Haunted Wood

DESCRIPTION: A white man builds a home near "Haunted Falls." One day when he is away, Indians cast his wife to die on the rocks and burn his home with his children inside. "Now the old man wanders lonely... And the people... Call this place Haunted Wood."
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1946 (collected from Buck Lee; printed in JAF 1954); a related song was in existence by 1863; see NOTES
KEYWORDS: death homicide Indians(Am.) revenge family
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Fife-Cowboy/West 41, "Haunted Wood" (1 text, 1 tune)
Burt, pp. 144-146, "(Haunted Wood)" (1 text, 1 tune)
Logsdon 34, pp. 190-194, "Haunted Falls" (1 text, 1 tune)

Roud #5503
Eva Ashley Moore, "The Haunted Woods" (on Ashley02)
cf. "Petit Rocher" (plot)
NOTES: Speculation about this song has involved hanging some very big coats on some very small pegs.
The first speculation seems to have been Burt's (later cited by Logsdon), who quotes her informant's guess that the song derives from the 1862 Sioux Uprising -- now officially designated the Dakota Conflict by Minnesota government agencies.
There are severe problems with this assumption. "Haunted Wood" takes place in woods near a waterfall in the mountains. But Minnesota has no mountains; the highest point in the state, although called "Eagle Mountain," is merely a medium-sized hill, 2301 feet above sea level -- and it is in an area occupied by the Ojibwe, not the Dakota. Nor were there forests in Dakota country -- northern and eastern Minnesota were forested at the time of the Dakota Conflict, but the Dakota were prairie nomads; they never lived in the Big Woods!
Nor does the plot of the song seem to match anything that happened in Minnesota. The Dakota Conflict began with a massacre -- but it doesn't sound like *this* massacre. Indeed, Karolevitz, p. 64, says that killing women and children went against Dakota tradition, although there were certainly instances of it during the Conflict. But there was also at least one famous instance of Dakota men giving up their personal possessions to ransom women and children taken captive by militant Santees (Karolevitz, p. 66).
We should note that our records of the Dakota Conflict are surprisingly patchy, due (I think) mostly to bad communications. At a time when Civil War armies transported forces by rail and communicated with each other by telegraph, almost all messages in the Dakota Conflict were carried by messenger, and railroads had no influence at all -- most of Minnesota was still beyond the rails. The first major history of the state, Folwell's, is constantly stressing the rides people made to carry news (e.g. pp. 115, 147). There was a severe shortage of Springfield rifle muskets (Folwell, p. 158), and entrenching tools were even more rare. The whole thing sounds more like the French and Indian War than the Second Bull Run campaign then being fought in Virginia. Most estimates of casualties seem to have been pure guesses. Phisterer lists six battles of the Dakota Conflict on pp. 110-115, but in half the cases describes them only as "Fight with Indians" or "Organizations not recorded."
The roots of the Dakota Conflict went back almost sixty years. It was in 1805 that Zebulon Pike "bought" the region at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers (near the heart of what is now the Twin Cities) from the local Indians for a little money and a lot of alcohol and trinkets (Beck, pp. 3-4). Fort Snelling, the first European settlement in the state apart from some old fur trade posts, was built beginning in 1819; at the time, it was the only American government post northwest of a line running from Fort Howard on Green Bay through Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin to Fort Atkinson at the junction of the Missouri and Platte rivers (see the map in Blegen, p. 98). At the time, Americans hadn't even surveyed the Minnesota River; that was done by Major Stephen Long in 1823 (Risjord, pp. 46-48). In 1825, the federal government tried to create a peaceful boundary between the Dakota (Sioux) and Ojibwe (Chippewa). It failed (Beck, p. 4).
