Winona, Daughter of Baw Beese
Some stories just get better with their retelling. We really don’t know the truth about Winona, but her story has grown into a legend with input from multiple sources. Nothing is unimpeachably proven, however. This leaves us with a colorful but possibly inaccurate account of her life and tragic end.
Winona was the daughter of Baw Beese, who was the leader of the Huron-Potawatomi tribe that had lived in the Hillsdale County area long before Moses and Mary Allen settled in an area close to where US-12 and M-49 intersect. Like almost all women at that time, she was not considered important enough for formal recognition. That’s possibly the main reason we don’t have a reliable source for the deed she committed that resulted in her death. We can only speculate about the circumstances that led to it.
According to legend, Baw Beese was very happy with his wife. Sadly, she died giving birth to Winona (sometimes spelled Wenona). The daughter looked very much like her mother and became her father’s favorite, even though he remarried and had other children. As a young woman, Winona fell in love with her cousin Ash-Te-Wette. But Neg-nas-ka (sometimes spelled Neguarsqua), a man from a neighboring tribe, wanted to marry her. Her father gave her in marriage to Neg-nas-ka despite her expressed preference.
A small booklet written by Cora Bailey Dimmers, entitled Betsy and Wenona: In Friendship Together, tells the almost-factual story of these two young women. Betsy was Elizabeth Ann Carter, a young pioneer girl. Dimmers undoubtedly appended fictional details to add interest. A copy—but not the original—of a letter written by Betsy to her grandmother, who lived in England, is included in the booklet. It gives some tantalizing insight into the close friendship between the two young women. First of all, Betsy thanks her grandmother for a silver cross that she sent, along with one just like it for Wenona. This wasn’t the first gift that was given to both girls. Three years earlier, Betsy’s mother had made them both dolls with china heads that had been purchased in Detroit by Betsy’s father. Winona had Bible lessons with them on Sundays, and the silver cross, worn by Betsy “for best,” was worn by Wenona all the time.
The letter goes on to say that Wenona was married and often visited Betsy, riding the white pony given to her as a bridal gift by her father. Betsy observes that Wenona wasn’t happily married to Neg-nas-ka.
She certainly wasn’t! Baw Beese blew it with his husband choosing. Neg-nas-ka loved liquor more than he loved Winona and ended up selling his possessions to a man named Nickols to pay for a steady supply. (Supposedly, Neg-nas-ka purchased his alcohol at Beniah Jones’s Fayette Inn, built on the corner of Water Street and the Chicago Road.) Winona tolerated Neg-nas-ka’s behavior until, with nothing left to sell, he sold her pony to a white settler traveling west on the Chicago Road (now US-12).
That was the last straw for Winona. A single account of this story says that Neg-nas-ka came home drunk after the purchase of liquor with the money from her pony and began to abuse her. Perhaps he had been abusive each time he was drunk and the loss of her pony was just too much. In the face of Winona’s rage, Neg-nas-ka took out his knife and tauntingly told her to kill him. Winona plunged it into his heart, doing so. At that time, the Potawatomi were actually a pretty peaceful bunch, but murder couldn’t be tolerated or their society would disintegrate. Two accounts are given for what happened next. One was that Neg-nas-ka’s family demanded that the Potawatomi law of “an eye for an eye” be followed. Baw Beese must have been terribly conflicted, but his responsibility as his tribe’s leader was clear. He needed to relinquish his daughter and agreed that she should be put to death. The other account is that Baw Beese, as the leader of his tribe, had to put Winona on trial and then sentenced her to death for her deed. In a history of Fremont, Indiana there was a vague reference to a big Indian trial presided over in Michigan by Baw Beese in early October 1839 that might refer to this. There’s also a suggestion that Winona’s execution took place somewhere in Allen Township in 1837, and Mary Allen triedto stop it.
In either case, Winona recognized her own culpability and stoically allowed herself to be placed before a stake with her hands tied behind her. Her father cut a cross in her forehead, she screamed, and Neg-nas-ka’s brother Jo-ne-se plunged a knife into her heart. A death dance ensued.
Having discharged his duty, a grief-stricken Baw Beese carried Winona’s lifeless body away in his arms. He was gone many days and was seen by settlers about three miles south of the lake that bore his name,. No one knew where he buried her.
Edith Watkins Ash, Hillsdale County historian, genealogist, one of the founders of the Hillsdale County Historical Society and one of the moving spirits of the two-volume set of
county history, 150 Years in the Hills and Dales, gives an account that may complete the Winona legend. Dan Bisher tells the story in his book, Faded Memories. “In 1902 Ash’s great-uncle Flemming Daily farmed 90 acres near the corner of Foust and Card roads in the southern part of Section 13, Cambria Township …. While constructing a banked barn on his property … he accidentally dug into an old grave and discovered several artifacts, including a silver cross.” Daily dug up the bones and carried them in a burlap bag to a doctor who had an interest in local history and who probably knew the legend of Winona. Based on the location of the grave, which conformed to the sighting by settlers who saw Baw Beese with Winona’s body, the bones being those of a female, the presence of the silver cross and possibly an imagination inspired by the legend, he declared the bones to be those of Winona.
In a truly cringe-worthy sequence of events that followed this discovery, the bones were displayed at Central School, where Bailey Early Childhood Center now stands on Manning Street. They were later discarded by the janitor when he got tired of cleaning up the display after the students used pencils to draw on the bones.
We will never know the real story of Winona. Her name, however, has become a part of Hillsdale County. The “lake” behind the Hillsdale College football and baseball fields, as well as the college yearbook, are named after her. A statue of Winona, sculpted by Heather Tritchka, now stands in Mrs. Stock’s park, a testament to the enduring legend of this tragic young woman.
JoAnne P. Miller
(This article was drawn largely from that written by Dan Bisher in his book, Faded Memories. Throughout this carefully research tome Dan includes all known accounts of the events he reports. The story of Winona has many versions, and Dan was careful to include them all. He was also careful to make clear the limits of believability to the legend. I have incorporated bits of Dan’s reported versions and am undyingly grateful to him for the work he did. It made the writing of this account so-o-o-o much easier. If you’re curious about all the versions, please read Dan’s book.)