Print a copy (color preferred) of Junius Brutus Stearns’ Hannah Duston Killing the Indians, 1847.
Before providing background to the painting, ask students to describe what is happening.
Who is the villain in the painting? How would you describe the mood of the painting? What details do you notice about the action that is occurring? Is this painting portraying a tragedy? An action scene? A drama? What is each of the figures in the painting feeling? Who is the most sympathetic person in the painting?
Share with students the following background knowledge:
Junius Brutus Stearns (1810-1885) is an American artist known for his depictions of historical events and people. Born in Arlington, Vermont, Stearns studied painting at the National Academy of Design in New York. He is not well-known today and there is not much recorded information about his life or paintings. We do know that his most famous paintings are his Washington Series, (1847-1856), depicting George Washington. The series is currently on display at the National Academy of Design.
Hannah Duston was a popular theme in art and literature and Stearns’ depiction of her was collected by the Lasbury family, descendants of Hannah Duston, and was donated by them in 1993.
Hannah Duston Killing the Indians is based on a true event that occurred in 1697. Hannah Duston, a colonial wife living in Haverhill, Massachusetts, was captured by a group of Abenaki Indians (a Maine tribe) during a raid on her town and farm. Captured with Hannah were her six-day-old baby and her nursemaid, Mary Neff. After traveling away from the town in the direction of Canada, the Native Americans found Hannah’s baby slowing the group’s escape, so they killed the infant. The main raiding party then split, with Hannah and her nurse being left with a Native American family consisting of two men, three women, and seven children.
Amongst the Abenaki family was a fourteen-year-old boy named Samuel, who had been captured by the natives nearly two years earlier and had been incorporated into the Abenaki family.
After many days of traveling very long and grueling miles, the party finally rested one night on the Island of Contoocook, just outside of Concord, New Hampshire. It was here that Hannah Duston, along with her fellow captives, made their escape. While the Abenaki family slept, Hannah, Samuel, and Mary Neff obtained tomahawks and struck their captors, killing all but two, an older woman and child who managed to escape.
The accounts about Hannah Duston are very controversial. When Hannah escaped she brought the scalps of her dead captors back to Massachusetts for bounty money. This act, alongside the fact that she killed women and children in order to escape, sparked a debate among people when Hannah returned. This controversy has continued into present time with some people believing she is a heroine and others seeing her as a cruel murderer.
The complexity and mystery surrounding Hannah Duston Killing the Indians makes it a particularly important addition to the Colby College Museum of Art collection, where it invites inquiry and reflection about the American past.
Pose the following questions for discussion:
How would you judge Hannah Duston’s encounters with the Native Americans and her conduct during and after her escape?
How would you judge the Abenaki Indians?
How do you think Stearns is judging Hannah Duston and the Abenaki Indians?
Why did Stearns recreate this captivity narrative with paint 150 years after the fact?
Stearns painted three white women in the piece—two presumably are Hannah Duston and her nurse, but the other woman is a mystery. The boy, Samuel, has been omitted, as are the Abenaki women and children who were present? Why did Stearn make this choice?
Follow up Activity:
Explain to students that J.B. Stearns created a second painting about Hannah Duston’s husband to have accompany “Hannah Duston Killing the Indians.” Unfortunately, the second painting, named “Perils of the Colonists in 1697,” was lost shortly after it was exhibited in 1847. However some information about the work is known from a review published in magazine called The Literary World in 1847.
Distribute copies of the article and instruct students to read it. Discuss the negative use of the word savages. Is the reviewer presenting a biased opinion of the work?
Distribute paper, crayons, markers, colored pencils and/or paint. Instruct the students to recreate this painting based on the article’s description.
Ask students to create a second work based on their knowledge of Native American history.
Have students compare and contrast their work in a classroom discussion.