The real encroachments on Indian territory began in 1837, when the Dakota were forced to give up all their lands east of the Mississippi (Beck, p. 4; Risjord, p. 56). Then the Federals came up with the idea of reservations. It was the only way to make enough land available to meet migrants' demands. In 1849, when Minnesota became a territory, there were only about 4000 whites in the region. Nine years later, when Minnesota became a state, there were over 150,000 (Beck, p. 5). This was possible only because the Dakota had been bullied into making territorial concessions. By 1858, the Dakota were confined in a tiny area along the Minnesota river from its headwaters to a point somewhat west of New Ulm (see map in Blegen, p. 268). The whole thing was administered from two agencies (known, logically enough, as the Upper and Lower Sioux Agencies).
In return for these concession, the Dakota were supposed to receive a regular annuity. That, plus a conversion to an agricultural lifestyle, was supposed to allow them to live on a territory far smaller than their old nomadic range.
If you ignore the fact that it was destroying Dakota culture, which, frankly, would have had to happen soon anyway, because of population pressure -- even before the great European influx, Beck, p. 15, notes that the big game in Minnesota was largely hunted out; the Dakota, contrary to myth, did not live an environmentally sustainable lifestyle -- the terms were sort of fair. Except for the footnotes. The Indians were tricked into giving up a large part of their annuity to settle alleged claims by whites (Risjord, p. 65). This meant that their income, which should have been reasonably sufficient, kept them in poverty. Jackson, p. 162, observes that "many more... would have entered on the agricultural life had the Government provided ways and means for them to do so." Beck, p. 15, adds that the government had neither improved the land nor supplied the instructors and material to let the Dakota do so themselves; not only did this lack cause resentment, it also caused many Dakota to go back to their old ways.
Even Harpers, p. 283, writing from the perspective of 1866 and with a clear desire that native culture be eradicated, admits that "It was unfortunate, however, that the patronage which the government bestowed upon the Indians was frequently dispensed through agents who took many opportunities to defraud the beneficiaries."
Charles Flandrau, one of the members of the first Minnesota Supreme Court, who also had done some work as an Indian Agent, commented, "Had I been an Indian, I would have rebelled too" (Karolevitz, p. 64).
An Episcopal Bishop, Henry A. Whipple, who had been in Minnesota since 1859, wrote to a new Indian agent, "[The Indians'] history with us has been one of robbery & wrong. Dishonest agents or careless servants have made way with his money, corrupt whites have polluted his home, wife & daughters & blasted his home by the accursed fire water.... An American might blush to ask how it happens that the English govt. have not had an Indian war in Canada this century? how it is we have a new one every year? ... The fault is our own" (Meier, p. 98).
Whipple later wrote, in his preface to Jackson (p. viii), "The Indian Bureau is often unable to fulfil the treaties, because Congress has failed to make the appropriations. If its agents are not men of the highest charavter, it is largely due to the fact that we send a man to execute this difficult trust at a remote agency, and expect him to support himself and family on $1500 a year. The Indian Bureau represents a system which is a blunder and a crime.... The Indian is the only human being within our territory who has no individual right in the soil. He is not amenable to or protected by law."
Beck, p. 67, tells us that the Dakota were often desperate enough to prostitute their daughters and wives to the soldiers at Fort Ridgely in exchange for food and clothing. On p. 128, he notes that the number of White settlers in the Minnesota Valley roughly tripled from 1860 to 1862, putting even more of a squeeze on the Dakota.
During the conflict, Chief Little Crow would send a message to Henry Hasings Sibley (of whom more below) declaring (as Sibley wrote to his wife), "the reason the war was commenced was because he could not get the provisions and other supplies due the Indians, that the women and children were starving, and he could get no satisfaction from Major Galbraith, the U. S. Agent" (Meier, p. 102).
This was because, in 1862, the annuity payments were late (Carley, p. 6. It wasn't the first time, either; in 1854 and 1855, the payments had been both too late and smaller than promised; Beck, p. 56). It had been a hard winter, and the Dakota were going hungry. The Agencies refused to give them food until the payment came, and trader Andrew Myrick callously declared that they should "eat grass or their own dung" (Lass, p. 128. When Myrick's body was later found, the mouth was stuffed with grass; Jones, p. 212). Even then, many of the Dakota opposed going to war. Folwell thinks that the whole war could have been avoided had the money arrived on time (cf. discussion in Blegen, p. 267). But some young hotheads could take no more.
