One of the surprises in Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction is a long section in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s completed manuscript (WCM) that did not make it into Little House in the Big Woods. Toward the end of WCM, Pa begins a story in which the American Indians “used to live in the woods all around Lake Pepin. There is a high rocky bluff on the lake shore, with the top a great, solid rock and the side next the lake a sheer, rock cliff 200 feet high.”1 Located on the lake’s east bank about twelve miles above the town of Pepin, this landmark is known today as Maiden Rock. Pa then recounts the story of a young Dakota girl jumping to her death from the sheer face of the cliff. Many scholars consider the story, which has been told under different titles, to be based on an actual event that occurred around 1800.
In 1805, Zebulon Montgomery Pike mentioned the story, and in 1817, explorer Stephen H. Long filled in the details based on information from his Dakota guide, Wazikute, who claimed that his mother had witnessed the jump. In 1849, author Mary H. Eastman popularized the story in her book Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling. Eastman’s informant was a Dakota woman named Mock-pe-en-dag-a-wiń, or Checkered Cloud, who told of a young woman whose family and friends pressed an unwelcome suitor upon her when she had favored another. Objecting to the forced marriage, the young woman (named Winona in some versions) went to the cliff on Lake Pepin during a porcupine hunt and began her death song in full view of her parents and friends. A group of hunters rushed to stop her, but she leapt from the rock into history and legend.2
Pa uses Maiden Rock to set the scene for the story he wishes to tell, which involves a young American Indian boy who saves his people by riding a big fish across Lake Pepin. In recording the life and legends of the eastern Dakotas, Mary Eastman noted that Lake Pepin is “from one to two miles wide. . . . not deep, and abounds in fish, particularly the sturgeon.”3 Today, as then, Acipenser fulvescens, commonly known as the rock sturgeon, inhabits the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes basins. A bony fish, it grows up to six feet or longer. The sturgeon serves as a clan name among the Ojibwe and Menominee peoples in Wisconsin, and a giant sturgeon appears in some of their hero tales.4 It is possible that Charles Ingalls heard a version of one of their stories. As her mother’s editor, however, Rose Wilder Lane omitted “The Indian Boy and the Big Fish” from the final text of the book. It is likely that she thought it differed too significantly from Pa’s other tales about the misadventures of his own or his father’s family. Because she was still learning to write fiction, Wilder allowed Lane to cut the episode, trusting her daughter’s judgement over her own. Even so, the story indicates that Wilder and her father were familiar with the rich history and folklore of the region.
―Nancy Tystad Koupal
- Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2023), p. 161.
- G. Hubert Smith, “The Winona Legend,” Minnesota History 12 (Dec. 1932): 367–76; Mary H. Eastman, Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling (New York: John Wiley, 1940), 165–73.
- Eastman, Dahcotah, p. 165.
- “Acipenser fulvescens,” Michigan Natural Features Inventory, mnfi.anr.msu.edu. “Black Lake Sturgeon Information,” Sturgeon for Tomorrow. http://www.sturgeonfortomorrow.org; “Native American Sturgeon Mythology,” http://www.native-languages.org/legends-sturgeon.htm.