By Holly Shanks
Lover’s Leap folklore is associated with several of Missouri’s beautiful bluffs and cliffs. Some people find the tales romantic and others may find the tales of leaping lovers simply a senseless gesture. Here we take a look at some of the different Lover’s Leap legends in Missouri.
Missouri is known to have some pretty spectacular outdoor scenery. Rivers, like the Missouri, Osage and Meramec snake through the state and, of course, the mighty Mississippi rolls down the divide between Missouri and Illinois. Along the paths of these rivers are some striking and picturesque bluffs and cliffs. A few of the popular high panoramic viewing areas, include Devil’s Elbow Bluffs south of Rolla on the Big Piney River, Ha Ha Tonka State Park on the Lake of the Ozarks boasts bluffs 250 feet high, and, of course, the Lover’s Leap bluff on the south edge of Hannibal.
Missouri has lover’s leap tales associated with several of the bluffs scattered throughout the state. And entities like tourist centers, museums, riverboat tours and other attractions all keep the folklore alive by reciting the romantic tales of tragic lost love. Some people may find the actions of “leaping in the name of love” to be irrational, and others will find the folklore stories interesting and romantic.
Stories of love unrequited, lovers kept apart, or the loss of a lover are elements usually associated with lover’s leap folklore. And in the moments before a leaper takes their last steps toward the abyss it can be hard to imagine what is going through their minds. The common bond seems to be pain and loss, apparently bore so heavily that it entwines its way through the veins, catches fire, and burns with an intensity that engulfs the senses.
The Hannibal bluff story is no exception to the lost love scenario. There are at least two different versions of the story, which both involve a beautiful Indian maiden.
The Hannibal Courier-Post published an article in 2011 that describes a legend written by a man named Aurthur O. Garrison. The article says this man got the story from “ancient inscriptions and a birch bark manuscript.” No records of Garrison or the story have been verified, according to the article.
The Garrison story goes like this:
The story is spun around two unrecorded Indian tribes, the Kirgluou and the Holrois, who both lived on the banks of the river. Out of all the tribes living in the area the Kirgluou were the most peaceful.
The Kirgluou Chief Mulza had a beloved daughter, Altala, and she is described as the “most beautiful of maidens and most skilled in all the arts of Indian womanhood.” Her lover was the tribe’s bravest warrior, Peltacen, and he is described as the best runner and most skilled tomahawk thrower in the village.
Trouble between the two tribes arose because the Holrois refused to allow the Kirgluou to fish off their shores. However, the Kirgluou “said that the fish belonged to whoever could catch them” and would continue to fish wherever they wanted. This did not set well with the Holrois and the next Kirgluou fisherman that entered the forbidden waters was captured, beaten and had his canoe “confiscated.” He was sent back to the Kirgluou as a warning.
Peltacen convinced the braves of his village to take revenge and attack the Holrois. Led by Peltacen, the Kirgluou warriors took their canoes and headed across the river. The two tribes met midstream and the battle began.
The beautiful maiden Altala, along with the other maidens from the Kirgluou village, climbed the high cliff to obtain a better view of the fighting. The brave Peltacen killed four Holrois before he was cut down by a tomahawk himself.
Altala saw her lover fall into the water never to appear again. In despair she cried out, “We shall not be separated. Thou, O Manitou, has taken him to thee, and thou shall take me also. Today we will roam in the happy hunting grounds and bask in the smiles of the Great Spirit.”
Altala leapt off the edge of the cliff to reunite with her beloved Peltacen in the afterlife.
The second version of the Hannibal story is told by the Mark Twain Riverboat tour captains. This version was told to an anchor and reporter from KHQA, Rajah Maples. KHQA is a TV news station in Quincy, IL.
The tale is about two enemy tribes that lived across the river from each other. The Fox tribe on the Missouri side and the Illini on the Illinois side. The chief of the Fox tribe had a daughter and she fell in love with an Illini brave. Of course their love was forbidden, but the two could not stay apart. One night, on top of the cliff, the chief found his daughter with her lover.
The lovers decided to jump off the cliff together, rather than face the chief’s wrath and be forced to spend a lifetime apart. However, Captain Steve Terry told the KHQA reporter that in their version of the story the young lovers survive the fall. He said each riverboat pilot puts their own spin on the tale and the pair could have landed on a bale of cotton, but he prefers for “them to land on the train” that is on the tracks below.
Fulton, in central Missouri, also has a lover’s leap tale involving the limestone palisades on the north side of Stinson Creek. Not many details are available, but the City of Fulton website says a young man is the focus of their lover’s leap lore. This young man discovered that his love was unrequited and he could not bear to live another day. So he jumped from lover’s leap. However, the short story says the young gentleman could have survived because the lover’s leap spot in Fulton happens to be “the shortest (at 60 feet) of the eight palisades with the same name located in Missouri.”
Clinton, which is located near Truman Lake, has its own lover’s leap bluff. And, citizens from the city museum to the city newspaper seem to know about the lover’s leap. They can tell a person how to get to the bluff, but no one knows the story or folklore behind it. Still, it’s known as lover’s leap.
The Clinton Daily Democrat has been published since 1868 and the fifth generation owner, Danny Miles, said he does not know of any documented stories about a leaping lover. Possibly in Indian lore a maiden leaping story could have happened, but he said he has no information or hearsay for that scenario. He said most towns with a cliff or bluff usually do have folklore about a lover’s leap.
A couple of interesting facts Miles did have about the cliff are that Civil War Union troops camped on top of the bluff, which gave them a good vantage point toward the west. Also, in the creek that runs below the bluff, baptisms were performed during the 1830s through the 1850s.
Bridal Cave also has a lover’s leap legend. The tale is displayed on the show cave’s website, which says the story is from “Indian Romances” by Col. R.G. Scott. The Osage Native American Indians inhabited the area and within the tribe many smaller tribes formed. The two tribes in the story are the Big Hills, a tribe that lived on the north shore of what is now the Ha Ha Tonka State Park. The second tribe is the Little Hills, a tribe located on the north side of the Osage River near the junction of the Niangua.
The legend says that Conwee, the son of Chief Neongo of the Big Hills tribe, fell in love with Wasena. She was the daughter of Chief Elkhorn of the Little Hills tribe.
Conwee wanted to marry Wasena, but his love was unrequited. Both Wasena and her father did not think favorably of the young brave’s intentions. But Conwee wanted his bride and one night left his camp at Ha Ha Tonka with a band of his braves. They crossed the Osage River and kidnapped Wasena and her companion, Irona.
The first morning light threatened to give away Conwee’s fleeing group to their pursuers. They stopped at what is now known as Bridal Cave to hide their captives. Wasena was able to slip from her captors and she ran toward the nearby cliff, which stands 200 feet above the Niangua River. Conwee came close to catching her, but “without even a backward glance” Wasena chose to jump into the valley below instead of marrying someone she did not love.
The story does not end there. Wasena’s companion, Irona, had “long loved” Prince Buffalo, who was Conwee’s brother. After a mourning period for wasena’s death had ended, Irona married Prince Buffalo in the cave where she had once been held captive with Wasena. They were married in the room studded with stalactites now known as Bridal Chapel. Today, more than 3,000 couples have been married in that same cave chamber.
These stories are most likely spun into legend all over the U.S. and it seems that people never get tired of hearing about the lovers who gave their last breath for each other. Lover’s leap tales may not be able to be verified beyond a shadow of a doubt, but they do help cast a glistening romantic web over the history of Missouri’s beautiful and scenic outdoor paradise.