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The Piasa Bird

The Piasa Bird near Alton, 2007

This photo of the Piasa Bird, painted on the bluffs near Alton, was taken October 31, 2007, Photo property of Bev Bauser.

 

Ancient Origins - The Tradition of the Piasa and the Mysterious Rock Art of the Mississippi   -   offsite link

 

Don't miss this page!!!  ----->>>>>  The True Story of Piasata, which includes the Legend of the Piasa Bird, as told by her father, an Indian Chief.

 

 

THE PIASA - AN INDIAN TRADITION OF ILLINOIS
Source: Alton Telegraph, September 28, 1836
As published in the Family Magazine:

No part of the United States, not even the highlands of the Hudson, can vie in wild and romantic with the bluffs of Illinois. On one side of the river, often at the water's edge, a perpendicular wall of rock rises to the height of some hundred feet. Generally, on the opposite shore, is a level bottom or prairie of several miles in width, extending to a similar bluff that runs parallel with the river. One of these ranges commences at Alton, and extends with few intervals for many miles along the left bank of the Illinois. In descending the river to Alton, the traveler will observe between that town and the mouth of the Illinois, a narrow ravine through which a small stream discharges its waters into the Mississippi. That stream is the Piasa. Its name is Indian, and signifies in the language of the Illini, "the bird that devours men." Near the mouth of that stream, on the mouth and perpendicular face of the bluff, at an elevation which no human can reach, is cut the figure of an enormous bird, with its wings extended. The bird which the figure represents was called by the Indians, the Piasa, and from this is derived the name of the stream.

The tradition of the Piasa is still current among all the tribes of the Upper Mississippi, and those who have inhabited the valley of the Illinois, and is briefly this:

"Many thousand moons before the arrival of the pale faces, when the great magolonyx and mastodon, whose homes are now dug up, were still living in this land of green prairies, there existed a bird of such dimensions that he could easily carry off in his talons a full grown deer. Having obtained a taste of human flesh, from that time he would prey upon nothing else. He was as artful as he was powerful; would dart suddenly and unexpectedly upon an Indian, bear him off into one of the caves of the bluff, and devour him. Hundreds of warriors attempted for years to destroy him, but without success. Whole villages were nearly de-populated, and consternation spread throughout all the tribes of the Illini. At length, Ouatoga, a chief, whose fame as a warrior extended even beyond the great lakes, separated himself from the rest of his tribe, fasted in solitude for the space of a whole moon, and prayed to the great spirit, the master of life, that he would protect his children from the Piasa. On the last night of the fast, the great spirit appeared to Ouatoga in a dream, and directed him to select twenty of his warriors, each armed with a bow and a poisoned arrow, and conceal them in a designated spot. Near the place of their concealment, another warrior was to stand in open view, as a victim for the Piasa, which they must shoot the instant that it pounced upon its prey. When the chief awoke in the morning, he thanked the great spirit, and returning to his tribe, told them his dream. The warriors were quickly selected and placed in ambush as directed. Ouatoga offered himself as the victim. He was willing to die for his tribe. Placing himself in open view of the bluff, he soon saw the Piasa perched on the cliff, eyeing his prey. Ouatoga drew up his manly form to its utmost height, and planting his feet firmly upon the earth, began to chant the death song of a warrior. A moment after, the Piasa rose into the air, and swift as the thunderbolt, darted down upon the chief. Scarcely had he reached his victim, when every bow was sprung, and every arrow sent to the feather, into his body. The Piasa uttered a wild, fearful scream, that resounded far over the opposite side of the river, and expired. Ouatoga was safe. Not an arrow, not even the talons of the bird had touched him. The master of life, in admiration of the generous deed of Ouatoga, had held over him an invisible shield. In memory of this event, the image of the Piasa was engraved on the bluff."

