The Princess Minnewaska Story

2011_07_29_014In 2011, a statue of “Princess Minnewaska” was unveiled in the park as part of our annual Waterama celebration. It is a gift to the community from Glenwood State Bank and Glenwood and Beyond, honoring our local legend of a brave Indian maiden/warrior named Minnewaska. (A synopsis of the story is included in this post.)

For more factual information on Native Americans in Pope County, Click Here.

The story behind the story is almost as interesting as the legend itself.  The source of our local legend is Alice Otilla Thorson’s romance novel The Tribe of Pezhekee. Alice Thorson (pictured left) was born in Rolling Forks Township near Glenwood in 1870 and educated at Glenwood High School. She was an amazing woman who studied music in Germany, France and Denmark and could speak German, French, Swedish and Norwegian fluently. She studied law, became an authority on constitutional law, then used her expertise to assist other women with legal issues. Thorson was an accomplished artist and several of her paintings are on exhibit at the Pope County Museum. Writing was another of Thorson’s many talents. She reportedly wrote pamphlets and many articles for magazines. But in Pope County, she is best known as the author of The Tribe of Pezhekee: A Legend of Minnesota.

The novel, published in 1901 starts with the narrator riding home toward Glenwood when she stopped at the Indian Mound known as Minnewaska’s Grave. At the grave she met an Indian maiden who told her a long story covering three generations of a Dakota band led by Chief Pezhekee. The third generation of the band included the warrior maiden Minnewaska, who is captured by and eventually falls in love with Ojibwe Chief White Bear. Though a twist in the novel, Thorson makes Chief White Bear a direct descendant of the Dakota chief Pezhekee.

It is a typical victorian romance novel with love, treachery, and intrigue. In 1925, Thorson wrote a letter responding to an inquiry about the sources she used for her book. She responded that the local incidents were entirely from her own imagination, but inspired by local names. “There was a current popular myth that the tumulus-crowned hill across the lake was the burial place of an Indian Chief named Minnewaska.” Since Minnewaska sounded to her more like a girl’s name, she created a story around a fictional woman named Minnewaska. Any story with a female character with the name Minnewaska can therefore be traced back to Thorson’s imagination. Thorson herself never used the term “princess” since kings, queens and princesses are not Native American concepts, that title was added later. Casper Johnshoy is probably most responsible for the continuation of the Minnewaska legend, as he published a synopsis in the Glenwood Herald in 1931, but hinted that the story was more fact than fiction.

“There is no question in my mind but that the hill had served as an Indian burial place. An excavation had recently been made when I first saw it. My father and mother took me there when I was quite a little girl, and I remember his remarking on the disappointment of those who exhumed the bones at not finding valuable trinkets.”

Her recollections of the grave being disturbed are supported in other sources. In the 1911 publication The Aborigines of Minnesota, Theodore H. Lewis wrote that the mound known as the “White Bear” grave (as it was also sometimes called) had been excavated, meaning that it had been disturbed by curious locals and was no longer a candidate for a professional archeological excavation.

So today, as we watch the unveiling of a new work of art in our community, let us also take a moment to honor Alice Thorson for her work of art that inspired the legend.

Brief Synopsis of The Tribe of Pezhekee by Alice Thorson

The full version is available from Google Books HERE.

In 1658, a band of Dakota Indians, led by Chief Pezhekee, camped near present day Little Falls. Pezhekee’s daughter Winonah was sought by several of the braves. Pezhekee proposed a buffalo hunt with Winonah as the prize to the one who brought back the most buffalo hides.  During the hunt her true love Keneu was captured by an enemy tribe. In her sorrow, she agreed to be won by a French trader named Pierre d’Esprit who had purchased buffalo hides from many of the braves. D’Esprit was the first white man seen by her tribe. Soon after, Keneu returned and eventually become chief of the tribe. Over a year later, Winonah and her fair-haired child returned to the tribe. Keneu took her in as his wife and adopted her child as his own.

The tribe traveled to what is now Pope County and saw the beautiful Lake Minnewaska. They camped in the narrow strip between two lakes, but on the shore of the lake, near Eagle Point, Keneu was killed by a bear. When the rest of the tribe discovered his body next to the body of the grizzly bear, his little boy was no where to be found. While they were mourning their chief, a band of Ojibwe came and attacked. All the men save one were killed, and the women and children were taken captive. Days later, the pale skinned child was found in a bear cave with bear cubs. He was named White Bear by the Ojibwe, who took him back to their village on what is now known as Priest’s Point.