According to Blegen, p. 260, "On Sunday, August 17, [1862,] four young devil-may-care Wahpetons attached to a Mdewakaton camp were returning from a deer hunt in the Big Woods. They happened to pass the farmstead of a settler in Meeker County [between Litchfield and Willmar]. Their almost incredible names were Killing Ghost, Breaking Up, Runs against Something When Crawling, and Brown Wing; and the farmer... [was named] Robinson Jones. The Indians... decided to kill Jones, went to his house, first requested liquor, were refused, then followed him to the neighboring house of one Howard Baker, where Mrs. Jones was visiting. There... the Sioux hunters first engaged in a seemingly innocent target practice with the white men. The game was a ruse. The white men did not reload after firing at the target; the Sioux did so immediately, then took aim and shot down Baker, Jones and his wife, and a man named Webster, who chanced to be there on a search for land.... The Indians rushed back to the first farm and shot a girl, while the wives of Baker and Webster and some children saved their lives by hiding."
It will be evident, since none of the husbands involved survived, that this could not be the source for "Haunted Wood."
There were few trained troops in Minnesota at the time; most had been transferred east or south to fight the Confederates. The regulars were long gone (something that didn't help Indian relations; most regulars had been replaced by volunteers, who tended to dislike the Dakota more than the regulars, according to Beck, p. 127), and even volunteers were being pulled away as quickly as possible. Malvern Hill, the last of the Seven Days' Battles, had been fought on August 5. Second Bull Run took place on August 30. Antietam followed in September. Braxton Bragg invaded Kentucky in late August. (Jones, p. 191, thinks the Union failures of this period contributed to the Dakota decision to rebel, although his chronology is a few weeks off.)
This meant that, apart from a few under-strength companies, and a larger collection of untrained and unequipped recruits, every available soldier was on the front lines of the Civil War. It has been estimated that there were 7000 Dakota braves in the state at the time. Had they all been organized and properly led, they might very well have taken over the whole western half of Minnesota. As it was, they pushed many settlers off of their homes, sometimes violently. But they failed to take Fort Ridgely, or New Ulm, or most of the other key sites where battles occurred.
Some of the killings of settlers qualify as atrocities (e.g. Jones, p. 203, tells of a child having her leg torn off and being left to die), but most were fairly clean. Stephen Osman, formerly of the Minnesota Historical Society, tells me that the Uprising involved quite a few acts of torture by the Dakotas, but this ended quickly (and I have to note that few of the atrocity stories seem to have been verified). On pp. 109-110, Folwell tells of the slaughter in battle of a company of the Fifth Minnesota on August 18, but those were soldiers. Folwell does observe that many of those who were attacked in the area were German settlers (p. 111). On p. 115, he notes the killing of "nearly... fifty peaceable German settlers" near Milford. The song "Minnehaha," cited below, seems to imply a slaughter of Germans or Scandinavians.
But Folwell also notes that women generally were not killed. Similarly, there was a famous massacre at Lake Shetek in southwestern Minnesota, but men were the primary casualties; Carley, pp. 23-24, lists only widows, not widowers, so again, there were no men who survived their families. Jones, pp. 194-199, tells many stories of attacks on August 18, but again, it was either men or whole families being killed; he tells only one story (p. 198) of a woman (Mrs. Joseph Stocker) being killed when her husband survived. Even in that instance, there seem to have been no children involved.
Still, Jackson, p. 163, states that "For three days the hostile bands, continually re-inforced, went from settlement to settlement, killing and plundering. A belt of country nearly two hundred miles in length and about fifty in width was entirely abandoned by the population, who flocked in panic to the towns and forts."
