By Jay Syrmopoulos —
Most people located within the Mississippi River Valley have heard the tale of “Princess Wenonah,” said to be the city of Winona’s namesake, with her image immortalized in a bronze statue currently displayed at Windom Park.
This legend has sparked the imaginations of European explorers, settlers and their descendants for the past 200-plus years, but how much truth is there to this tragic local lore?
Wenonah, literally translated from the Dakota language, means firstborn daughter. According to local legend, Wenonah is said to have been the child of Chief Wapasha, leader of the band of Dakota that called this region home when white settlers first began arriving in the 1850s.
While there are numerous variations of the story, research suggests that all carry a central theme of Princess Wenonah’s father attempting to force her into a marriage with someone she didn’t love, which ultimately resulted in her death as she chose to leap from the bluffs at a place called Maiden Rock rather than be forced into a loveless marriage.
The first official record of this story comes from explorer Zebulon Pike in 1805 on an exploratory journey following the Mississippi River:
“I was shown a point of rocks from which a Sioux maiden cast herself, and was dashed into a thousand pieces on the rocks below. She had been informed that her friends intended matching her to a man she despised; having been refused the man she had chosen, she ascended the hill, singing her death-song; and before they could overtake her and obviate her purpose, she took the lover’s leap! Thus ended her troubles with her life.”
Subsequent accounts, such as a widely disseminated story published by the Winona Wagon Co. shortly after the commissioning of the Princess Wenonah statue in 1901, codified this legend into an iteration that included the maiden converting to Christianity, falling in love with a white explorer, and leaping to her death to avoid marrying the son of the chief, Tamdoka, with her true love arriving only moments after her death—a truly Eurocentric tale.
Although in terms of dramatic value these stories are quite compelling, it seems likely that these myths are exactly that—myths.
To get to the bottom of this debate, we had Andy Bloedorn, curator and archivist at the Winona County Historical Society, weigh in with his thoughts about the validity of the story of Princess Wenonah.
“I think it’s a fantastic story, but one that in all likelihood is not true. We hear stories of ‘Lover’s Leaps’ from up and down the Mississippi River and all over the country, and Winona is no different,” Bloedorn said.
Research suggests that in the Dakota language, the word “Wenonah” is more a designation than a personal name. Wenonah refers to the firstborn daughter of any family—tribal chief or not—and it would likely not have been used as a first name until a more recent time period. Another factor that hints at a minimum of exaggeration is that Dakota Indians had no designation of “princess” in their language, as they had no monarchy, suggesting Euro-influences within the story.
Local 19th-century historian, Dr. Lafayette Bunnell, disputed the validity of the legend wholesale and claimed the story was laughed at by local Indians descended from Wapasha’s band:
“It may be that the girl threatened to jump from the cliff… but if she did… I will venture the prediction that she was cuffed into submission to the will of her dear mother,” he wrote.
Bunnell, a known self-promoter—par for course in the late 19th century—insisted that he personally knew Wenonah and that she lived into her 90s and is buried in Trempealeau, Wisconsin.
While the exact truth behind the legend remains ambiguous at best, it’s undeniable that a certain mystique has surrounded Native American Indian women since Pocahontas supposedly saved John Smith in 1607, and has inspired the imagination of many for centuries.
While stories of Indian “princesses” sacrificing themselves are fairly common, I’d guess that relatively few, if any, of these stories are based on factual events.