Such is the Indian tradition. Of course, I do not vouch for its truth. This much, however, is certain - the figure of a large bird, cut into the solid rock, is still there, and at a height that is perfectly inaccessible. How and for what purpose it was made, I leave for others to determine; even at this day, an Indian never passes that spot in his canoe without firing his gun at the figure of the bird. The marks of the balls on the rock are almost innumerable. Near the close of March of the present year, I was induced to visit the bluffs below the mouth of the Illinois and above that of the Piasa. My curiosity was principally directed to the examination of a cave connected with the above traditions, some of those in which the bird had carried its human victims. Preceded by an intelligent guide who carried a spade, I set out on my excursion. The cave was extremely difficult of access, and at one point of our progress I stood at an elevation of more than one hundred and fifty feet on the face of the bluff, with barely room to sustain one foot. The unbroken wall towered above me, while below was the river. After a long and perilous clambering, we reached the cave, which was about fifty feet above the surface of the river. By the aid of a long pole, placed on the projecting rock, and the upper end touching the mouth of the cave, we succeeded in entering it. Nothing could be more impressive than the view from the entrance of this cavern. The Mississippi was rolling in silent grandeur beneath us; high over our heads a single cedar hung its branches over the cliff, on the blasted top of which was seated a bald eagle. No other sound or sign of life was near us. A Sabbath stillness rested upon the scene. Not a cloud was in the heavens; not a breath of air was stirring. The broad Mississippi lay before us, calm and smooth as a lake. The landscape persecuted the same wild aspect as it did before it had yet met the eye of the white man. The roof of the cavern was vaulted, the top of which was hardly less than twenty-five feet in height. The shape of the cave was irregular, but so far as I could judge, the bottom would average twenty by thirty feet. The floor of this cave, throughout its whole extent, was a mass of human bones. Skulls and other human bones were mangled together in the utmost confusion. To what depth they extended I am unable to decide, but we dug to the depth of three or four feet in every quarter of the cavern, and still we found only bones. How, and by whom, and for what purpose, it is impossible even to conjecture.
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MARQUETTE AND JOLIET DISCOVER THE PIASAU

Source: Alton Telegraph, March 28, 1838

(From the Western Pioneer, the History of Illinois)

Marquette and his companion [Joliet] found a river [Mississippi River] much large and deeper than it had been represented by the Indians. Their regular journal was lost on their return to Canada, but from the account of Joliet, they found the natives friendly. They soon reached an Indian village near the mouth of the Illinois, where they were hospitably entertained. Here, they were told of a tradition of the existence and residence of a "Man-e-to," or Spirit, farther down the river, which they could not pass. The legend of the Piasau, and the rude hierogliptrical representations on the precipices above Alton, are connected with Indian tradition. Discouraged with farther progress among unknown tribes along the "Great Waters," the explorers turned their course up the Illinois river, and were highly delighted with this placid stream and the woodlands and prairies through which it flowed. They were hospitably received and kindly treated by the Illinois, a large confederacy of Indians who are represented by the travelers as destitute of the cruelty of ordinary savages.

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ALTON'S "MISSISSIPPI DRAGONS"
Source: The Fulton Patriot, February 13, 1924
Two devil-like monsters painted and carved on the face of a cliff 80 feet above the Mississippi River near Alton, Ill., were discovered by the French Explorers Marquette and Joliet in June, [unreadable]. They were known as the "Piasa petro glyph" to archeologists, and were commonly called the Mississippi dragons. They were ranked as the finest example of early Indian art, and many legends were told to account for them. Marquette described them as being "as large as a calf, with horns on the head like a deer, a fearful look, red eyes, bearded like a tiger, the face somewhat like a man's, the body covered with scales, and the tail so long that it twice makes a turn of the body, passing over the head and down between the legs, and ending at last, in a fish's tail." The painting was in an almost inaccessible place on the cliff and remained there until 1856 or '57, when limestone workers quarried back into the bluff and destroy it.

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THE 'PIASA ROCK'

Source: Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Volume 5, by John Rylands Library, University Press, August 1918 - July 1920; pages 334-335; Not in copyright.