The women and children were separated and sent to other Ojibwe bands to be assimilated. Pau-wating, the lone surviving Dakota brave, was taken by an Ojibwe band as a prisoner, but eventually escaped along with the daughter of the Ojibwe chief. They returned to the Dakota and had a daughter who he named Minnewaska after the lake where his band had been destroyed. Pau-wating raised Minnewaska to be a warrior in the hopes of avenging his tribe. Eventually, he rallied a group of Dakota braves by promising his daughter to the bravest fighter.

As the Dakota moved toward the Ojibwe village, they stopped to camp in the valley now known as Terrace where a good omen occurred. “An old insane woman wandered into the camp. The presence of “one-who-communes-with spirits’ as they are called, is considered ‘very good medicine’” But their good omen disappeared while they slept.

In the Ojibwe village, the fair-haired child had grown into a man and was now chief of the band. Known as White Bear, he was often followed by a particular “insane” woman looking for her “Golden Hair”. The day before the planned Dakota attack, she came into the camp and warned White Bear of danger. “Knowest thou the big stone on the hillside? Hide there with thy men. A strange stream will flow down the valley soon. Be there, even this night, or the village will be swept away.” The Ojibwe waited to ambush the approaching Dakota braves.

The Dakota men fought bravely, but were overcome by the Ojibwe. At last, only Pau-wating survived. He stood on the top of the big stone and cast his blood to the four winds before falling to his death. Minnewaska saw what happened and jumped down to defend her father’s body. White Bear then climbed the rock and slid down behind her, capturing her. While she was a captive of the Ojibwe, Chief White Bear fell in love with her. Minnewaska had nothing but hate for the Ojibwe chief and tried to kill him, causing him to spurn her. “Thy hate is nothing beside the contempt I now feel for thee. Thou are free. Go where thou wilt. Take thy ill omened image from my village – and from my heart!”

White Bear decided to travel to Duluth to meet white men that he was so curious about. As he prepared to leave, Minnewaska (who was still in the village for fear White Bear would change his mind and pursue her if she left the village) pleaded with him not to go for she realized at last that she loved him.  He determined to go, but promised to return to her in one year’s time. The insane woman insisted on accompanying White Bear on his journey to Duluth.

In Duluth he met a white haired priest who tried desperately to convert him to Christianity. The priest shared his life story which included the fact that he had once possessed and loved an Indian woman named Winonah, but he abandoned her when their child was very young. The guilt from these actions brought him back to the church and he worked with Indians to atone for his sins. “When thou didst first appear, I thought thee a ghost of my lost youth. But now I feel assured thou art my lost son.”

The insane woman had reached the end of her days while in Duluth. As the priest bent down to give her last rites, she said “Pierre, my husband!” So, it became clear to all three of them that at last they were together again: father, mother, and son. Winonah died shortly thereafter and Pierre, having now atoned for his sins, began to fade. White Bear delayed his return to Minnewaska to care for his father until the end.

Back in the village, a dry spring caused the water in the lakes and marshes to recede. Lake Minnewaska was disappearing and White Bear had not returned as promised. Minnewaska saw the vanishing lake as a “signal of fate, appointing her death. As the lake decreased, she grew weaker and weaker.”

When White Bear returned, Minnewaska continued to grow weaker. One day while out for a walk, he discovered an underground river that had drained the lake. He showed it to Minnewaska “Dost hear the joyus song of the brook? It is the voice of Minnewaska. She has not vanished, but only flown to the heart of her White Bear.”

“Believing now that it was divinely ordained for her to live, Minnewaska gradually regained ambition and strength to recover.” After many happy years together, “The Golden Gates of Heaven stood open in the west and a spirit came forth and beckoned to them.” The two remaining members of the tribe of Pezhekee died together. “The reverent people around them heard no death sigh, nor saw no flight of spirits, – but a brighter ripple ran along the glowing pathway of the sun, and the two inseparable souls were gone from the earth.”

(All the artwork in this post is by Alice Otilla Thorson. The sketches are from the pages of her book The Tribe of Pezhekee.)

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3 Responses to The Princess Minnewaska Story

  1. David Lent says:

    That was fun and informational Ann.
    The statue looks well done. Nice addition to the park.

  2. Pingback: Native Americans in Pope County | Pope County Museum – Museum Musings

  3. Pingback: “She Who Waits” | Pope County Museum – Museum Musings

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