Editorial: Improve the Duston site, but think twice before changing its name
The parking lot above the Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site in Boscawen is littered with bags of garbage, stray liquor bottles, Chicken McNuggets boxes and a Volvo with a flat tire and a front end that appears to be held together with twine. A cryptic sign – “Path to Monument” – points visitors to a passageway strewn with broken glass, beer cans and a distressing amount of racist and homophobic graffiti. When would-be tourists finally arrive at the Duston memorial, they find a puzzling statue which does little to explain who Hannah Duston was; the fuller explanation appears on a marker in the parking lot, far from the memorial. Also, her nose is missing.
The site is just far enough from the road to feel unsafe, with just enough hostile graffiti to give visitors the creeps.
Given all that, state officials’ notions of improving the situation are long overdue. But their plan to rename the site as the Contoocook Island State Historic Site, especially without significant input from the residents of Boscawen, seems rash.
Duston, as Monitor reporter Kathleen Ronayne reported on yesterday’s front page, was 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. On a long march north, the baby was killed by Duston’s captors. Eventually, the Abenakis brought Duston and two others to an island in the Contoocook River in present-day Boscawen. There she ultimately 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 white frontier womanhood. Today, her legacy is understandably controversial: In gaining her own freedom, she slaughtered many Native Americans, including a half-dozen children.
Ben Wilson, director of the state Bureau of Historic Sites, imagines creating a historical park with large signs that explain not only the story of Duston but also the history of the Abenakis, the railroads and Boscawens mills. “I started thinking, ‘How do we turn a positive out of a negative? And how do we look at the site with more joy rather than pain and anguish?’ ” he said.
But the friction at the heart of the Duston legend is the friction at the heart of early American history: What happened when white European settlers encountered Native Americans? How have our views about those encounters changed over the centuries? Whose version of history do we learn? Whose version do we believe? Which details are kept in or out of the story? Wrestling with such issues is important for history students of all ages.
The best history, of course, is nuanced and complicated. Few historic figures are purely hero or purely victim; that’s certainly true of Duston, which makes her a good subject for study.
The idea of broadening the history told at the Duston site is a good one. But changing the name of the park in an attempt to smooth over a controversial chapter in the region’s past is the wrong impulse. Duston’s capture and the subsequent killing of her captors is the reason anyone ever cared about the obscure spot in the woods in the first place.
Our advice to the state: First, clean the place up and think hard about a strategy for keeping it clean; its easy access makes it a tempting spot for teens and others involved in illicit behavior, and that will be difficult to change. Then, reach out to Native Americans, the Duston descendants and, most of all, the residents of Boscawen – quickly – before plans for a new name take on a life of their own.