The 'Piasa Rock,' as it is generally designed, was referred to by the missionary explorer Marquette in 1675. Its situation was immediately above the city of Alton, Illinois. Marquette's remarks are translated by Dr. Francis Parkman as follows:

"On the flat face of a high rock were painted, in red, black, and green, a pair of monsters, each as large as a calf, with horns like a deer, red eyes, a beard like a tiger, and a frightful expression of countenance. The face is something like that of a man, the body covered with scales; and the tail so long that is passes entirely round the body, over the head, and between the legs, ending like that of a fish.'"

 

Another version, by Davidson and Struve, of the discovery of the petro glyph is as follows:

"Again they (Joliet and Marquette) were floating on the broad bosom of the unknown stream. Passing the mouth of the Illinois, they soon fell into the shadow of a tall promontory, and with great astonishment, beheld the representation of two monsters painted on its lofty limestone front. According to Marquette, each of these frightful figures had the face of a man, the horns of a deer, the beard of a tiger, and the tail of a fish so long that it passed around the body, over the head, and between the legs. It was an object of Indian worship and greatly impressed the mind of the pious missionary with the necessity of substituting for this monstrous idolatry the worship of the true God."

 

A footnote connected with the foregoing quotation gives the following description of the same rock:

"Near the mouth of the Piasa creek, on the bluff, there is a smooth rock in a cavernous cleft, under an overhanging cliff, on whose face 50 feet from the base, are painted some ancient pictures or hieroglyphics, of great interest to the curious. They are placed in a horizontal line from east to west, representing men, plants and animals. The paintings, though protected from dampness and storms, are in great part destroyed, marred by portions of the rock becoming detached and falling down."

 

Mr. McAdams, of Alton, Illinois, says, "The name Piasa is Indian, and signifies, in the Illini, "the bird which devours men." He furnishes a spirited pen-and-ink sketch, 12 by 15 inches in size and purporting to represent the ancient painting described by Marquette. On the picture is inscribed the following in ink: "Made by Wm. Dennis, April 3rd, 1825." The date is in both letters and figures. On the top of the picture in large letters are the two words, "Flying Dragon." This picture has been kept in the old Gilham family of Madison county and bears the evidence of its age.  He also publishes another representation with the following remarks:

 

"One of the most satisfactory pictures of the Piasa we have ever seen is in an old German publication entitled 'The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated. Eighty illustrations from Nature, by H. Lewis, from the Falls of St. Anthony to the Gulf of Mexico,' published about the year 1839 by Arenz & Co., Dusseldorf, Germany. One of the large full-page plates in this work gives a fine view of the bluff at Alton, with the figure of the Piasa on the face of the rock. It is represented to have been taken on the spot by artists from Germany. In the German picture there is shown just behind the rather dim outlines of the second face a ragged crevice, as though of a fracture. Part of the bluff's face might have fallen and thus nearly destroyed one of the monsters, for in later years writers speak of but one figure. The whole face of the bluff was quarried away in 1846-47."
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THE PIASA BIRD LEGEND

Source: Alton Observer, Editor Elijah P. Lovejoy, November 24, 1836

From the Family Magazine

Note: This was also published in the Telegraph, September 28, 1836

 

The Piasa - An Indian Tradition of Illinois

No part of the United States, not even the highlands of the Hudson, can vie, in wild and romantic, with the bluffs of Illinois. On one side of the river, often at the water's edge, a perpendicular well of rock rises to the height of some hundred feet. Generally, on the opposite shore is a level bottom or prairie of several miles in width, extending to a similar bluff that runs parallel with the river. One of these ranges commences at Alton, and extends with few intervals for many miles along the left bank of the Illinois. In descending the river to Alton, the traveler will observe between that town and the mouth of the Illinois, a narrow ravine through which a small stream discharges its waters into the Mississippi. The stream is the Piasa. Its name in Indian, and signifies, in the language of the Illini, 'the bird that devours men.' Near the mouth of that stream, on the mouth and perpendicular face of the bluff, at an elevation no human art can reach, is cut the figure of an enormous bird; with its wings extended. The bird which the figure represents is called by the Indians, the Piasa, and from this is derived the name of the stream.

