Jay Atkinson does a great service to the complexities of history by portraying the bloody tragedy of each side’s mutually deadly incomprehension.
Massacre on the Merrimack: Hannah Duston’s Captivity and Revenge in Colonial America by Jay Atkinson. Globe Pequot Press / Lyons Press, 320 pages, $27.95.
By Matt Hanson
Growing up in Methuen, local writer Jay Atkinson often passed by an impressive statue of 17th Century colonial settler Hannah Duston, looking stern and ready to wield a hatchet. One day, Atkinson asked his father who Hannah Duston was and received the laconic reply “she killed the Indians.” Years later, the author of City in Amber and Caveman Politics has written a vivid, dramatic, and thoroughly researched account of how his father’s casual summary doesn’t begin to tell the real story.
In March of 1697, a group of Abenaki Indians in the employ of the French colonial authorities raced across a Puritan frontier outpost in Haverhill and killed twenty-seven people, taking thirteen hostages. One of these was the thirty nine year old Hannah Duston, just coming off the exhausting pregnancy of her twelfth child. After witnessing the gruesome death of her week-old baby, Duston and her fellow captives survived the harrowing march through the snow, canoeing across the bone-cold Merrimack river, to ultimately escape and take bloody revenge on her captors into her own hands and by any means necessary.
Colonial America was in many ways a wilderness, and the narrative’s cinematic depiction of the rugged pre-colonial terrain is lucidly chilling. Atkinson’s keen sense for the rugged individuals, Indian and European alike, scratching for survival in unforgiving terrain is equally matched by the thorough and well-balanced account of the complex power dynamics of the time. Given the traditionally simplistic portrayal of Native Americans as noble savages and early American settlers as modest god-fearing folk, Atkinson does a great service to the complexities of history by portraying the bloody tragedy of each side’s mutually deadly incomprehension.
At the end of the 17th Century, the Abenaki Indians were caught in the bloody crossroads between the imperial ambitions of the Catholic French and the Puritan English, in what was later referred to as King William’s War. Modernity, in the form of modern weaponry and the imperial lust for territorial expansion, cut an inexorable path across the bucolic territory north of Boston and largely inhabited by the Abenaki. In some sense, what happened to Hannah Duston was inevitable, given the circumstances of history.
The many political and philosophical clashes between the Abenaki and the unheeding colonists are explained in detail. My favorite example is of an earnest Swedish minister invited to preach to the Abenaki on the story of Adam and Eve and the loss of paradise in the Garden of Eden for several hours. The Abenaki patiently listen and ultimately respond by saying that apples are indeed undesirable and much more useful when made into cider and politely thank the minister for sharing.
Atkinson clearly appreciates the Abenaki’s vigorous, bucolic way of life, but wisely refrains from simply portraying them as stately savages; their tribal customs are an interesting mix of egalitarianism and pitiless resolve. When Hannah Duston witnesses the brutal killing of her week-old child, the moment is viscerally horrifying but also put into a larger cultural context. For the Abenaki, a human is as equally a member of the natural order as any other living creature and thus its life is given no greater value than, say, a beaver or a deer. But it doesn’t change the fact that once she is free of her captors, she will settle the score.
The historical figures that populate Massacre on the Merrimack are consistently well drawn. Hannah Duston’s iron will and admirable determination are a given, but there is also the wily Count Frontenac, a character who could have been written by Balzac, who is eager to curry favor with the crown by sizing up the possibilities of French dominance of the new world while angling to get a piece of the action for himself.
Aside from Duston herself, easily the most memorable person we meet is the extraordinary, Gilgamesh-like Abenaki tribal elder Passaconaway, whose legendary prowess in battle and almost alchemistic knowledge of the forest stands him in good stead until the European invaders become too powerful to be satisfied with mere co-operation. His farewell speech, as he gathers his people to tell them that the time has come to make peace with the white man, is profoundly eloquent and tragic. The Great Spirit has whispered to him that the palefaces will live upon their hunting grounds and we know that his final plea for peace among the tribes will not last for long.
The story of Hannah Duston has been widely documented since 1697 and retold by the likes of Cotton Mather, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry David Thoreau. The real meaning of Hannah Duston’s reputation is still very much a matter of debate: is her suffering a reason for her violent revenge? Is she a feminist icon of frontier womanhood or a colonial oppressor? The intriguing contradictions of Hannah Duston will be debated for years to come, and we have Atkinson to thank for a fresh, engaging account of the woman who killed the Indians.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.