THE MAIDEN'S ROCK; OR, WENONA'S LEAP.
by Mary Eastman
Legends of the Sioux
Lake Pepin is a widening of the Mississippi river. It is about twenty
miles in length, and from one to two miles wide.
The country along its banks is barren. The lake has little current, but
is dangerous for steamboats in a high wind. It is not deep, and abounds
in fish, particularly the sturgeon. On its shores the traveller gathers
white and red agates, and sometimes specimens streaked with veins of
gold color. The lover reads the motto from his mistress' seal, not
thinking that the beautiful stone which made the impression, was found
on the banks of Lake Pepin.
At the south end of the lake, the Chippeway river empties into the
The Maiden's rock is a high bluff, whose top seems to lean over towards
the water. With this rock is associated one of the most interesting
traditions of the Sioux.
But the incident is well-known. Almost every one has read it a dozen
times, and always differently told. Some represent the maiden as
delivering an oration from the top of the rock, long enough for an
address at a college celebration. It has been stated that she fell into
the water, a circumstance which the relative situation of the rock and
river would render impossible.
Writers have pretended, too, that the heroine of the rock was a
Winnebago. It is a mistake, the maiden was a Dahcotah.
It was from the Dahcotahs that I obtained the incident, and they believe
that it really occurred. They are offended if you suggest the
possibility of its being a fiction. Indeed they fix a date to it,
reckoning by the occurrences of great battles, or other events worthy
But to the story—and I wish I could throw into it the feeling, and
energy of the old medicine woman who related it.
About one hundred and fifty years ago, the band of Dahcotahs to which
Wenona belonged, lived near Fort Snelling. Their village was on the site
now occupied by Good Road's band.
The whole band made preparations to go below Lake Pepin, after
porcupines. These animals are of great value among the Dahcotahs; their
flesh is considered excellent as an article of food, and the women stain
their quills to ornament the dresses of the men, their mocassins, and
many other articles in use among them. A young girl of this band had
received repeated offers of marriage from a Dahcotah, whom she hated
with the same degree of intensity that she loved his rival.
She dared not marry the object of her choice, for she knew it would
subject herself and him to the persecutions of her family. She declared
she never would consent to be the wife of the man whom her parents had
chosen for her, though he was young and brave, and, what is most valued
by the friends of an Indian girl, he was said to be the best hunter of
"Marry him, my daughter," said the mother, "your father is old; he
cannot now hunt deer for you and me, and what shall we do for food?
Chaskč will hunt the deer and buffalo, and we shall be comfortable
"Yes," said her father, "your mother speaks well. Chaskč is a great
warrior too. When your brother died, did he not kill his worst enemy and
hang up his scalp at his grave?"
But Wenona persevered in her refusal. "I do not love him, I will not
marry him," was her constant reply.
But Chaskč, trusting to time and her parent's influence, was not
discouraged. He killed game and supplied the wants of the family.
Besides, he had twice bought her, according to Indian custom.
He had given her parents cloth and blankets, calico and guns. The girl
entreated them not to receive them, but the lover refused to take them
back, and, finally, they were taken into the wigwam.
Just as the band was about leaving the village for the hunt, he came
again with many presents; whatever would make the family comfortable on
their journey, and a decided promise was then given that the maiden
should become his wife.
She knew it would be useless to contend, so she seemed to be willing to
submit to her fate. After encamping for a time opposite the Maiden's
Rock to rest from their journey, the hunters determined to go further
down the river. They had crossed over to the other side, and were seated
nearly under the rock.
Their women were in their canoes coming over, when suddenly a loud cry
was heard from an old woman, the mother of Wenona.
The canoe had nearly reached the shore, and the mother continued to
shriek, gazing at the projecting rock.
The Indians eagerly inquired of her what was the matter? "Do you not see
my daughter?" she said; "she is standing close to the edge of the rock!"
She was there indeed, loudly and wildly singing her dirge, an invocation
to the Spirit of the Rock, calm and unconcerned in her dangerous
position, while all was terror and excitement among her friends
The hunters, so soon as they perceived her, hastily ascended the bluff,
while her parents called to her and entreated her to go back from the
edge of the rock. "Come down to us, my child," they cried; "do not
destroy your life; you will kill us, we have no child but you."
Having finished her song, the maiden answered her parents. "You have
forced me to leave you. I was always a good daughter, and never
disobeyed you; and could I have married the man I love, I should have
been happy, and would never have left you. But you have been cruel to
me; you have turned my beloved from the wigwam; you would have forced me
to marry a man I hated; I go to the house of spirits."
By this time the hunters had nearly reached her. She turned towards them
for a moment with a smile of scorn, as if to intimate to them that their
efforts were in vain. But when they were quite near, so that they held
out their arms towards her in their eagerness to draw her from her
dangerous station, she threw herself from the rock.
The first blow she received from the side of the rock must have killed
her, for she fell like a dead bird, amidst the shouts of the hunters
above, and the shrieks of the women below.
Her body was arrayed in her handsomest clothing, placed upon a scaffold,
and afterwards buried.
But the Dahcotahs say that her spirit does not watch over her earthly
remains; for her spirit was offended when she brought trouble upon her
aged mother and father.
Such is the story told by the Dahcotahs; and why not apply to them for
their own traditions?
Neither is there any reason to doubt the actual occurrence of the
Not a season passes away but we hear of some Dahcotah girl who puts an
end to her life in consequence of jealousy, or from the fear of being
forced to marry some one she dislikes. A short time ago a very young
girl hung herself, rather than become the wife of a man who was already
the husband of one of her sisters.
