The Meaning of Wanona- Getting to Know and Indian Princess

Many might know the story of Princess Wanona; centered around the lovers rock in Minnesota, she is a Native American who leaps to her death from the precarious rock rather than marry the man her father has chosen. Another version tells that she and a young Dutch settler jump to their death.

In the Dakota language, ‘Wanona’ is not a personal name, but the term for the first born who happens to be female.  Possibility the term might refer to the daughter of an Indian Chief.

The Gamsby manuscript talks about Dorothea befriending Wanona, the daughter of an Indian Chief she meets in Quebec.  Wanona is both tall and intelligent- she is almost worshiped by her people. This is strikingly similar to the impressive figure of Winona  in Luke Brodhead’s book, “The Delaware Water Gap, Its Legends and Early History. ” In this story Winona is a great beauty who is both kind and intelligent.


In the Gamsby manuscript, Wonona befriends Dorothea and her friend Cordellia, and attempts to learn their language.  As the daughter of the Indian Chief (1780-1790s), Protestant Minister Montmollin and the sisters at the local convent wish to encourage this acquisition of Knowledge for conversion.  But for all of their effort, she shows little interest in anything other than the acquisition of the basic English language for her people-this again parallels Broadhead’s book. The racial divide in this time period seems less concrete or oppressive when one reads that Wanona, “condescended to join us often as we visited the encampments.” She is admired in her own right.

This Wanona doesn’t die by jumping off of lover’s rock, but returns in the manuscript to seek the help of her old friends when her child is sick with small pox. Called the scourge by the inhabitants, the Native Indians suffered more from small pox. To survive, Quebec inhabitants went into the bush and made log cabins to wait out the scourge- the goal was to avoid transference of the contaminant. It is here Wanona finds Dorothy and asks for her help on keeping her infected three month baby son alive. The rest of her people have left- including her Indian brave. She alone, according to the manuscript, trusts the white settlers-and specifically the girls- to save her son.

Rather than throwing Wanona out on her own, they take her in and bathe her child in ashes and water. They inoculate Wanona by infecting her with a pustule.  Her costume is described: “two broadcloth petticoats the outer one gorgeously embroidered with quills and glass beads, a sack of white fur under one of sable. Her moccasins of deerskin embroidered to the knee, and over all a large broadcloth blanket embroidered with gray surreal fur, and a nice beaver hat embroidered with choice gay feathers.”
Thanks to the help of Dorothea and her friends, the child and mother recover to return to their people. We encounter the son once more in the manuscript when Dorothea returns once more to her family in Boston to visit.

In the summer of her stay in a secluded hamlet, Dorothea meets the chief of a Canadian tribe. She can distinguish him by the paint and wampum feathers.  They recognize each other.  His name in the manuscript is Metalic. He is Wanona’s son now grown- his mother is no longer living. He must speak broken English because he tells Dorothea news from Quebec.

The story of Wanona’s death is not told, but this glimpse we get from the manuscript adds to a deeper understanding of her and the relationship between American Natives and the early settlers. The inclusion of this name in the manuscript for a Native princess also adds to the possibility of this  being more a generic term understood by settlers as a specific name.

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