As soon as the Dakota chief Little Crow heard about the Robinson Jones murders, he tried to calm things down. Accused of cowardice by the young bravoes, he took charge of the uprising, but warned his people that "Yes, [the whites] fight among themselves, but if you strike at one of them, they will all turn upon you and devour you and your women and little children, just as the locusts in their time fall on the trees and devour all the leaves in one day. You will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them down in the hard moon" (Blegen, p. 261). He proved right.
After a month and a half of shifting fortunes, the Union finally managed to assemble the equivalent of a brigade to take on the Dakota. On September 23, at Wood Lake near Granite Falls, Union forces under Henry Sibley met those of Little Crow. The "battle" was not very well organized (Blegen, p. 274, calls it a "confused and random engagement"; Lass, p. 131, says it was an "awkward standoff punctuated by intermittent gunfire"; Risjord, p. 98, speaks of a "general melee... [in which the Dakota] withdrew after two hours, leaving fourteen dead on the field, among them Mankato, Little Crow's most valuable lieutenant.") Carley, pp. 62-63, says that the whole thing came about because soldiers from the Third Minnesota (which had been forced to surrender to the Confederates and had returned to Minnesota without its officers) went foraging and ran into the Dakota. This let the Union forces stand largely on the defensive -- a tremendous advantage given the technology of the time. They suffered seven killed and 33 wounded.
Little Crow and his forces retreated. Sibley did not really pursue; he wanted the Indians alive, so he could recover their captives (Jones, p. 217). Most of the captives were eventually released.
The Uprising was over. The retribution would follow.
No one knows how many Minnesotans were killed. Folwell p. 391, lists contemporary estimates that from 500 to 800 Europeans were killed, and on p. 392 seems to support an estimate of 644 as being roughly correct. Jackson, p. 163, says "Nearly a thousand were killed." Utley/Washburn, p. 203, declare that "fully eight hundred whites died violently in atonement for the wrongs done the Santee." Carley, p. 1, thinks the number between 450 and 800 but seems to favor the lower end of that range. Karolevitz, p. 64, mentions estimates from 490 to 800. The 800 number may be based on Harpers, p. 283.
Little Crow would eventually be killed in a raid in 1863 (Blegen, p. 281; Utley/Washburn, p. 204, say he was "shot down by a settler while picking berries") but that was after the Minnesota phase of the rising was crushed. The Indians may have had fewer losses at the time, but in the long run, they suffered severely. Carley, p. 1, says that no accurate estimate of Dakota losses in the war can be made; Dakota witnesses later admitted to 21 losses, but it is known that they carried off their injured and dead, and many surely died who were not counted.
In the aftermath, some 1700 Dakota were taken prisoner and held in a concentration camp below Fort Snelling. A military commission "tried" them, but each "trial" lasted only minutes; Lass, p. 132, says that the commission sometimes settled forty cases in a day. It condemned fully 303 to death; Carley, p. 70. President Lincoln, to his great credit, ordered that all but 39 of them be spared; Carley, p. 72. One was later granted clemency, but the other 38 were hung on December 26, 1862; Carley, p. 73.
The remaining Sioux were then mostly forced out of the state, carted by steamship to the Dakotas, and later to Nebraska and other places (Lass, p. 133). The result was a new conflict in the Dakota Territory in 1863 (Jackson, p. 164), with occasional raids into Minnesota. Henry Sibley (who earned a brigadier's commission for his work, according Utley/Washburn, p. 204; although Phisterer, p. 278 notes that the commission dated from September 29, 1862, and expired in 1863) -- eventually led a long campaign through the Dakota region in 1863, adding to the tragedy (Carley, pp. 88-89; Beck, pp. 156-157). Back then, it was called "Manifest Destiny." These days, we have another term: "Ethnic cleansing." The Dakota remember it with bitterness to this day; I have heard them tell the tales of their anger and grief for those confined and often left to die by the banks of the Minnesota River.
