even though it was God’s intent. Pharaoh, and Hannah’s, heart was hardened against their natural desires. Hawthorne continues to support these gender expectations: Throughout her ordeal, Duston is expected to “stifle her grief and rage within her bosom,” like a good, docile wife should. In Hawthorne’s mind, Duston’s murders are not revenge for the death of her son or the loss of her other children, but an act of mass, bloody murder. Her hardened heart, in cruelty and anger, motivates her, and Hawthorne despises this. He calls her an “awful woman,” and a “bloody old hag.”

Hawthorne also makes mention of Cotton Mather’s comments in the original texts. He says that Mather was a “pedantic bigot,” and that his celebration of the murder of these Indians and Catholics was evil. Hawthorne does not support Mather’s opinion that God enabled Duston’s actions for the purpose of righteous revenge against Catholicism, but instead views Mather’s perspective as flawed and prejudiced. In Hawthorne’s narrative, it is apparent that the reputation of the Indians was gaining more favor with his contemporaries, and the actions taken against the natives was viewed with more sympathy during the nineteenth century than in Duston and Mather’s time.

Although Whittier and Hawthorne both use Duston’s story to support gender expectations in the Victorian time period, they have adopted slightly different angles. Whittier’s position is one of patronizing sympathy toward Hannah Duston, treating her like an unfortunate precursor to the modern-day woman. Elements of her motherly nature are present, but Duston is unable to fulfill her motherly duties due to difficult circumstances.In Hawthorne’s narrative, however, there is almost no sympathy for Duston. She has allowed her heart to be corrupted with anger and becomes bent on revenge, out of alignment for her feminine assignments. Both stories, however, are far removed from Mather’s source texts.

Each version of Hannah Duston’s story gives a different narrative bias to the tale. Without a true first-hand account, there is no way to know the true events, and over time the legends and fictionalizations of Duston’s story become pulled into propaganda for the modern needs of the author. Mather wanted to justify the murder of Catholic Indians, and wrote her into a Puritan hero. Whittier needed to reconcile the story with his views of gender roles and made her into a distant ancestor in a primitive time. Hawthorne was angered by the murder of an Indian family, especially because it was justified through racist and anti-Catholic methods by Mather, and wrote Duston as a defector in defiance of family values. Not one of these authors takes into account Duston’s own trauma in accurate detail; her feelings are swayed by each author’s narrative purposes. The differing narrative bias in each story is an example of how a story can be written and used for any political agenda. The woman’s voice in this legend is not available to us, and men have taken advantage of her over centuries in order to pursue their own intentions, especially to keep women in their place.

Work Cited

  • “Hannah Dustin – Heroine or Cold Blooded Killer.” Miner Descent, 12 Sept. 2013. Web.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Duston Family.” The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge. May 1836, pp. 395-97.
  • Humphreys, S. “The Mass Marketing of the Colonial Captive Hannah Duston.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 41 no. 2, 2011, pp. 149-178. Project MUSE.
  • Kilgore, H. D. The Story of Hannah Duston. [Rev. ed.]. Haverhill, Mass.: Duston-Dustin Family Association, 1959.
  • “Literature Related to ‘The Duston Family.’” Hawthorne in Salem, Web.
  • Mather, Cotton. “A Notable Exploit:.” Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Ed. Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Z. Penguin Classics. New York, NY, 1998. p 58-60.
  • Whitford, Kathryn. “Hannah Dustin: The Judgement of History.” Essex Institute Historical Collections Vol. CVIII, No. 4 (October 1972): 304-325.
  • Whittier, John Greenleaf, Legends of New England (1831): a facsimile reproduction. Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints. Gainesville, Florida, 1965. Pages 125-131.

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