The parents told her they had promised her, and insisted upon her
fulfilling the engagement. Even her sister did not object, nay, rather
seemed anxious to forward the scheme, which would give her a rival from
among her nearest relations.
The young girl finally ran away, and the lover, leaving his wife,
pursued the fugitive, and soon overtook her. He renewed his entreaties,
and finding her still obstinate, he told her that she should become his
wife, and that he would kill her if she made any more trouble.
This last argument seemed to have the desired effect, for the girl
expressed her willingness to return home.
After they arrived, the man went to his wigwam to tell his wife of the
return of her sister, and that everything was now in readiness for
But one hour after, the girl was missing; and when found, was hanging to
a tree, forever free from the power of her tormentors. Her friends
celebrated the ceremonies of death instead of marriage.
It must be conceded that an Indian girl, when desperate with her love
affairs, chooses a most unromantic way of ending her troubles. She
almost invariably hangs herself; when there are so many beautiful lakes
near her where she could die an easier death, and at the same time one
that would tell better, than where she fastens an old leather strap
about her neck, and dies literally by choking. But there is this to be
taken into consideration. When she hangs herself near the village, she
can manage affairs so that she can be cut down if she concludes to live
a little longer; for this frequently occurs, and the suicide lives forty
and sometimes sixty years after. But when Wenona took the resolution of
ending her earthly sorrows, no doubt there were other passions beside
love influencing her mind.
Love was the most powerful. With him she loved, life would have been all
happiness—without him, all misery. Such was the reasoning of her
But she resented the importunity of the hunter whose pretensions her
parents favored. How often she had told him she would die before she
would become his wife; and he would smile, as if he had but little faith
in the words of a woman. Now he should see that her hatred to him was
not assumed; and she would die such a death that he might know that she
feared neither him nor a death of agony.
And while her parents mourned their unkindness, her lover would admire
that firmness which made death more welcome than the triumph of
And sacred is the spot where the devoted girl closed her earthly
sorrows. Spirits are ever hovering near the scene. The laugh of the
Dahcotah is checked when his canoe glides near the spot. He points to
the bluff, and as the shades of evening are throwing dimness and a
mystery around the beauty of the lake, and of the mountains, he fancies
he can see the arms of the girl as she tosses them wildly in the air.
Some have averred they heard her voice as she called to the spirits of
the rock, and ever will the traveller, as he passes the bluff, admire
the wondrous beauty of the picture, and remember the story of the
There is a tradition among the Dahcotahs which fixes a date to the
incident, as well as to the death of the rival lovers of Wenona.
They say that it occurred about the time stated, and that the band of
Indians went and obtained the porcupines, and then they returned and
settled on the St. Croix river.
Shortly after the tragical death of Wenona, the band went again down the
Mississippi, and they camped at what they call the medicine wood. Here a
child died, and the body was laid on a scaffold. The father in the
middle of the night went out to mourn for his child. While he leant
against the scaffold weeping, he saw a man watching him. The stranger
did not appear to be a Dahcotah, and the mourner was alarmed, and
returned to the camp. In the morning he told the Indians of the
circumstance, and they raised the camp and went into the pine country.
The body of the child was carried along, and in he night the father went
out again to lament its death. The same figure appeared to him, and
again he returned, alarmed at the circumstance.
In the morning the Indians moved their camp again, and at night the same
occurrence took place.
The Dahcotahs are slaves to superstition, and they now dreaded a serious
evil. Their fears were not confirmed in the way they anticipated, for
their foes came bodily, and when daylight appeared, one thousand
Chippeway warriors appeared before them, and the shrill whistle and
terrible whoop of war was heard in earnest.
Dreadful were the shouts of the Chippeways, for the Dahcotahs were
totally unprepared for them, and many were laid low at the first
discharge of the rifles.
The merciless Chippeways continued the work of death. The women and
children fled to their canoes, but the Chippeways were too quick for
them; and they only entered their canoes to meet as certain a fate as
those who remained.
The women had not their paddles with them, and there was an eddy in the
current; as soon as the canoe was pushed from the shore, it would whirl
round, and the delighted Chippeways caught the canoes, and pulled them
ashore again, while others let fall upon their victims the
When the Chippeways had killed until they were tired they took what they
wanted from the Sioux camp, and started for home, taking one Dahcotah
boy prisoner. The party had not travelled far, when a number of
Dahcotahs attacked the Chippeways, but the latter succeeded in killing
many of the Dahcotahs. One of the latter fled, and was in his canoe on
the lake St. Croix, when the Chippeways suddenly came upon him.
The little Dahcotah saw his only chance for liberty—he plunged in the
water and made for the canoe of the Dahcotah. In a moment he had reached
and entered it, and the two Dahcotahs were out of sight before the
arrows of their enemies could reach them.
A very few of that band escaped; one of them says that when they were
first attacked by the Chippeways, he saw he had but one chance, so he
dived down to the bottom of the river, and the Chippeways could not
He found the water at the bottom of the river very cold, and when he had
gone some distance, he ventured where the water was warmer, which he
knew was near the shore. He then came out of the water and made
Even this latter trifling incident has been handed down from father to
son, and is believed universally by the Dahcotahs. And according to
their tradition, the lovers and family of Wenona perished in this
battle. At all events, there is no one who can prove that their
tradition or my translation may not be true.