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 traveler 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 Mississippi.
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 of notice.
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 moccasins, 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 the tribe.
“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? Chaske will hunt the deer and buffalo, and we shall be comfortable and happy.”
“Yes,” said her father, “your mother speaks well. Chaske 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 Chaske, 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 below her.
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 incident.
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 their marriage. 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 young heart.
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 his rival.
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 traveler, as he passes the bluff, admire the wondrous beauty of the picture, and remember the story of the lover’s leap.
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 tragic 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 uplifted tomahawk.
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 traveled 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 see him. 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 his escape.
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.