Duckler: Controversial statue stands as an example of our nation’s past and our pursuit of truth

  • The Hannah Duston statue in Boscawen still has the red paint that was part of a recent vandalism. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The Hannah Duston statue in Boscawen still has the red paint that was part of a recent vandalism. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 5/8/2021 10:52:45 AM

April’s monthly meeting was cordial by all accounts.

All 13 members of The Hannah Duston Advisory Committee participated, seeking the truth about the granite figure standing under Route 4 in Boscawen. Or at least admitting that no one really knows what happened in 1697.

Denise and Pauline Pouliot, representing the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, were on the call.

So were Craig Richardson and David Dustin, two descendants of Hannah Duston, the woman from Colonial Days whose statue, built in 1847, pay tribute to her for scalping 10 Native Americans.

History says she killed dangerous warriors and escaped after they had killed her baby. She’s on a pedestal and rises 35 feet in the air, memorialized for killing the perceived enemy of the day as American colonies continued to expand, always needing more land. 

Her critics, though, say seven of those people she killed were children, and some wonder if her baby was ever killed. They say there’s simply no evidence to justify adding this dubious story into the history books taught to New Hampshire school children. It’s a narrative that Native Americans strongly believe is hooey.

The committee’s mission? Easy. Figure out, finally, through a copasetic procedure that features patience and open minds, what to add to the park grounds around Duston, whose deeds of greatness have been questioned for years.

Maybe a plaque explaining the history of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, the never-ending violence between two peoples, the lack of anything credible that says Duston was a noble person.

The statue, as it stands, portrays Duston grasping the scalps of her victims in her left hand, that hatchet in her right.

That puts the Pouliots and the Duston descendants on the same team, allies on the Commission, searching for a compromise that will, in a sense, rewrite history. It’s a minefield of passion and sensitivity between a family and the local Abenaki people, both trying to save some dignity while showing compassion for the other.

After four meetings, things are fine. Calmness rules. Compromise, and understanding, is hopefully just over the horizon.

“We are being polite,” said Alan Hardy, who, as the Town Administrator, represents Boscawen on the committee. “We agree we have different versions and we agree that we have a lot of work to do.”

That’s a start. The acknowledgment that Duston has had the stage to herself for too long. There’s another viewpoint. Another set of possible scenarios.

“This has been a controversial subject for a very long time,” said Richardson, a retired software engineer from Amherst and Duston’s great-grandson, times eight. “But now we have an opportunity to help fix that by working together to tell the story of both sides as honestly as possible.”

As the story goes, she supposedly avenged the death of her baby, awakening to scalp her 10 captors right there on that island in Boscawen. That’s what’s taught in school. That’s what writers like Thoreau romanticized in print. That’s what was accepted as a fact.

Locally, skepticism has grown, certainly nudged forward by current events happening around the country questioning the white-is-right version of history.

The Duston descendants and Pennacook-Abenaki People are joined by college professors, a representative from the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and members of the Boscawen Historical Society.

For decades, Native Americans have said the statue symbolizes injustice simply because the story isn’t based on fact. 

Andrew Cushing, the director of the Bureau of Historic Sites, helped create the Committee as voices for change were echoing around the country.

“As far back as 2016, the Boscawen Historical Society had hosted forums,” Cushing said. “The consideration has been there before that. Hannah’s circle of people knew names and articles, so it sort of formed organically from those who knew each other.”

Denise and Paul Pouliot are on one side. He’s the Head Male Speaker and Grand Chief of his tribe. His wife is the Head Female Speaker. Their people, the Pennacook-Abenaki People, were the ones killed in Colonial times.

Denise’s determination to see change, or addition, jumped through the phone. She and others tighten up when the discussion moves to Cotton Mather, a 17th century Purity clergyman and author, and one of the most influential figures in New England at that time.

He, Native Americans say, is responsible for this misconception and these lies. His racist views were well known; he pointed out witches for officials during the Salem Witch Trials.

He took it upon himself to write the definitive narrative about Duston, with no first-hand accounts, to further the country’s hatred toward Native Americans during its westward expansion, and to deal with, once and for all, what was referred to as “The Indian Problem.” 

“Cotton propped up a woman who murdered children so he could take over indigenous lands. That is the crux of the story,” Denise said.

“Right now, the site is all about Hannah Duston, and only Hannah Duston,” Richardson said. “The statue was dedicated only two years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and they weren’t really interested in telling the Indians’ side of the story. That’s something we can correct.”

Paul Pouliot lives for this sort of fight. He and Denise are vital to the creation of both the committee and, in the future, a fresh point of view on what happened on that little island below Route 4.

They both mentioned that Duston’s sister had been hanged for infanticide in 1693. No one would admit to injecting guilt-by-association into the story, but it’s a logical step, and mental illness has long been considered part of the episode.

Meanwhile, Paul Pouliot grew tired of the common story taught in school. No one really knows the chain of events. No one knows who struck the first blow. No one knows who was heroic and who was not.

“The story comes from people with Colonial narratives,” he said. “We look at what is said about her sister and we think, ‘If that’s true, this whole family is a little squirrely.’ But we don’t know what Hannah did and did not do. We’re just trying to re-narrate the monument.”

Signage seems popular, committee members said. To clarify, add context, subtract fiction, speculate about other potential narratives, anything to lessen the power of the first federally-funded statue honoring a woman in U.S. history.

Some people have taken matters into their own hands. Duston’s nose is chipped – some think from a gunshot – and there’s red paint across the base of the statue.

She’s glorified for avenging the murder of her baby and standing up to people who the government wanted to exterminate.

Duston herself was referred as a murderer in a recent committee meeting for what she did in 1697. Paul said Duston’s family thought that was unfair.

“The fact is 10 people were killed and seven were children and that is the key,” Paul said. “How to get around that word has yet to be determined. They are very sensitive about it.”

Said Cushing, “There will be disagreements, but it has been a civil, respectful tone.”

The facelift of that entire area could cause confusion over who exactly is being honored.

Richardson has distanced himself from the DNA he shares with Hannah, trying to be fair, neutral, whatever it takers to put this issue to bed.

“The Indians who died there shouldn’t be ignored, and ought to be memorialized in some way,” Richardson said by email. “We’ve been discussing possible additions to the site that would help visitors understand the views of both sides in this lengthy series of wars.”

Maybe that’s fitting. Different versions of what happened have always existed. And no one knows for sure. Was the statue built for propaganda reasons, to show American strength and dehumanize Native Americans? Was she a hero? Killer? Victim of circumstances?

It’s early. The committee continues to discuss the future, while coordinating cleaning duties at the park. They want the area monitored against vandalism.

Soon, very specific ideas about social justice and racism and who gets to write history will appear. It’s not clear what sort of facelift the statue will undergo. She’s been standing in the same spot for so long, a lightning rod for controversy.

Perhaps, centuries later, Duston’s legacy will bring some unity. 

“Something will happen there at the site eventually,” Paul Pouliot said. “We will go through arbitration and I’m not sure how that will come out. But it’s been smooth. We’re working together.”

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