“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
Found in: US(Ro)


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."


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). The conflict began with a massacre -- but it doesn't sound like *this* massacre.

According to Theodore C. Blegen's massive _Minnesota: A History of the State_ (1963; I use the 1975 University of Minnesota edition with a new final chapter by Russell W. Fridley, but this is merely an appendix to the Blegen book; it is actually placed *after* the index!), "On Sunday, August 17, [1862,] four young devil-may-care Wahpetons attached to a Mdewakaton camp from a deer hunt in the Big Woods. They happened to pass the farmstead of a settler in Meeker County. 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."

At this point, things get really hazy. Stephen Osman of the Minnesota Historical Society tells me that the Dakota Conflict involved quite a few acts of torture by the Dakotas, but this is apparently the only unprovoked Indian atrocity of Uprising; as soon as the Dakota chief Little Crow heard about it, 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).

(Little Crow would eventually be killed in a raid in 1863 -- Blegen, p. 281 -- but that was after the rising was crushed.)

Could the Jones Massacre somehow have been transmuted into this song? Sadly, there does appear to be a "missing link": A Minnesota story that sounds like the ancestor of the "Haunted Wood" tale.

According to James Taylor Dunn, "A Century of Song: Popular Music in Minnesota," _Minnesota History_ magazine, Winter 1974, "At any rate, there is at present no reasong to doubt that Frank Wood's 'Minnehaha' was the first _song_ by a Minnesota to find local publication.... It followed Wood's imnitial composition by eight months, appearing in October, 1863. The words -- 'Minnehaha, laughing waters, cease thy laughing now for aya' -- 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 deail in lurid words the trrors of the Indian revolt and was as close to the Civil War as any of the local music came." [Thanks to Stephen Osman for digging up this article.]

And it appears that the song had some popular vogue. 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 ("Minnehaha" is usually said to be from Dakota words meaning "Laughing Waters") to stop laughing. 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 Peg Meier, _Bring Warm Clothes: Letters and Photos from Minnesota's Past_, Minneapolis Star/Tribune, 1981. Looking at this version, I find few verbal resemblances to "Haunted Falls," but the two songs are clearly 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). Her papers do not seem to have a full text, but it seems clear that it was this song.

The problem is, there seems to be no actual truth in the "Minnehaha" poem. 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 (it was established in 1820). There are important Indian sites in the area, but by the time of the Dakota Conflict, there can't have been many Indians in the area. Indeed, Blegen, p. 268, has a map of the "hot spots" of the Dakota Conflict, and none are closer to the Twin Cities than Mankato, which would be at least a two day march on foot.

In any case, 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 just don't believe the massacre, if real, happened here. And if it did, why is "Haunted Wood" (as opposed to "Minnehaha, Laughing Waters") found mostly in the west? 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." But that is stretching coincidence to the breaking point.

There is a county in South Dakota named Minnehaha. That might be a better candidate. And yet, there aren't many woods or falls in South Dakota. But it would be a more reasonable point of origin for the poem.

I emphasize that all of this is extremely speculative. Still, I think the likelihood high that this song is a rewrite of "Minnehaha," with the local Minnesota references deleted, perhaps to justify some local action against Indians. - RBW

Cross references



  1. Fife-Cowboy/West 41, "Haunted Wood" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Burt, pp. 144-146, "(Haunted Wood)" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Logsdon 34, pp. 190-194, "Haunted Falls" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Roud #5503
  5. BI, FCW041