Wenonah, which literally translated from the Dakotah language means firstborn daughter, is said to have been the child of Chief Wapasha, leader of the band of Dakotah that called this region home when white settlers first stepped off boats in the 1850s.
The legends that have surrounded her life and death since days when the Dakotah lived here are many, though all carry a central theme: Princess Wenonah’s father was going to force her to marry someone she didn’t love, so she leaped to her death from hundreds of feet above the Mississippi River at a place called Maiden Rock.
Also, Dakotah Indians do not have a designation of “princess,” that is a fabrication by white people, researchers say. In fact, there is not even an equivalent word to princess in the Dakotah language.
The truth of the matter is that settlers of European descent have been infatuated with the mystique of American Indian women since Pocahontas supposedly saved John Smith in 1607. There are many, many Princess Wenonah legends that can be found all across the Midwest, as well as other kinds of “Indian princess” legends from one coast to the other.
Rather, I'd guess these cases were psychosexual fictions based on Christian feelings of shame. The white man was attracted to the exotic Indian maiden, who was wild and free and "hungry as a wolf" for sex. But puritanical Americans were raised to repress or deny their sinful feelings of lust.
The solution? These Americans invented or exaggerated stories about self-sacrificing Indian maidens. The maidens sacrificed themselves for the greater good, thus redeeming their devilish souls and freeing the white man from temptation.
P.S. I await correspondent DMarks's comments on this subject with bated breath. He's our resident expert on all things related to Winona.
Below: "I see a white man who wants me. To save myself, I must throw myself off a cliff."