Winnetou, The Birth of a Legend

Winnetou, The Birth Of A Legend

Excerpt from Savage To Saint: The Karl May Story, available from

Karl May gave the year of birth for Winnetou as 1840 (Winnetou does not have a birthday as such). The story in the following chapter (future post) was initially published as his first travel narrative with the title of ‘Inn-Nu-Woh der Indianerhaeuptling’ (1875), under a collective heading that would translate to something like ‘From The Folder Of A Frequent Traveler’, published as a series of adventure stories in a German family periodical titled ‘Deutsches Familienblatt’ (‘German Family Tabloid’). Subsequently, Karl May changed the name ‘Inn-Nu-Woh’ to ‘Winnetou’ in a re-worked version (1878) and never looked back. As May’s Winnetou character evolved, the writer re-invented the ‘first meeting’ of the blood brothers several times—in Der Sohn des Baerenjaegers’ (1887) (The Bear Hunter’s Son), ‘Der Scout’ (1888) (‘The Scout’, incorporated into the first half of Winnetou II in 1893), as well as Winnetou I (1893). Incidentally, as Winnetou developed through the years, he appeared to become younger with each step in his evolution, in contrast to his creator, who was growing older as he worked on his noble human—hints of Dorian Grey.

Much has been said about the origin of the name ‘Winnetou’, and its accepted meaning supposedly is ‘Burning Water’ (not to be confused with the colloquial term ‘firewater’ for spirits such as whiskey, brandy, etc). However, Juergen Pinnow (1992) alludes to Karl May’s penchant for word play by suggesting that, if not a product of May’s fantasy, it might be a modification of ‘Manitou’, meaning ‘Great Spirit’. Another theory has it that May was inspired by one of George Catlin’s characters from 1848 by the name of Wun-Nes-Tou, the medicine man of the Blackfoot, meaning White Buffalo, although Werner Poppe (1972) discounts this version.

Andreas Graf (2002) is convinced that May found his Winnetou in Albert S. Gatchet’s book, an Indian language dictionary the author used frequently. The German issue was published in 1876, but the American issue in 1875; and a year earlier excerpts of it appeared in various geographical newspapers to which May had access. That’s where Karl May most likely stumbled upon the relevant information. The dictionary contains a remark about the origin of the Digger Indians, who were then connected with the small tribe of Wintoon, dwelling southeast of Mount Shasta in California. Andreas Graf says that, to him, the Inn-Nu-Woh–Wintoon–Winnetou sequence is convincing enough. Wohlgschaft’s discourse on the subject describes Eckehard Koch’s investigations and how names such as Wanata (Lakota Chief approximately 1795-1848), Winnemac and Winamac, who died in 1812 and 1821 respectively, as well as a Sioux tribe by the name of Winnebago in Wisconsin could have been an inspiration for May.

Not only the name but also the origin of Winnetou’s appearance has patchwork qualities, with Graf pointing out several contributory sources such as Balduin Moellhausen’s Joseph in Der Halbindianer (1861), The Mestizo, with the lighter touch of bronze, large dark eyes and straight black hair, or Mayne-Reid’s chief El Sol in Die Skalpjaeger (1851) (The Scalp Hunters), who wore a Saltillo blanket, had long hair that was as black as a raven, and a rifle richly inlaid with silver. Not to mention the Comanche Rayon Brulant in Gabriel Ferry’s Der Waldlaeufer (1851) (The Woods Runner; May’s translated and revised version of Ferry’s French work Le Coureur du Bois was published in 1879), who gave the early Winnetou his imperious gaze. The female attributes were still missing; however, the picture was already augmented with beautifully harmonious features.

On the other hand, there could be a more direct source for May’s inspired depiction of the aboriginal inhabitants of North America. The blanks in his earlier life today conjure up imaginative conclusions, like this one. During 1832-34, a German aristocrat and ethnographer, Prince Maximilian zu Wied (1782-1867), Swiss artist Carl Bodmer (1809-1893), and their companions traveled the largely uncharted interior of North America—the Wild West—and documented landscape and inhabitants. Thomas Weisshaar (1984), in ‘Journey To The Wild West’, wrote:

…Prince zu Wied showed himself to be the profoundest German-language scholar of the American Indian, and Carl Bodmer an eminent portraitist of [Red] Indians. Among the most avid readers of zu Wied’s splendid folio in the reading room of the Royal Public Library in Dresden was one Karl May. The young man devoured the fascinating descriptions and could hardly tear himself away from the vivid illustrations. Here, May received the first inspiration for his Indian yarns like Winnetou, Old Surehand or Der Schatz im Silbersee [The Treasure In Silver Lake]…

Bodmer’s painting of a Minatare chief could very well have been the prototype of the Winnetou of 1883: “His broad shoulders and strong chest were naked and covered in scars [tattoos]…from his shoulders hung the heavy coat of a grey bear…”. Or the steamboat trip in ‘The Scout’ could have been inspired by Bodmer’s depiction of their own journey up the Missouri aboard the steamship Yellowstone, just as May’s description of the various ‘Indian clans’ in his late work Winnetou IV could (among other possibilities) have been drawn from Bodmer’s image of the Mandan chief Pehriska-Ruhpa doing the ‘dog dance’, and who was described as having belonged to the ‘dog society’, one of many fraternities that existed among the natives, according to zu Wied.

May worked in Dresden for three years between 1875 and 1878; however, zu Wied’s texts and Bodmer’s art would have been publicized in the newspapers, magazines and journals to which May had access, and therefore, he would have been aware of their work anyway. The prince could even have been May’s inspiration for the figure of Old Shatterhand, as Maximilian zu Wied traveled the Wild West and documented everything he encountered—he wrote books about the Red Indians just like Old Shatterhand in Karl May’s adventure tales later.

Initially, the Winnetou character had not been intended to become May’s major hero for his Wild West stories, and so the writer experimented with both the exterior appearance and the Indian’s demeanor, resulting in different descriptions during his early work. Between the Inn-Nu-Woh of September 1875 and the Winnetou of 1878 there was one such experimental Winnetou figure; and it was in ‘Old Firehand’ (1875/6), the story that was modified subsequently to make up the second half of volume two of the 1893 trilogy. This short work, written in October 1875, not only contained the one and only love interest of the young German adventurer in the Wild West, but also a different character sketch of the noble savage, and the first mention of the name ‘Winnetou’.

Old Shatterhand at this stage was not yet as benevolent towards his enemies as he was to become in later adventures. There was much blood being spilled and many scalps taken. The ‘ich-Erzaehler’—the first-person narrator—in these early Winnetou tales also reflected May’s real life dramas (as all of his books did in some form or another): the desire for love, the need to be respected, the search for a life partner. In ‘Old Firehand’, of course, the hero found (or better, created) this last in Ellen, the daughter of Ribanna and Old Firehand.