Tales of massacres grew in the telling. The local newspapers had printed many false stories of Indian crimes even before the Uprising (Beck cites instances on pp. 46, 132 and elsewhere). During the Uprising, the New York Tribune at one time claimed that the towns of St. Peter, Henderson, and Glencoe had been burned. But of these three, only St. Peter was close to the conflict zone, and even it was some distance "behind the lines." During the conflict, the Yankton Dakotian called for revenge for those who has "seen their wives and husbands, fathers, and mothers and children, butchered before their eyes" (Karolevitz, p. 65) -- even though the conflict apparently had not reached that part of South Dakota.
Bottom line: "Haunted Wood" does not fit conditions in Minnesota during the Dakota Conflict and does not appear to describe an actual incident of that conflict.
That isn't the end of the story, though. Because there is a possible ancestor of this song which has strong Minnesota ties.
According Dunn, pp. 124-125, "[T]here is at present no reason to doubt that Frank Wood's 'Minnehaha' was the first song by a Minnesota to find local publication.... It followed Wood's initial composition by eight months, appearing in October, 1863. The words -- 'Minnehaha, laughing waters, cease thy laughing now for aye' -- were written by Richard H. Chittenden, a captain in the First Wisconsin Cavalry, who took part in the Sioux Uprising. The song is dedicated 'To the memory of the victims of the Indian Massacre of 1862.' It deals in lurid words the terrors of the Indian revolt and was as close to the Civil War as any of the local music came."
Dunn, p. 124, also notes that Wood was Minnesota's "first song writer"; he published at least eight songs and one march, and taught piano in Saint Paul until he died in 1899. Few of his songs had any success.
Except, perhaps, for "Minnehaha." I have found no certain copy of this (even Dunn did not seem to have access to the sheet music), but there is an item in the John A. Nelson papers at the Minnesota Historical Society, an anonymous poem called "Minnie-ha-ha!" The singer begs Minnehaha Falls to stop laughing ("Minnehaha" is usually said to be from Dakota words meaning "Laughing Waters" -- although it seems in fact to be a generic Dakota word for a waterfall). The poet asks them to "Give me back my Lela's tresses," says, "See that smoke that was my dwelling," and asks, "Have they killed my Hans and Otto?"
The poem is printed on page 100 of Meier. Looking at this version, I find few verbal resemblances to "Haunted Falls," but the two songs are almost certainly about the same incident. In addition, Bessie Stanchfield collected a song "Minnehaha, Laughing Water" from Elma Snyder McDowell of Saint Cloud in the 1940s (I think). Stanchfield's papers in the Minnesota Historical Society archives are fragmentary and do not seem to have a full text, but it seems clear that it was the same song as in Meier. So this song appears to have had some slight hold on Minnesota tradition.
The problem is, as the above outline of the tale of the Uprising reveal, the "Minnehaha" song no more appears to refer to any actual event of the Dakota Conflict than does "Haunted Wood." Minnehaha Creek runs through the western Twin Cities, and Minnehaha Falls is right in the middle of the city of Minneapolis and only a couple of miles from Fort Snelling, the first permanent site of American government in Minnesota. And the name "Minnehaha Falls" is attested on pp. 244-235 of Mayer/Heilbron as having been in common use in August 1851 (before Longfellow published "The Song of Hiawatha"). There are important Indian sites in the area, but all had been abandoned; by the time of the Dakota Conflict, there can't have been many Indians in the vicinity.
Blegen in fact has a map of the "hot spots" of the Dakota Conflict on p. 268, and none are closer to the Twin Cities than Mankato, which would be at least a two day march on foot. The chief battles of the early part of the war were even farther away up the Minnesota River, at Fort Ridgely between New Ulm and Redwood Falls (Folwell, pp. 125-130) and at New Ulm itself (Folwell, pp. 133-143). But Fort Ridgely was defended by soldiers; there were no children there. At the "First Battle of New Ulm" (another German community), only a single 13-year-old girl was killed. At the "Second Battle," 26 European men were killed and others wounded, but there were few if any female casualties. Thus these battles cannot explain the story of "Minnehaha" any more than they can explain "Haunted Wood."