 

The tradition of the Piasa is still current among the tribes of the Upper Mississippi, and those who have inhabited the valley of the Illinois, and is briefly this: "Many thousand moons before the arrival of the palefaces, when the great magolonyx and mastodon, whose bones are now dug up, were still living in this land of green prairies, there existed a bird of such dimensions that he could easily carry off in his talons a full grown deer. Having obtained a taste of human flesh, from that time he would prey upon nothing else. He was as artful and he was powerful, would dark suddenly and unexpectedly upon an Indian, bear him off into one of the caves of the bluff, and devour him. Hundreds of warriors attempted for years to destroy him, but without success. Whole villages were nearly depopulated, and consternation spread throughout all the tribes of the Illini. At length, Ouatoga, a chief, whose fame as a warrior extended even beyond the great lakes, separated himself from the rest of his tribe, fasted in solitude for the space of a whole moon, and prayed to the great spirit, the master of life, that he would protect his children from the Piasa. On the last night of the fast, the great spirit appeared to Ouatoga in a dream, and directed him to select twenty of his warriors, each armed with a bow and poisoned arrow, and conceal themselves in a designated spot. Near the place of their concealment, another warrior was to stand in open view, as a victim for the Piasa, which they must shoot the instant that it pounced upon his prey. When the chief awoke in the morning, he thanked the great spirit, and returning to his tribe, told them of his dream. The warriors were quickly selected and placed in ambush, as directed, Ouatoga offered himself as the victim. He was willing to die for his tribe. Placing himself in open view of the bluff, he soon saw the Piasa perched on the bluff, eyeing his prey. Ouatoga drew up his manly form to its utmost height, and planting his feet firmly upon the earth, began to chant the death song of a warrior. A moment after, the Piasa rose into the air, and swift as a thunderbolt, darted down upon the chief. Scarcely had he reached his victim, when every bow was sprung and every arrow sent, to the feather, into his body. The Piasa uttered a wild, fearful scream, that resounded far over the opposite side of the river, and expired. Ouatoga had held an invisible shield over him. In memory of this event, the image of the Piasa was engraved on the bluff. Such is the Indian tradition. Of course, I do not vouch for its truth. This much, however, is certain, the figure of a large bird, cut into the solid rock, is still there, and at a height that is perfectly inaccessible. How and for what purpose it was made, I leave for others to determine; even at this day, an Indian never passes that spot in his canoe without firing his gun at the figure of the bird. The marks of the balls on the rock are almost innumerable.

 

Near the close of March of the present year [1836] I was induced to visit the bluffs below the mouth of the Illinois and above that of the Piasa. My curiosity was principally directed to the examination of a cave connected with the above traditions, as one of those in which the bird had carried its human victims. Preceded by an intelligent guide who carried a spade, I set out on my excursion. The cave was extremely difficult of access, and at one point of our progress, I stood at an elevation of more than one hundred and fifty feet on the face of the bluff, with barely room to sustain one foot. The unbroken wall towered above me, while below was the river. After a long and perilous clambering, we reached the cave, which was about fifty feet above the surface of the river. By the aid of a long pole, placed on the projecting rock, and the upper end touching the mouth of the cave, we succeeded in entering it. Nothing could be more impressive than the view from the entrance of this cavern. The Mississippi was rolling in silent grandeur beneath us; high over our heads a single cedar hung its branches over the cliff, on the blasted top of which was seated a bald eagle. No other sound or sign of life was near us. A Sabbath stillness rested upon the scene. Not a cloud was in the heavens; not a breath of air was stirring. The broad Mississippi lay before us, calm and smooth as a lake. The landscape presented the same wild aspect as it did before it had yet met the eye of the white man.

 

The roof of the cavern was vaulted, the top of which was hardly less than twenty-five feet in height. The shape of the cave was irregular, but so far as I could judge, the bottom would average twenty by thirty feet. The floor of this cave, throughout its whole extent, was a mass of human bones. Skulls and other human bones were mingled together in the utmost confusion. To what depth they descended I am unable to decide, but we dug to the depth of three or four feet in every quarter of the cavern, and still we found only bones. How, and by whom, and for what purpose, it is impossible even to conjecture. - Family Mag.

