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Editorial: Hannah Duston’s past and future

We were happy to learn about progress on the Hannah Duston front this week – and intrigued by a suggestion by a Monitor reader for the future of the Duston statue in Boscawen.

At issue is the historical site hidden in an obscure patch of woods off the Contoocook River near the Park and Ride lot off Route 4. It’s a memorial to a white woman from the 17th century who, as the story goes, was captured with her infant daughter during an Abenaki raid in Haverhill, Mass. Along their long march north, the baby was killed by Duston’s captors. Eventually, the Abenakis brought Duston and two other captives to an island in present-day Boscawen. There she scalped 10 Abenakis and made her way back to Haverhill. A gruesome tale, to be sure, and one which took on popularity in the 19th century, making Duston a heroine of frontier womanhood. Today, her legacy is understandably controversial: In gaining her own freedom, she is said to have slaughtered many Native Americans, including a half-dozen children.

When the state proposed changing the name of the historical site from the Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site to the Contoocook Island State Historic Site last year, we found the idea ill-conceived, an effort to smooth out a rough portion of our shared history, to pretty it up for 21st-century sensibilities. In the weeks since, the state has dropped its plan – good news, even if based on a technicality. Turns out, as Monitor reporter Kathleen Ronayne reported this week, most of the property is owned by the town of Boscawen, not the state. The state has no power to make the switch.

But amid the dustup over the name change came some promising conversation from local and state officials and history enthusiasts about cleaning up the horribly littered and graffiti-covered site and about creating some signs for the site that better explain the story of Duston and the Abenakis. Anything that would make the area less attractive for illicit activity and anything that would give visitors a fuller understanding of the site’s past would be well worth the effort.

After the Monitor report on the issue, a letter-writer from Bradford complained that the main issue had been missed. Most important, she wrote, was that the existing statue of Duston be replaced with one in which she is not holding the scalps of her victims. Scalping, she noted, “was a disgusting and inhumane practice and should not be memorialized in a statue any more than lynching of African Americans should be.”

Strong words, but in the end, we think, not the right course.

Surely scalping was a barbaric practice, and no one would suggest creating a new memorial statue with scalps included as something to be honored or rewarded. But the existing statue has an important history of its own. It was the first publicly financed statue of a woman in the country. And the inclusion of the scalps, grisly as they are, helps visitors understand how Duston’s actions were understood in the 19th century, at the time the monument was erected.

Americans’ understanding of the complicated relationship between European settlers and Native Americans has changed dramatically over the decades, and it continues to evolve. That evolution, too, is part of the Duston legacy.

Erasing offensive symbols from the past can do as much harm as good in terms of teaching visitors, especially young people, about our country’s past. Keep the old statue, keep the scalps (but perhaps fix Duston’s broken nose) and create a spot for some genuine education.

Correction

Yesterday’s editorial on nationwide anti-abortion efforts neglected to account for Ovide Lamontagne’s 2012 campaign for governor.

The bottom line here is that Native Americans "scalped" those who they slaughtered. That was a Native American practice.

But Hannah Dustin did . . . and she's not a Native American.

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