Folwell, p. 124, in fact notes that most of the refugees from the first stage of the conflict headed for the Twin Cities (then three cities, Minneapolis, Saint Anthony, and Saint Paul). Anyone who reached Minnehaha Falls would have been safe.
Plus I haven't found any references to Minnehaha Falls being called haunted. Unless the idea is somehow linked to "The Death of Minnehaha" in Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha." Longfellow's poem seems to have inspired a number communities to adopt the name "Minnehaha." But Longfellow's poem was published only in 1855. That is stretching coincidence to the breaking point.
So we're back where we started. "Minnehaha" may have inspired "Haunted Wood" (I suspect it did), but it still isn't true. On the other hand, so many stories were swirling around that it is perfectly possible that someone told a similar tale to whip up hatred against the Dakota.
I would add that I don't think the rewrite of "Minnehaha" which produced "Haunted Wood" was done by a Minnesotan. It *really* doesn't sound like a Minnesota story to me, and I live in Minnesota. That's not proof, of course -- not after a century and a half. But I do note that "Haunted Wood" (as opposed to "Minnehaha, Laughing Waters") is found mostly in the west, and not in Minnesota.
If we assume that "Minnehaha, Laughing Waters" is the source, we can at least try to see what it might have described. There are other places called Minnehaha around the country. One is a county in South Dakota -- the county containing South Dakota's largest city Sioux Falls, in fact. Sioux Falls, on the Big Sioux River, was settled in 1857 (Karolevitz , p. 41) and temporarily abandoned during the Dakota Uprising (Beck, p. 152, which notes that all but three buildings of the new town were burned in a raid). Could the "Minnehaha" of "Minnehaha, Laughing Waters" be the falls of the Big Sioux in Minnehaha County, rather than Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis? This would explain much. And the author of the poem might not want to call the Big Sioux River after his enemies, and so use a different name.
Alternately, there is a Minnehaha district in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, associated with an obscure folk Pennsylvania folk song, "Minnehaha (A Lament)." This is a region with woods and falls, although there doesn't seem to be any record of "Haunted Woods" there.
Consider too the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857. A band of outcast Dakota, led by one Inkpaduta, attacked several households near Spirit Lake, Iowa on March 8-9. According to Beck, p. 43, "When they finished, thirty-four people, mostly women and children, were dead and four other women taken prisoner." (Karolevitz, pp. 41-42, however, says that 42 were killed and four women taken captive; Folwell, p. 402, says that "some thirty" were killed and three taken captive. Although Folwell shows a map of the sites raided on p. 403, and most of the names are English, not German, making "Hans" and "Otto" unlikely names for the children.) Inkpaduta's Dakota went on to attack Springfield, Minnesota (not the same site as the modern town of Springfield; it's on the Des Moines River just north of the Iowa border) on March 26. Army attempts to catch up with him failed (Blegen, p. 265); he fled into Dakota Territory -- perhaps giving the other Dakota more reason to think they could ignore White justice.
Spirit Lake is closer to South Dakota, and to Sioux Falls, than to the Twin Cities. Inkpaduta probably went very close to Sioux Falls in his flight -- and a defensive work was built there to defend against him (Karolevitz, p. 42). All in all, I rather suspect that it was one of the events at Spirit Lake, not the Dakota Conflict itself, which inspired this song.
Reinforcing this is the fact that Inkpaduta was reported to be roaming around the Yellow Medicine River in July 1862 (Beck, pp. 127-128). Stories of his outrages five years earlier would readily mix with the reports of the actual troubles of 1862.
I emphasize that all of this is extremely speculative. Still, I think the likelihood high that "Haunted Wood/Haunted Falls" is a rewrite of "Minnehaha, Laughing Waters," with the local Minnesota references deleted, perhaps to justify some local action against Indians. - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 3.3
File: FCW041

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.