- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

HAVERHILL, Mass. — She stands on a hill overlooking the Merrimack River, a fierce look on her stone face and the hatchet she used to scalp her enemies in her right hand.

This is Hannah Dustin, would-be ambassador for a new Haverhill.

A group of residents wants to use Dustin and her brutal story of escape from her American Indian captors in 1697, depicted at the base of her statue, as an unofficial symbol of revitalization in the old mill city.

Her story is empowering, said boutique owner Christine McCarron, and she conveys tenacity and an edgy vitality that is part of a re-emerging Haverhill.

But some say Dustin is the wrong symbol and Haverhill has plenty of historical figures without bloodstains from which to choose. On the short list: poet John Greenleaf Whittier and Bob Montana, creator of the Archie comic series.

City Councilor Krystine Hetel admires Dustin but said her dark side makes her a difficult choice to “take you by the hand” and show you Haverhill. “She’s taking you by the hand in one hand and she’s got the ax in the other hand,” Miss Hetel said.

Paul Pouliot, a member of the Sandwich-based Abenaki tribe, whose members Dustin killed, said his tribe’s version of the story is vastly different from the Colonial version, with Dustin a killer and not a victim.

“I don’t think the story was an act of heroism. I think it was more a matter of revenge,” he said. “If you’re going to revitalize a community on that feature, I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do.”

Cedric H. Dustin Jr., a ninth-generation descendant of Hannah Dustin, said he would have no problem with Haverhill pushing Dustin as a symbol of the city, as long as they are respectful and remember that although the city owns the statue, her family owns her memory.

“To do things that might poke fun at it or cast aspersions, I might have a different view,” he said.

Haverhill is a city of about 59,000 about 40 miles north of Boston. It has a rich history, with Whittier its literary star and its business history highlighted by Louis Mayer, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who opened his first theater here. The city flourished into the 20th century under a prosperous shoe industry, but when that business collapsed by the 1970s, downtown Haverhill collapsed with it.

The bottom floors of old mill buildings along the Merrimack have since filled with restaurants and retail shops, but many of the top floors remain empty.

Haverhill needs to capitalize on unique features of its history to create a draw through which it can convey a message of opportunity and rebirth, said Lynn Murphy, chairwoman of the Haverhill Cultural Council. She thinks the focus should be on Dustin, who brings a lot more pizazz than Whittier.

“It’s a grabber,” she said.

The Colonial version of Dustin’s story says she and her nurse were captured in a raid, and the Indians killed her crying baby to quiet it.

Dustin was taken to New Hampshire, where the Indians made camp on a river island near Concord. She enlisted a 14-year-old boy who was a captive of the Abenaki for 18 months to ask an Indian the best way to kill a person and how to take off a scalp. The Indian, considering the boy no threat, told him. Dustin, along with the boy and her nursemaid, used the information to kill and scalp 10 Indians.

She escaped by canoe and foot to Haverhill, but only after returning for the 10 Indian scalps, which carried a bounty.

On its face, Mr. Pouliot said, the story of a woman killing 10 battle-hardened Indians accustomed to hand-to-hand combat is not believable.

According to Abenaki tradition, Dustin had befriended some of their people, but later, for unknown reasons, blamed them for the death of her baby. She incapacitated several by getting them drunk, then slaughtered them with a hatchet.

The popular version of the story was “war propaganda” designed to embolden Colonists, Mr. Pouliot said.

Cedric Dustin noted that Dustin told her story to the famous preacher Cotton Mather shortly after it happened.

“It probably was the most reliable [record] you could find,” he said. “Why he would write something like that if it wasn’t true, I don’t know.”

Regardless of which version is believed, it ends with several people dead, and that makes it too serious to take lightly, said Frank Novak, a real estate agent and volunteer for Team Haverhill, a group working to bring economic rebirth to Haverhill. Promote Dustin’s courage and resourcefulness, he said, but pick your spots. For instance, he said, two phrases that originally appeared on a rock festival poster this summer — “You axed for it” and “No scalping” — were inappropriate.

“That’s a lot of blood … to have some levity on,” he said.

Though Dustin has never been the face of Haverhill, the city has a long history of remembering her in commercial ways. A school, street and a nursing home have been named for her. Commemorative spoons, strawberry forks and whiskey have been made in her honor.

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