It was the early 1700s in what is now New Milford, or so the story goes. Princess Lillinonah, the beautiful daughter of Chief Waramaug of the Weantinock tribe, happened upon a white man lost and alone in the woods. The two fell instantly in love, but theirs was not destined to be a Hallmark Valentine’s Day romance.
Lillinonah led this unnamed man to her village, located next to the great falls on the river that is today known as the Housatonic. She fed and cared for him, making sure no harm came to him. He stayed with her until the beginning of winter. Then he left, promising to come back after he returned to his people.
Lillinonah waited for him until “springtime deepened into summer” and “summer faded into autumn.” But the man did not return and the young princess despaired. Seeing his daughter’s anguish, Chief Waramaug decided to marry her to a member of their tribe called Eagle Feather. Before her wedding, she boarded a small boat and rowed toward the great falls and certain death. Just as her boat entered the current of the falls, the young man returned through the woods. Spotting Lillinonah, he threw himself into the water to go over the falls with her. Both perished.
Today, visitors to Lovers Leap Park, a state park in New Milford, can walk to its namesake, an impressive precipice that is easily accessible from the trail. Here, visitors can stand and overlook the waters of Lake Lillinonah. It is supposedly the site of the falls where the lovers perished long ago, but as skeptical readers may have guessed from the overall Romeo and Juliet-esque tone of the tale, the story of Lillinonah and her unnamed white soulmate is one rooted far more in fantasy than fact.
The story of an Indian princess and her doomed romance with a white man is actually a folklore motif, told frequently wherever there is a high ledge from which a distraught lover or lovers might conceivably have thrown themselves. Though the exact details of the story change, the essentials are repeated again and again. Wikipedia identifies dozens of Lover’s Leaps across the country and Stephen Gencarella, professor of folklore studies at the University of Massachusetts and the resident folklorist at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, has identified several other similar tales at other ledges in Connecticut. The stories were so common at one point that Mark Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi that “there are fifty Lover’s Leaps along the Mississippi from whose summit disappointed Indian girls have jumped.”
The earliest-known iteration of the New Milford legend is a poem by H.S. Green printed in 1882 in the book The Indians of the Housatonic and Naugatuck Valleys by Samuel Orcutt. Paul Wegner, assistant executive director of The Institute for American Indian Studies in nearby Washington, says the poem is “wildly inaccurate.” He adds, while there was a Chief Waramaug and there is evidence of a summer native American village at Lover’s Leap, “there’s no historical evidence that Chief Waramaug had a daughter and that her name was Lillinonah.”
Even the ledge today known as Lover’s Leap would have been different in the 1700s, as the land changed and Lake Lillinonah was created in 1955 when the Shepaug Dam was built.
Rather than a harmless legend, Wegner sees it as part of a pattern of erasing Indians from history. He says that many “historians in the 19th century wrote out Native Americans,” adding, “Lillinonah is a princess, a Western concept, and seeks redemption in the hands of a white man. The message is that what’s she looking for and what native people need to do is assimilate.”
A current temporary exhibit on Lover’s Leap at The Institute for American Indian Studies Museum & Research Center features archaeological items from the historic village on what is today Lovers Leap State Park. The exhibit doesn’t focus on the Westernized and romanticized myth but instead on the real story of the people who actually lived in the area. “The focus of our exhibit is to show the archaeological evidence that people were there and they had a complex social system,” Wegner says. “They had complex thoughts. They had complex technology that existed prior to European contact.”
Walking in the park today, many people will mention the legend; fewer will know that the site remains a rich archaeological one with only portions of it having been studied and excavated. Fewer still know anything about the real-life peoples who once lived there. That is the real tragedy of this lover’s leap.