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THE STORY OF THE EVIL MANITOU

 

[The following article is a condensation of an "Original Tale" of "The Manitou of the Piasa, an Indian Tradition," which appeared in two installments in the Alton Telegraph & Democratic Review, April 20 and April 27, 1844. It is not the same legend as the popularly accepted one and because of its uniqueness it is being reprinted.]

 

It is well known to all voyagers on the Mississippi that on the face of the towering bluffs near Alton are portrayed some striking and unique representations, seemingly the work of art though in a rude and imperfect state. The largest figure of this singular group is of an oblong form of distorted proportions; it is believed by some to be the picture of a monster bird of which there are no specimens extant in natural history, nor any account save in the vague traditions of the Indians. This portrait has become faded, by exposure to the elements and its outlines are but faintly perceived. (Since this story was recounted the original has been blasted away, and a replica painted on the rocks.)

 

The color appears to have been a dark vermillion hue [red to reddish orange], and its location is somewhat elevated above the now surface of the adjacent bank of the river. Its origin is far removed into the past, doubtless prior to the first voyage of Columbus. Although generally and familiarly designated as the "Piasa Bird," yet but few of the arguments advanced in support of so fanciful a cognomen [name] have more to rest upon than the magic web of the imagination.

 

A tradition in vogue the past few years is that form is of a nondescript bird that once existed in this section and was accustomed to feed on human flesh. It became the terror of the country for miles around as the land was being depopulated by its rapacity; a brave chief, incited by the Great Spirit, slew the dire scourge of his race and sketched its dimensions on the rocks. That such may have been one of the traditions of the Indians I do not pretend to deny, but I most seriously question the appearance of the picture, a single glance at which will establish that the bird in its original was certainly the sole genus of the species, and far more resembled the hippopotamus, with branching horns instead of the solitary horn of the amphibious animal, than any winged fowl of the air.

 

This story is of another tradition existing among the Pottowottomics to this day, respecting the object. A great many moons since, and long before the pale face had ventured across the salt lake, the grand valley of the mighty Mississippi was possessed by red men. Its dense and unbroken wilderness presented a wide, fearful solitude, save where smoke rising in spiral wreaths gave indications of the presence of human beings and their tribes. These Indians, grave and taciturn in their intercourse with each other, exhibited feelings of deep reverence towards their Great Spirit and their mythological superstitions and opinions would equal in magnitude to those of the ancient Greeks. They had their Great Spirit of Good and their Great Spirit of Evil, the latter subordinate and acting in subserviency to the former, and an intermediate grade of mysterious and supernatural beings, both good and evil, known as Manitou's.

 

The Pottowottomies at this time had a range of country on the east side of the Mississippi, extending from the mouth of the Cahokia to that of the Illinois, thence up that river for some 40 miles, and nearly striking the Wabash in the interior. These Indians were numerous and powerful and their war cry had been heard on the shores of the northern lakes, and those of the Ohio. Their principal village was situated upon the margin of the Mississippi some three miles above the mouth of the Missouri, situated in a deep and secluded valley where a limpid spring gushed from the mouth of a yawning cavern in the hillside. This cave could be entered only with difficulty, but gradually enlarged into capacious grottoes where the Pottowottomies believed lived a good Manitou that breathed the cooling breeze through their valley and they called the place "Manitou Cave." Pilgrimages were made to it and the fancied spirit invoked on all occasions.

 

The head chief on this nation was Oak-Tappah, Strong-Heart, noted for his strength of body, courage in combat, and address in council. Of stern and sanguine temperament, he heard the advice of his colleagues and subordinates without regard unless they were in unison with his own preconceived plans of action. A wife, called Tay-ma-lieu, and a single daughter, Wacoulla, the Deer-eyed, formed his family. Wacoulla, who had not passed 15 summers, was straight as an arrow, with perfect features and the bounding step of Diana. She was the idol of her parents and was beloved of all the tribe.

