Project aims to clean up, rename Hannah Duston memorial site
The Bureau of Historic Sites wants to revamp the Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site to clean it up and provide more context about the history of the site. They also want to return its name to Contoocook Island State Historic Site. Some Boscawen residents are opposed to it.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
The Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site on October 9, 2013.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Hannah Duston may no longer have her own island in Boscawen if the state has its way in an effort to clean up the land and add new historical information, including about the Abenaki people who lived there.
The Legislature will also hear a bill this spring to change the name from the Hannah Duston Memorial State Historic Site to the Contoocook Island State Historic Site, in reference to its name before the Duston statue was dedicated in 1874 – a proposal that some Boscawen residents aren’t happy about.
“I would think we’d probably fight this tooth and nail,” said Bruce Crawford, chairman of the Boscawen Historical Society.
Duston was a 17th-century woman who was captured alongside her infant daughter during an Abenaki raid on Haverhill, Mass., in 1697. On a march north, her infant daughter was killed by her captors. Duston and two others were then detained on an island which is in present-day Boscawen. Several weeks into her capture, Duston took revenge in the night by scalping 10 Native Americans, including six children. She then made her way back to Haverhill carrying the scalps to prove what she had done.
In 1874, a monument was built to honor Duston on the island. It was the first publicly funded statue of a woman in the country. Today, the island can be reached from a path off the Park and Ride on Route 4 in Boscawen. The monument still stands, but Duston’s nose has been broken off and the surrounding area is covered with trash and graffiti. The island is often home to illicit behavior, especially during the summer.
The effort to clean up and revamp the site is being led by Ben Wilson, director of the state Bureau of Historic Sites. In his vision, the island would become more of a historical park with large signs around the island telling the story of Duston and the monument’s history as the first statue dedicated to a woman, as well as the Abenaki history of the island. There would also be information about the railroads that once ran across the island, the convergence of the Contoocook and Merrimack rivers and Boscawen’s old flour mills.
In addition to bringing more visitors and decreasing crime, Wilson hopes expanding the historical purview of the island and changing it back to its original name will downplay the controversy over the Duston monument that reignites every few years.
“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.
The only piece of the proposal that relies on the Legislature is the name change, and Wilson said it’s unclear whether the name was legally changed from its original name in the first place. The rest of the project will rely primarily on volunteer work and will likely be under way by 2015, he said.
Although the project has been in the works for three years, several people who feel they have a stake in the issue haven’t been consulted. Rep. Lorrie Carey, a Boscawen Democrat, said she heard of the project for the first time when she learned about the legislation to change the name. Cleaning up the island is a positive thing, she said, but she is not supportive of a name change at this point.
“I am part Native American and I do understand the concerns of the horror of the story of Hannah,” she said. “On the other side . . . I think for the U.S. she did symbolize strength and the ability to stand up against an adversary – so I think there are two sides to that story.”
Wilson said he will be consulting with all stakeholders in the project, including Boscawen residents. He also said he spoke with Cedric Dustin, a descendent of Duston who lives in Bow, a few years ago about writing a more extensive history of Duston for the revamped site. Dustin said he didn’t know more details of the project, but he and Wilson are scheduled to meet soon.
Dustin is a 10th-generation descendent of Hannah Duston and a member of the Duston-Dustin Family Association. (There are multiple spellings of the family name.) He said he likes Wilson’s plan to keep the island better maintained. He takes pride in the monument and said it was erected as a tribute to strong American women and mothers.
“The monument was put there to exemplify the courage and valor and so forth of the early American women,” he said. “Some people think it was for other reasons.”
Sherry Gould, who works for the Commission on Native American Affairs, said her group is ecstatic about the project because of the name change and the chance to add more history of the Abenaki people. Contoocook means “place of the nut trees,” in Abenaki, she said. The commission will put together more information about native life on the island and share its perspective on the Duston story, she said.
“For us the name change means a lot just in terms of (giving) it a much more historic perspective,” she said.
Rep. Gene Charron, a Chester Republican, is the primary sponsor behind the bill to change the name. He said he’s never been to the island but was asked by Gould to sponsor the legislation and feels it is worthwhile. Other legislators who have signed on to co-sponsor the bill are Democratic Reps. Larry Gagne, a Manchester Republican, and Laura Pantelakos, a Portsmouth Democrat, and Sens. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, and John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican.
Both Carey and House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat, were asked to co-sponsor the legislation but declined. Carey said lawmakers and the state should have discussed the changes with people in Boscawen before planning to introduce the legislation. Shurtleff said he’s unsure at this point which House committee would take up the bill, but he thinks the opinion of Boscawen residents would have influence on committee members.
Crawford, of the Boscawen Historical Society, said Duston’s name holds too much significance to the town’s history for him to support a name change.
“I guess the big thing for me is it’s kind of Boscawen’s claim to fame, and if it became Contoocook Island, you know, who cares? It’s not in Contoocook,” he said.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or email@example.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)