Sunday, September 28, 2003

Wenona or Wehonah-which would it be?
By Fred Welsh

The beautiful Sioux Indian woman raced forward with a long stick with a circular frame on the end of it in her hand. The beauty was named Wenona, which means first born daughter among the Sioux. Wenona was the swiftest runner in one party. An ugly hag with an evil heart but great speed and ability opposed her. The beauty seized the ball while one of her teammates who matched the old hag for beauty quickly struck the evil woman with her stick. Wenona made the goal. The hag’s revenge would unjustly shame the young woman and use the weakness of a rejected suitor to carry off an evil ploy. The Virgin’s Feast was about to take place. When Wenona entered the circle, the lover falsely claimed she was not worthy. The beauty ran from the circle to the forest. She seized a knife and killed herself. The next spring fever took the lover. As his body was being carried away, great guilt overcame the old hag. ‘Wenona was innocent’. ‘She was falsely accused’ the hag said. How often did the Sioux maidens draw near and admire Wenona’s constancy, devotion and firmness.

This story is from Dahcotah, or Life and legend of the Sioux around Fort Snelling by Mary Henderson Eastman. The book was published in 1849 by J. Wiley of New York and received very positive reviews in the Critical Notices of Cornell University for June of that year.

In the same book, Mrs. Eastman tells the story of a Sioux Indian maiden, who rejected a wealthy suitor and the demands of her family by throwing herself from the Maiden’s rock. The book says that Indian girls often take control of their lives in this way. They are not victims but are powerful participants in their own future.

The program for the formal opening of the Wenonah Hotel noticed that Longfellow referred to another Wenonah, the mother of Hiawatha, in a sort of a desultory way. Virgil J. Vogel, writer of Indian Names in Michigan, is not as kind. He says she was an earthbound woman who was impregnated by a spirit.

Longfellow says it almost as quickly in ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ published in 1855.

And Nokomis warned her often,
Saying oft, and oft repeating,
“Oh, beware of Mudjekeewis,
Of the West-Wind, Mudjekeewis;
Listen not to what he tells you;
Lie not down upon the meadow,
Stoop not down among the lilies,
Lest the West Wind come and harm you!”
But she heeded not the warning
Heeded not those words of wisdom,
And the West-Wind came at evening,
Walking lightly o’er the prairie
Whispering to the leaves and blossoms,
Bending low the flowers and grasses,
Found the beautiful Wenonah,
Lying there among the lilies,
Wooed her with his words of sweetness,
Wooed her with his soft caresses,
Til she bore a son in sorrow,

Vogel credited Keating, Eastman and Longfellow for the popularity of Wenona/Winona/Wenonah for place names in the Midwest in his book. Keating spelled the name Winona. Eastman used the Wenona form and Longfellow used Wenonah. Vogel states that two-dozen places in eighteen states have some form of the name

The writer of the Wenonah Hotel program added some original story telling to his reference to Longfellow’s Poem. He changed the historical story Eastman related about the young Indian girl who threw herself off Maiden Rock to avoid a marriage into a love triangle between Wenonah, Minnehaha, a name Longfellow created, and Hiawatha, who in his Midwestern guise was also Longfellow’s creation. Wenonah throws herself from the rock in despair from the loss of her lover, a victim of love’s entanglements.

The hotel opening was held on November 9th, 1908. Henry W. Sage, John McGraw and their wives named the city of Wenona in 1865. Forty-three years and some very different personalities were involved.


Henry W. Sage and John McGraw were deeply involved in the beginning years of Cornell University. Both gave very large amount of money to the university. Sage was very interested in many different branches of study and in the character development of the young. Sage was particularly interested in higher education for young women.

Sage’s gifts to Cornell include:

Sage College for Women with endowment fund, 1873 $266,000

Sage Chapel, 1873 30,000

Contribution toward indebtedness, 1881 30,000

House of Sage professor of philosophy, 1886 11,000

Susan E. Linn Sage chair of philosophy, 1886 50,000

Susan E. Linn School of Philosophy, 1891 200,000

University Library building, 1891 200,000

University Library endowment, 1891 300,000

Costs of Archaeological Museum, 1891 8,000

Sage also contributed money to the Sage Library in Bay City.

Henry W. Sage’s remarks at the laying of the corner stone of Sage College for Women on May 15, 1873 shows how strongly he felt about women’s education. Sage spoke these words;

“ It has been wisely said that “who educates a woman educates a generation,” and the structure which is to be erected over this corner-stone will be especially devoted to the education of women, and will carry with it a pledge of all the power and resources of Cornell University to “provide for and forever maintain facilities for the education of women as broadly as for men.” This may be truly said to mark a new era in the history of education; for although the education of women with men has been heretofore practically conducted, notably at Oberlin, Ohio, for many years and at Ann Arbor, Mich. For three years past, this is the first university in this country, if not in the world, which has at the same time bodily recognized the rights of woman as well as man to all the education she will ask, and pledged itself to the policy and duty of maintaining equal facilities for both. It is, then, no small matter of congratulation that this university, a State institution, endowed by our general government with a princely gift of lands and by Ezra Cornell, its founder, with his own fortune, and more than that with his own great, earnest heart and zealous love for man, is fairly committed to the education and elevation of woman, and that henceforth the structures now standing here and those which shall hereafter be added to them are to be used forever for the education of woman with man, to who God gave her as a helpmeet, and as the mother and chief educator of his race”

Mrs. Susan E. Linn Sage laid the corner stone with the following words

‘I lay this corner-stone, in faith
That structure fair and good
Shall from it rise and thenceforth come
True Christian womanhood

John McGraw was one of the first trustees and had built the first library. When he died in Ithaca, May 4, 1877. He left his fortune to his daughter, Jennie, with the intention that it be given to the university with her passing.

These men and their wives were well-educated, great respecters of accuracy in reporting and interested in liberal education especially for young women. Sage was a great friend of Henry Ward Beecher, who was his pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. Beecher had a friendly eye toward the women’s movement. Beecher was challenged for his tendencies toward free love and Sage stood by him in that struggle.

Henry W. Sage and his wife demonstrated a long-term desire to empower women. John McGraw was trustee of Cornell and showed a similar desire through that post. These men and women with their Cornell connections that reviewed work like Mrs. Eastman’s and their involvement with thinkers of the day like Henry Ward Beecher would have surely named their town, Wenona, Michigan for an image of a strong, principle driven woman and not for Longfellow’s example. With their great ability and literary connections, I doubt it possible that they would misspell Longfellow’s Wenonah when they named their town if their intention was to use his creation. I could find no mention of the Longfellow connection to the town in the earlier sources. The History of Bay County says it is an Indian name of unknown significance. Butterfield fails to mention the source of the name in Bay County Past and Present in his 1918 edition but picks up the Hiawatha explanation for the name in his 1957 edition. The Bay County Story by Les Arndt states on page 86 that Sage and McGraw admitted being inspired by Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha. Arndt uses the Eastman spelling, Wenona, and not the Longfellow spelling, Wenonah while he is explaining how the Longfellow character was used. An original source for Sage and McGraw’s admission would be very helpful.

Wenona’s character, and active involvement in life would have fit with what Sage and McGraw deemed important in life. Mrs. Eastman’s Sioux Indian girl is the likely source of Wenona, Michigan’s name.

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