 

But distress arose to the tribe, imperceptible at first and regarded as accidental. Some people were passing up the river in canoes not far above the village and were drowned in deep water, no trace of their bodies being found. This affliction wore away and was nearly forgotten when a large party, including some of the chiefs, found a watery grave, and the tribe gave itself up to grief. As the rites of burial were esteemed sacred and without which no disembodied spirit could enter the Elysium of bliss, but must wander disconsolate and forlorn in the regions of space until its mortal remains were entombed, the total and unaccountable disappearance of the bodies of the unfortunate beings was regarded with ominous forebodings. But this incident in time was forgotten also.

 

About six moons subsequent to the second drowning, a friendly part of the Kaskaskias came to celebrate the peace just concluded between their ranks and the Pottowottomies. The visit lasted many days with fetes and carousals to amuse the guests. During this festal occasion, Wacoulla was betrothed to Conecuh, a young and brave chief of her tribe, but the consummation of the marriage was postponed until the next harvest session because of the extreme youth of Wacoulla.

 

One day, a party of each tribe, emulous of the other's skill in the chase, proceeded to the west side of the river to vie in the hunt; they took precaution to cross below the locality of the mishaps. The hunt lasted three days and success in the hunt made the warriors forget the mishaps, so a portion of each tribe, against the advise of Oak-Tappah, crossed in the fatal spot - their canoes were struck as though by a thunderbolt and all of the 35 perished. Great was the consternation of the tribe and the surviving visitors at this new calamity, and after a solemn feast for the departed, the Kaskaskias carried the news to their distant homes, and the Pottowottomies were bowed down to the dust.

 

Oak-Tappah and his council declared it death for any one to attempt passage of the river within an arrow's throw of the dead place, and a signal staff of black was placed on the protruding cliff above the vortex to warn navigators to avoid the spot. Prophets of the tribe convened and with all the mystery and mummery they could command, informed the chiefs that an evil Manitou existed in the river, that the Great Spirit had placed there to punish them for their sins. An old man of the sacred conclave gave as his individual prediction, unsanctioned by his fellows, that the evil Manitou would be a scourge until there should be born of one of the daughters of the tribe, a son of the good Manitou of the cave, who would overcome their terrible enemy and release them from his thralls. But this, regarded lightly as an incoherent ebullition [passion] of an old man's fancy, soon was forgotten.

 

From that day Indians never passed up or down the river directly, but if occasion called them above they first proceeded to the mouth of the Missouri, thence up its turbid current 20 miles where they disembarked on its northern side and carried their canoes some four miles to reach the Mississippi, and there launched upon its waters out of range of the Manitou; in descending, they took the same route. Fame of the monster extended the length of the river and all voyagers avoided the spot, universally landing and transporting their canoes across the narrow neck intervening between the Mississippi and Missouri, so that the place is designated as Portage.

 

Time drew near for the marriage of Wacoulla and Conecuh, and Oak-Tappah was desirous of delaying the consummation until a season of prosperity, but at the earnest request of the latter, consented to the nuptials a few moons removed. In the intermediate period, however, strange rumors arose in the village concerning Wacoulla, of a nature derogatory to her hitherto unspotted character. She appeared not less radiant, but time had matured her graces. A fullness of form scarcely perceptible might have been observed, and her beaming eyes were downcast in seeming confusion, when she was summoned to the presence of her father. Attending the mandate, she found Oak-Tappah and Conecuh as well as most of the chiefs, in loud and angry debate, coupling her name with degrading epithets; none defending her, not even Conecuh. She was declared to be enceinte and sentenced to death by exposure for her lapse from virtue. Called before her judges, her father with more than Roman stoicism, calmly sentenced her and would allow no argument. She threw herself on the ground, embracing the knees of Oak-Tappah and called, "My father! Hear me. I am innocent." But he tore himself away and ordered her to a retired lodge near Manitou spring, where vigilantly guarded she should be kept until time of her execution. The day when she was to have been the bride of Conecuh found her a prisoner under guard of an old hag. Although a number of the tribe hoped the stubborn council would relent, the fatal day arrived and a cortège was sent to the lodge to escort Wacoulla to her death - but she had escaped during the night with her twin boys, and the old woman could give no account of her absence. This report caused excitement, numbers expressing their undisguised joy, while her father was indignant with her dilatory guards and slew them. Runners were dispatched in all directions in a vain effort to recapture the fugitive, and it was generally believed that she perished in the river attempting to escape, and might even have been the prey of the Manitou. The last words of Wacoulla, pleading her innocence, weighed heavily on Oak-Tappah, and sleeping or waking he was never free of the accusations of a conscience.

