by Sarah Squires
Hers is a legend cast in deep bronze, standing at the edge of a mighty rock with intense contemplation, thin hand a shade against the Mississippi River sun. They say the young Princess Wenonah, rather than marry a man selected by her family, whom she didn’t love, jumped from the high peak of Maiden Rock above Lake Pepin.
The legend of Princess Wenonah has many versions, and has been disputed about as many times. But there is another story, a true story, behind the bronze masterpiece now standing in Windom Park; a story of a blossoming artist inspired by the tale of a young Dakotah girl, of a Winona widower wishing to honor the life of his loving wife. And the story begins almost 150 years ago.
The graceful figure of Princess Wenonah was sculpted by artist Isabel Moore Kimball, and is considered her best work.
Isabel was born on June 19, 1863, to David Williams and Sara Moore Kimball at a farm in Wentworth, Iowa, now known as McIntire. David was one of the first white settlers in Iowa, traveling to the new state in 1856 from his home in Maine. He was the county assessor in 1857 and served on the School Board for 10 years.
A farmer and a carpenter, David made a good living and he and Sara had five children who grew up on the farm they affectionately dubbed “The Snuggery.”
Isabel went to the local country school, then taught for awhile before a fellow teacher and artist encouraged her to explore the arts, giving her painting lessons. She enrolled in the Decorah Institute and Teachers Training School and then spent a year teaching at a missionary school in Anniston, Ala., before heading to the Art Institute of Chicago to pursue her love of painting and sculpting.
Following the art instruction in Chicago, Isabel headed to Minnesota and taught drawing and English composition at the Moorhead Normal School. But her desire to continue to explore the artist inside soon drew her to New York City, where she enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and studied under Herbert Adams.
In 1898 Isabel headed to Winona, where she taught drawing at the Winona Normal School. It was during those hot summer months in the Mississippi River Valley that Isabel likely met Ida Cone Landon and W.J. Landon before she traveled to Europe for further art endeavors.
Isabel opened a studio in Brooklyn, where she spent much of her career over the next 40 years. By 1900, W.J. Landon contacted her with a request to craft a work of art that would honor his wife, Ida, and the two came up with the Princess Wenonah sculpture idea, a statue that would be a permanent gift to the city of Winona.
A number of Native American models posed for Isabel in her Brooklyn studio for the statue, with the facial features taken from a young Abenaki Indian girl, Beulah Tahamont. Isabel researched hair and clothing from the time period, borrowing artifacts and photos from museums, including the Smithsonian.
The Wampum necklace, believed to be a gift from the Abenaki model, is still in Isabel’s family. The sun ornament on Wenonah’s left shoulder is a copy of a painting of a Sioux girl by George Catlin, and the belt of hammered silver coins is the only article dating to the time after white settlers made contact with the native people.
The sculpture is more than just the princess, but also includes three pelicans and three snapping turtles, which Isabel spent countless hours studying, too. She watched the pelicans at the New York City Zoo for hours.
“At first the keeper would not admit me to the cage, saying it would be unsafe for me, but after a few days he became apparently satisfied that the pelicans and I would not quarrel and I was allowed to take my small clay model, sketch books, etc., inside the cage and stay there for hours at a time watching every movement of the birds and making notes of anatomy, feather arrangements, etc.,” said Isabel. “Often while I was at work hundreds of visitors to the zoo stood around the outside of the cage watching. I paid little heed to them. It’s easier to study people than pelicans in New York City.
“One evening at a large reception a gentleman was introduced who gazed at me in amazement and exclaimed, ‘Oh! I saw you in the pelicans’ cage!’”
In 1902 Isabel’s father sold The Snuggery and bought a house in Riceville, Iowa, and built a studio for Isabel, where she crafted the clay turtle figure from which the plaster mold was made for the bronze statues. A live turtle model was caught by her father from the Wapsipinicon River, eventually returned to its home unharmed when Isabel had finished.
The Princess Wenonah statue was erected in Central Park later that summer, where it remained for more than 60 years.
But when Central Park made way for the new Post Office, the princess was wrapped up in storage, and the following year placed at the foot of Main Street in Lake Park. The fountain was removed, and the turtles and pelicans made their way to the Winona State University campus (where they were lovingly monitored by art teacher Floretta Murray), where they survived until 1977 when the bronze animals and their princess were again united in Levee Plaza, at the intersection of Center and Third streets.
Levee Plaza was scrapped a number of years later, and the statue and fountain, complete with spouting turtles and pelicans, were placed in Windom Park in 1993, where they remain today. That move was made possible by a community fundraising effort led by Phil Feiten and Harlan Knight, both members of the Winona Planning Commission, who raised $100,000 to construct a new fountain. The goal was reached on July 6, and construction using all local contractors began soon after on the new, 40-foot fountain. On September 23, 1993, a huge crowd gathered at the new fountain and Winona icon, when the Most Reverend John G. Vlazny, Bishop of Winona, blessed and dedicated the fountain and statue.
There are many versions of the Princess Wenonah legend, most revolving around the distress of a young girl facing a forced marriage to a man she did not love. Early pioneer Zebulon Pike wrote one of the first recorded accounts in 1805.
“I was shown a point of rocks from which a Sioux maiden cast herself and was dashed to a thousand pieces on the rocks below,” he wrote. “She had been informed that her friends intended matching her to a man she despised; having been refused the man she had chosen, she ascended to the hill, singing her death song, and before they could overtake her and obviate her purpose, she took the lover’s leap! This ended her troubles with her life. A wonderful display of sentiment and savage.”
In another account, she converted to Christianity and fell in love with a white settler, then leapt to her death to avoid forsaking him when forced to marry Tamdoka, the son of a chief.
Dr. Lafayette Bunnel said local Native Americans laughed at these stories, asserting that Wenonah had both existed and lived to a ripe old age.
The word Wenonah means “first-born daughter” in the Dakotah language, and was used more as a title than a name. Additionally, the Dakotah people did not have a concept of “princess,” suggesting if there is a root of truth to the story, it has been embellished, at the least.
This article was originally published in the Winona Post in 2012.
Celebrate rededication Sept. 22
Celebrate 25 years since the community donated to fund a new fountain for Princess Wenonah, erected in Windom Park, where she lives today. On Saturday, September 22, at 10 a.m., the anniversary will be marked with a short rededication ceremony. There will be free ice cream for the kids, and the first 40 attendees will receive a commemorative color print of the Princess Wenonah fountain. Bring a lawn chair if you wish.