Michigan History Magazine

Wenonah of Bay City

by Nancy Sajdak Manning

How did a Dakota Indian word for "first-born daughter" become a place name used eight times in Bay City, Michigan? The answer may be found in the 1855 work of New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


The first known use of the name "Wenonah" in this Lake Huron port occurred in the 1860s, when lumber barons Henry Sage and John McGraw founded a village around their sawmill on the west bank of the Saginaw River. The original name they picked for the village-Lake City-was rejected by the post office, so their wives came up with an alternative: Wenona, a variant of the name of an Indian woman they had read about in Longfellow's popular poem "The Song of Hiawatha."

Over the years, other tributes to Wenonah sprang up around Bay City, including the Wenona Flour Mill, Winonah Motor Car Company, and Wenona Beach Amusement Park. Wenonah Park and Wenona Center (an alternative middle and high school) still exist on the east side of the city, while Wenona Street is situated on the west side. Perhaps the most famous place assigned the Native American name was the Wenonah Hotel, the social center of downtown Bay City from its opening in 1908 until its destruction by fire in 1977. Inside the hotel lobby, a large mosaic of Wenonah once graced the ceramic floor. Rescued from the fire, the mosaic-now privately owned-was restored and recently displayed at the Bay County Historical Society museum.

The first published use of the name Wenonah is attributed to William Keating, historian on Major Stephen Long's 1823 expedition to what is now Minnesota. In 1825, when Keating published his findings in "Narrative of An Expedition to the Source of St. Peter's River, Lake Winneppek, Lake of the Woods," he described the Lake Pepin area story of "Winona and Maiden's Rock" as told by their Dakota (Sioux) Indian guide:

"'There was a time,' our guide said, as we passed near the base of the rock, 'when this spot, which you now admire for its untenanted beauties, was the scene of one of the most melancholy transactions that has ever occurred among the Indians. There was, in the village of Keoxa, in the tribe of Wapasha, during the time that his father lived and ruled over them, a young Indian female whose name was Winona, which signifies the "first born." She had conceived an attachment for a young hunter who reciprocated it.but the hunter was surprised to find himself denied; and his claims superseded by those of a warrior of distinction, who had sued for her. .[S]he threw herself from the precipice, and fell, a lifeless corpse, near her distressed friends.'"

The name Wenonah is next mentioned in Mary Henderson Eastman's 1849 work, "Dahcotah, or, Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling," which was illustrated by her husband, military officer and artist Seth Eastman. Mary recorded the legends and cultures of Native Americans while she and Seth lived at Fort Snelling from 1841 to 1848.

In "Dahcotah," Eastman explains that "the Sioux have ten names for their children, given according to the order of their birth. The oldest daughter is called 'Wenonah.'" "Dahcotah" also contained the Maiden Rock legend first put to paper by Keating. In this instance, the story setting is again "near Lake Pepin, a widening of the Mississippi the south end of the lake, [where] the Chippeway river empties into the Mississippi" on Maiden's Rock, "a high bluff, whose top seems to lean over towards the water." Eastman relates an old medicine woman's story:

"[About 1700], the band of Dahcotahs to which Wenona belonged, lived near Fort Snelling. .A young girl of this band had received repeated offers of marriage from Dahcotah, whom she hated with the same degree of intensity that she loved his rival. .She declared she never would consent to be the wife of the man whom her parents had chosen for her, though he was young and brave. . [After] loudly and wildly singing her dirge.she threw herself from the rock."

A second legend also appeared in the pages of "Dahcotah." Called "Wenona; or, The Virgin's Feast," it told of an old Indian woman's lethal jealousy that led to the death of yet another first-born daughter.

Around the same time that Mary Henderson Eastman was in Minnesota, New York-born Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was being recognized for popularizing the oral traditions of Native Americans.

Schoolcraft's interest in Native Americans began in the early 1820s, after his publication of "A View of the Lead Mines of Missouri," which led Secretary of War John Calhoun to name him the official geologist of Governor Lewis Cass' expedition to Lake Superior and the headwaters of the Mississippi. Soon afterward, Schoolcraft was appointed Indian agent at the new military outpost at Sault Ste. Marie.