 

Twenty years to a day had elapsed and the Pottowottomies met to celebrate their annual festival of spring. Oak-Tappah was yet alive, and still bore himself proudly, but his step was less elastic and his scalp lock white as driven snow, though his eagle eyes had lost none of their fire. Ta-ma-lieu, still living, kindly endeavored to suage his sorrows and relieve the care that was breaking his stout heart. The brave Conecuh had fallen in battle while yet young, but in the agonies of death still cherished the beautiful, though degraded, Wacoulla. On this anniversary, which had long been suspended in consequence of the contiguity of the evil Manitou to wreak his vengeance, feasts were laid out and games enjoyed. Joy and hilarity resounded throughout the vale, and dangers past or anticipated seemed unknown. Members of the tribe discovered in the distance a canoe approaching, and supposed it to belong to friends who were late for the festivities. In the canoe could be seen three persons, two males and a female, and what seemed unusual was that the former were speeding their bark against the current while the woman reclined at ease, an unheard of thing in Indian etiquette. The foremost rower ceased his work and in their own tongue requested permission to land and enjoy hospitality. The demand was acceded to and the three were cordially greeted as they gained the shore. The men who alighted on the beach were in the first bloom of early manhood, one of them of extraordinary height and perfect symmetry of person, while the other, though scarcely of medium stature, had uncommon breadth across the shoulders and chest, indicating unparalleled strength of body. The woman accompanying them seemed to be of middle age and presented a majesty of bearing and beauty well entitled to respect. From their manners and equipage they were judged to be of high rank of their own country and were conducted to a spacious lodge having several compartments; a repast was set for them and the ever present pipe, with its soporific fumes, concluded the evening. Etiquette forbade inquiry as to names, residence, or destination of their guests until after expiration of three days, in which interdicted time many surmises were indulged by their hosts.

 

The fourth morning decorum sanctioned propounding of interrogatories to the visitors; the taller of the youths answered by the name of Pessayah, his brother was Onecaw and the woman was called Metturoh, and they had come from the south from among the Natchez tribe. Even in the distant, sunny clime they had heard of the good Manitou of the cave and the evil Manitou of the river, and had come to offer homage to the former, while he avowed their unshaken resolution to conquer the latter. Oak-Tappah again bade them welcome and entreated them to give up their project, but Pessayah replied, almost scornfully, that they feared not the bad Manitou if they could secure aid of the Great Spirit and his Manitou of the cave. The two declared that on the morrow, when the sun was in his meridian they would seek their enemy. They were steadfast in their decision despite the bribes of wealth and power Oak-Tappah offered them; and when the chief entreated Matturoh to exert her influence to stop them, she refused.

 

