The “massacre” of the title, Massacre on the Merrimack: Hannah Duston's Captivity and Revenge in Colonial America (Lyons Press, 2016), by Jay Atkinson, refers to the decision of Hannah Duston to kill Indians who attacked her family, kidnapped her, and murdered her newborn infant by throwing it against a tree. The event comes several weeks after she has been taken by the Indians on a forced march through the New England forests towards Quebec, where they will either sell her as a slave to the French or ransom her off. One night she and two fellow kidnap victims rise from where they are sleeping and kill two men, two women, and six children by impaling them with stakes, crushing their skulls with axe heads, and beating them to death. A short time afterwards, Duston scalps the corpses so that she will have proof of her deed to show the Puritan world. She returns with her companions and the scalps to her home and is praised for her courage. Over the decades, her deeds have been viewed more ambiguously.
Author Jay Atkinson acknowledges that over the years Duston’s killing of ten Indians has been conveniently forgotten, and that when it is remembered, it has been a source of shame, confusion, or embarrassment. But he fails to make much of this change in attitude and instead for the most part describes in his book the details of Duston’s kidnapping and escape. He also places her experience in historical context by explaining the history of English-French-Indian relations in the 17th and early 18th centuries. No one should feel good about that history. The French and English exploited the Indians in furtherance of their own efforts to dominate one another on the North American continent. They killed many Indians outright. Others fell sick and died from illness brought to the continent by European settlers. The Indians, periodically, attacked villages and killed colonists in small and large numbers: men, women, and children. In the end, of course, the Indians were wiped out.
Atkinson’s method is similar to that of Erik Larson, who in such books as the Devil and the White City illuminates historical events by showing how disparate individuals and stories intersect and influence one another. Atkinson’s book sometimes drags, especially in its overlong history of Indian-French-English intrigues.
Atkinson freely imagines and recreates what he thinks Duston and others must have seen and felt. He relies on a number of historical accounts, specifically the account of Duston’s experiences as she related them to Cotton Mather—this is, I believe, the most important source of information about happened. (I’d like to see a more skeptical examination of Mather’s narrative about Duston). Atkinson visited the geographical areas in which Duston lived and where her ordeal transpired. As a result he often imparts a vivid sense of what she might have experienced. But his book is full of imaginative fabrication or speculation based on a few first-hand sources and many second- and third-hand ones. We cannot tell where fact stops and imagination begins. His book is more like a novel, inspired by true events, than a credible account of history.