Massacre on the Merrimack Rekindles True Tale of Revenge in Colonial Haverhill

Was Hannah Duston the prototypical feminist avenger, or something far more sinister?

The Hannah Duston statue in Haverhill. Photo by Slabcity Gang on Flickr/Creative Commons

The Hannah Duston statue in Haverhill. Photo by Slabcity Gang on Flickr/Creative Commons

On the morning of March 15, 1697, members of the Abenaki tribe raided Haverhill, then just an English village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The assailants killed 27 men, women, and children and took 13 captives. Little did they know that one of those captives, Hannah Duston, would one day exact her bloody revenge.

Growing up in nearby Methuen, which was part of Haverhill until 1726, author Jay Atkinson heard all about Duston: how her week-old daughter Martha was killed by an Abenaki warrior by smashing her head against a tree; how the Abenaki planned to sell them into slavery at their village in Quebec; how she, a 51-year-old woman, and a 12-year-old boy murdered 10 Abenaki as they slept with tomahawks and knives; how Duston returned alone and scalped her victims; and how she escaped from the Abenacki’s encampment on a tiny island in the Merrimack and Contoocook Rivers in a stolen canoe.

HaverhillAtkinson, a Boston University professor dubbed “the bard of New England toughness” by Men’s Health magazine, poses the question in his new book Massacre on the Merrimack (Lyons Press): “Was Hannah Duston the prototypical feminist avenger or the harbinger of the Native American genocide?”

Atkinson is no stranger to the Merrimack Valley’s grittier side. His March 2012 piece “City of the Damned” for Boston magazine examined the myriad problems besetting “the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts,” Lawrence, from the influx of opioids, to a since-ousted mayor some believed to be the most corrupt in America. Atkinson’s piece struck a nerve that new Mayor Dan Rivera felt inclined to respond in a blog post, defending the Immigrant City’s reputation.

Atkinson’s 2005 book, Legends of Winter Hill, chronicled his year working as a private-eye for McCain Investigations, chasing the ghost of legendary Boston cop Joe McCain, who died in 2001.

“Jay Atkinson is one of my favorite writers,” said Chuck Hogan, author of The Town, “and Massacre on the Merrimack, detailing an important yet little-known episode of captivity and revenge in colonial-era Massachusetts, benefits from his accomplished writing and keen-eyed historical perspective.”

Massacre on the Merrimack is available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.