Name change to Hannah Duston island won’t be pursued

Last modified: 1/6/2014 12:21:51 PM
State lawmakers and officials are abandoning a proposal to change the name of Boscawen’s Hannah Duston memorial site after learning most of the property belongs to the town rather than the state. Discussions on cleaning up the site and adding new historical information, however, are still under way.

“Certainly the conflict creates opportunity and awareness,” said state Rep. Lorrie Carey, a Boscawen Democrat who opposed the name change. “Hopefully what will come out of this is people will come together, they will clean up that monument site, it will be appropriately lit to deter crime, and then both stories will be told – the stories of pioneer women and of Native Americans.”

The Hannah Duston State Historic Memorial Site, as it is now known, is located off the Park and Ride on Route 4 in Boscawen, at the convergence of the Merrimack and Contoocook rivers. This fall, Rep. Gene Charron, a Chester Republican, requested a bill aimed at changing the name to the Contoocook Island State Historic Site, a proposal championed by Ben Wilson, director of the Bureau of Historic Sites, and members of the Commission on Native American Affairs.

Duston was a 17th-century woman who was kidnapped during an Abenaki raid and taken to the island, watching her infant daughter killed in the process. She later escaped by scalping the heads of 10 Native Americans, including six children. The statue on the island, erected in 1874, was the country’s first publicly funded statue of a woman. Supporters of the statue say it’s meant to honor the courage and strength of early American women and mothers, while detractors say Duston’s act of murder is not something to be commemorated.

After research on both sides, it has become clear that the state does not own enough of the island to legally change its name. In fact, most of the land was owned by private citizens until 2009, when it was given to the town in back taxes, Carey said. The state owns a small sliver of land along the Merrimack River and an easement across the trestle bridge leading to the monument, Wilson said.

“It’s such a tiny little parcel that we don’t have any legitimate claim or rights to change anything,” Wilson said.

Learning this, Charron has moved to withdraw his bill. There are four other House sponsors and each of them must also agree to withdraw the bill or else it will still be introduced when the legislative session begins next week. On Friday afternoon, House Clerk Karen Wadsworth said she was waiting to hear back from one more representative.

Steve Green, a Boscawen resident, also found out that the island had no registered name under the U.S. Board of Geographical Names, the official geographic names repository. Green provided documentation showing the land has been referred to as variations of “Dustin Island” since before the statue was erected, and the board has added that to its Geographic Names Information System. It also has the monument site itself listed as the “Hannah Duston Historical Site.” (Duston and Dustin are both considered acceptable.)

With the name change off the table, both sides say they’d still like to find ways to clean up the island, which is often home to illicit activity, and the statue is partially broken and covered in graffiti. Aside from a plaque at the top of the path to the statue, there is little information about the island’s history. Wilson hoped to add panels detailing the Abenakis’ history on the island and Duston’s story as told by her descendents, as well as information on the railroad that runs along the island and several other historical aspects of the site.

Bruce Crawford, chairman of Boscawen’s historical society, said he would be supportive of adding new historical information. On Jan. 15, Friends of the Northern Rail Trail will meet in Boscawen to discuss the final phase of the trail, which will end near the statue, Crawford said. Members of the historical society and Wilson will gather earlier to discuss how all groups can work to improve the site.

“All the stars and moons seem to be aligning on this whole thing,” Crawford said. “We’re trying to use this whole awakening, as you will, as a vehicle to get that area cleaned up and perhaps get some kind of plan for maintenance of it.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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