At Sault Ste. Marie, Schoolcraft became friends with fur trader John Johnston and his Chippewa wife Ozhaguscodaywayquay (Woman of the Green Glade), the daughter of a prominent Chippewa war chief. In 1823, Schoolcraft married the Johnstons' daughter Jane (Chippewa name: Bamewawagezhikaquay, or Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky), who helped Schoolcraft master her people's language and learn their stories. With her input, he produced "Algic Researches" (1839), a landmark compilation of Indian myths and legends that served as inspiration for New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-the most famous writer to address the Wenonah legend. In the 1855 first edition of his epic poem, "The Song of Hiawatha," Longfellow acknowledged Schoolcraft's contribution:

"Into this old tradition I have woven other curious Indian legends, drawn chiefly from the various and valuable writings of Mr. Schoolcraft, to whom the literary world is greatly indebted for his indefatigable zeal in rescuing from oblivion so much of the legendary lore of the Indians."

The poem is set among the Ojibwas on the southern shore of Lake Superior, in the region between the Pictured Rocks and the Grand Sable:

"By the shores of Gitche Gumee,

By the shining Big-Sea-Water,

Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,

Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis."

Then Wenonah's origins and name meaning appear:

"Fair Nokomis bore a daughter.

And she called her name Wenonah,

As the first-born of her daughters."

Later, Longfellow tells of Nokomis warning Wenonah of Mudjekeewis, the West Wind:

".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."

Mudjekeewis found and "wooed [Wenonah] with his sweetness" and "soft caresses":

"Till she bore a son [Hiawatha] in sorrow,

Bore a son of love and sorrow."

Wenonah's end was heartbreaking:

"Hiawatha's gentle mother,

In her anguish died deserted

By the West-Wind, false and faithless,

By the heartless Mudjekeewis."

No matter the writer-from Keating to Eastman to Longfellow-Wenonah's life always ends tragically. But she lives on in Bay City in the many places named for her. And, each summer evening, when people gather to ride the Princess Wenonah cruise boat up and down the Saginaw River, another new audience is introduced to her legend.


Virgil Vogel, author of "Indian Names in Michigan," identifies over two dozen place names relating to Wenonah in 18 states. Other Michigan tributes include the Houghton County village named Winona after a nearby copper mining company and the Winona lakes in Houghton, Hillsdale, and Branch counties.


Besides being memorialized in print, Wenonah was also a popular subject for 19th-century artists. Rick and Charlotte Martin, authors of "Vintage Illustrations" (1997), explain that during the early Industrial Revolution a "last gap attempt [at] romanticizing the closing of the Old West" led to "Indian maiden" art being produced for calendars, almanacs, posters, sheet music, and cigar boxes. The dress and beadwork portrayed in many of these illustrations did not take into account American Indian symbolic meanings and "were as fictional as the Caucasian women who posed [for the portraits]."


Arguably the most important landmarks in Bay City's history to bear the legendary name were Wenonah Hotel and Wenonah Park. Conceived as dual developments by a group of local business executives at the turn of the 20th century, they brought an air of refinement to the downtown area.


The hotel opened first, in 1908, to such fanfare that tickets were issued for the ceremony. Boasting 400 guest rooms and such amenities as a barbershop, cigar store, and writing room, it was regarded as the premier place of lodging in the county. As it replaced a hotel that sustained a fire, the Wenonah Hotel was purposely built of a steel frame and fireproof materials; the only wood used appeared in doors and window trim.

Despite its popularity as a conference and banquet site, the hotel's lodging business began to decline in the 1950s, when patrons elected to stay at less expensive motor courts. Later, the hotel was converted to an apartment building. More than 140 people were living there when a fire broke out in the early morning of December 10, 1977. Ten tenants died in the blaze, and the building was eventually deemed unsalvageable. It was later bulldozed and the site prepared for the Delta College planetarium.

Development of Wenonah Park, located across from the hotel on the east side of the Saginaw River, lagged behind that of the hotel because businesses had to be demolished or relocated before the property could be landscaped. Originally conceived with terraced gardens, drives, and walkways and even a sandy swimming beach, the park has undergone several renovations since its opening in 1910. It now contains a modern fountain, bandshell, and boat dock and is considered a prime spot to view the city's fireworks festival.

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