Princess Winona’s com­mem­o­rative statue stands in Stock’s Park. Cal Abbo | Collegian

Winona Lake, Winona Drive, the Winona yearbook, and, two years ago, a Winona statue at Stock’s Park. Who is this “beau­tiful and brave young maiden,” as the plaque reads, and why should you care?

Over the last 200 years, Winona’s tale has become obscured; its nar­ra­tives twist back and forth between fact and legend, reality and myth. Only a small part of Winona’s back­ground is certain.

In the early 1800s, when Winona was born and raised, many authors who wrote about local natives, nov­elists and jour­nalists alike, took lit­erary agency in their descrip­tions. According to Dan Bisher’s book “Faded Mem­ories,” which details pioneer and native history in Hillsdale County, this writing style frus­trates attempts to solidify his­torical facts about Winona’s life.

Writers tended to mix fact with fiction based on local legends — so his­torical accounts about Winona should be taken with a grain of salt.

Chief Baw Beese, leader of a Potawatomi clan, whose name is pre­served by Hillsdale’s famous lake, likely had many children with a few dif­ferent wives. Winona’s mother, a French pioneer, died while giving birth to Winona. The plaque at Stock’s Park cites a 1934 issue of the Hillsdale Daily News: “Winona was the replica of her mother and the pride of her father’s heart.”

As the chief’s beloved daughter, Winona enjoyed a com­fortable childhood. She was well-known in the com­munity and, by the time she grew up, her beauty was some­thing like local legend. “Descrip­tions of Winona create a haunting vision of a beau­tiful young woman with fair skin and bright eyes,” Bisher wrote, “a vague indi­cation of mixed blood.”

Another story called Winona “the fairest maiden of the tribe, and the heart of every brave beat with inex­pressible joy when her eyes were turned upon him. Slender and straight, with long, dark, slightly wavy hair, it is no wonder that the eyes of every brave fol­lowed her beau­tiful form as she went to the lake to fetch water every evening.”

Winona’s tragic end begins when she fell in love with a man named Ash-te-wette. Unfor­tu­nately, Ash-te-wette and Winona were cousins of some kind, but it isn’t known how closely they were related. Despite her feelings for Ash-te-wette, Winona was assigned to marry Neg­naska, a member of the neigh­boring tribe, according to Bisher’s book. And so she did. On her wedding day, Chief Baw Beese gave Winona a beau­tiful, white pony (or cream-colored, depending on the source). Winona reportedly rode her pony around every­where she went, showing off its majesty.

Neg­naska, despite his luck mar­rying the beau­tiful maiden Winona, fell prey to alco­holism. Often, in his drunken rage, he would beat Winona. As a bat­tered woman living with an alco­holic, Winona was already unsat­isfied with her marriage.

Eliz­abeth Carter, a dear friend of Winona, wrote a letter to her grand­mother back in England. “Thank you for the silver cross you sent to me and the one just like it for Wenona, (Wenona and Winona appear across dif­ferent sources) my Indian friend,” she wrote. “I wear mine for best, but she wears hers all the time … It is always around her neck.”

Carter told her grand­mother about Winona’s mar­riage as well, noting her unhappy mar­riage to Neg­naska. “As a bridal gift, her father gave her a beau­tiful white pony, which she often rides over here, even when they are camping some miles away,” she wrote. “The pony is so intel­ligent, he seems almost human, and Wenona loves him as much as if he were.”

Negnaska’s problems caught up with him. He sold most of his pos­ses­sions to fund his drinking habits. Even­tually, Neg­naska sold Winona’s pre­cious pony to drink at Benaiah Jones’ (Jonesville’s founder) Fayette Inn, located on the corner of Water Street and Chicago Street — now home to Olivia’s Chop House and Saucy Dog’s Bar­becue. According to Bisher, a dif­ferent news­paper article reported this event hap­pening in Fremont, Indiana.

Neg­naska even­tually paid the price. Winona found out her husband stole and sold her pony, and one night when Neg­naska was par­tic­u­larly drunk, Winona couldn’t take it anymore: she stabbed and killed her thieving abuser.

Soon after, Winona was put on trial by her tribe — her father at the head of the tri­bunal — and sen­tenced to death. According to Bisher, native law fol­lowed an eye-for-an-eye doc­trine, and was applied strictly. Not even Winona, the chief’s daughter, could escape it.

Winona was exe­cuted near either Fremont, Allen, or Camden, but the exact location is unclear. Her father, dev­as­tated at what he had done to Winona, buried her alone. He went almost unseen for several days after the exe­cution, but some reports place him near Baw Beese Lake. Legend says he buried Winona two or three miles south of the lake in Cambria.

In 1902, according to Bisher, Flemming Daily, a respected farmer, con­structed a barn on his property. He acci­den­tally dug into a grave, bagged up all the con­tents he found, and took them to a local doctor. Daily found several arti­facts with the remains that pointed to its being a native, and the doctor, after looking at the bones, con­firmed this.

Among the arti­facts was a silver cross — likely the one Carter’s grand­mother sent to Winona. Based on this evi­dence, the doctor, familiar with local legend, declared the remains belong to Winona.

Soon after, Winona’s remains were put on display at Hillsdale High School for edu­ca­tional pur­poses. According to one story, stu­dents would draw on Winona’s bones with pencil, and the janitor grew tired of cleaning the display. He promptly threw what was left of Winona in the trash.