In the silent watches of the night, the three strangers took the path which led to the Manitou cave and entered, remaining two hours. The morrow came, the hour of noon drew near, and as they could not prevent the desperate attack upon the Manitou, the chiefs assembled their people on the high bluff to watch, with suppressed respiration, the anticipated immolation of the brothers; some few young braves, rather from shame at the cowardice of their fellows than from true courage, attended the daring champions to the vicinage of the expected contest, and among the last came Metturoh, who fearlessly accompanied her companions to be near and encourage them. The two men grasped their weapons, a dart or lance somewhat resembling a modern harpoon, secured to the wrist by a small cord of seagrass, the blades in one part being nearly eight inches in width and the points carved down to the shape of a sword. Made in the south where the art of working metals was known, these instruments were more formidable for attack or defense than the simple weapons of the northern Indians. The young men stood side by side, dressed completely in tanned deer skins worked down to the suppleness of oilcloth and well glazed over the a preparation which rendered them imperious to water but did not impede free action. After exchanging gestures with Metturoh, they seated themselves in a canoe lying at the water's edge and turned the head of the vessel up the river, using their weapons as paddles, and forced their course into the track of the evil Manitou. The canoe in its rapid progress was struck from beneath and demolished, while the navigators were thrown into deep water. Sustaining themselves on the current, they grasped their blades and turned to meet the unseen foe. An enormous monster with spread-horns, rose to the surface and rushed upon them with distended jaws, armed with tusks that flashed in the sun like burnished steel, threatening to engulf the enemies in his jaw. As the creature came floundering toward them, Onecaw, parting from his brother to distract the attention of the Manitou, approached the latter on the flank and with deadly thrust, gave him a blow back of the shoulder, just as the monster meant to clutch Pessayah. The blow penetrated far into the vitals of the animal, causing it to reel towards Onecaw, but that young man dived deep into the stream and rose to the surface at a safe distance, while Pessayah, with much strength, belabored the opponent, and in several minutes they gave him a mortal wound. Combat seemed to increase his ferocity and appetite for revenge. The water, encrimsoned by blood, was lashed to foam in his frantic efforts to strike the brothers; he nearly raised his form upright and then fell prostrate on the surface, turned on his back and from dilated nostrils spouted volumes of blood high in the air. With a mighty roar, he floated motionless, an unsightly and misshapen object.

 

Knowing he was dead, Pessayah disengaged the cord that attached his weapon to the wrist, and made it fast to the antlered horns of the Manitou, the like cord worn by Onecaw was spliced to it. Pessayah fastened the other end around his body and gave it to Onecaw, who ascended the lifeless mass while the former towed the monster to shore. The throng was wild with joy and rushed to meet the illustrious champions; none was more ardent in congratulations than Metturoh, who embraced them repeatedly. The monster's body was drawn onto the beach; festivities were heard in the village throughout the night. The following day the two youths and the council set about to make a lasting memento of the event. They skinned the huge carcass and disposed of the body as a burnt sacrifice to the Great Spirit. Paint was made by bruising various flowers and roots, mingling therewith those ingredients necessary to make lasting colors, and adding a quantity of the blood of the Manitou. Pessayah climbed on the shoulders of Onecaw, who stood with his back to the rocks of the cliff, and the skin was handed up to him and stretched out on the rock where he traced the dimensions with the point of his weapon. Paint was put on with unsparing hand, the cleatrices well washed over and the operation repeated many times until the painting exhibited a striking image of the Manitou. Shape of the head and its branching horns was sketched in bold relief to the principal figure, along with hieroglyphics commemorating the event. Onecaw and his brother then went in a canoe on the river, but as no further obstruction or danger was encountered, direct navigation was resumed and joy of the natives was unbounded.

 

During the festivities of the evening, Oak-Tappah proposed that since he had no sons of his own, he adopt the two youths to inherit his rank and estate, while Matturoh should be provided for as became her high standing. She neared the old chief and bending low, thus addressed him: "Oak-Tappah, the strong heart, know that I am your daughter, the once poor, condemned, though innocent, Wacoulla; who, to save her life, fled many years ago from your power, with her two helpless children. Behold them now before you! And if the valor they have shown in slaying your greatest enemy is worthy of any return, then, oh my father, recompense it, by showing mercy to your daughter, whom you once condemned to an ignominious death. Spare her now, and forgive her; and may the good Manitou of the cave, who is the father of these noble youths, take you under his protection." Falling at his feet, she clung to his sandals, crying for mercy while the young men kneeled also and modestly, though earnestly, added their prayers to those of their mother. Oak-Tappah could not believe those words until his wife said, "Metturoh is indeed our daughter. She discovered herself to me on yesterday, and pointed out a mark on her person to me familiar from her infancy, and we concluded to keep this recognition secretly until today. Extend your favor to her; for she is in all honor deserving it."

 

The chief scanned the features of the weeping Wacoulla with a smile, the first in many years, and upraised the prostrate woman and wildly clasping her to his breast, exclaimed, "Wacoulla! I pardon thee my daughter; they cruel sentence is revoked and high rank awaits thee and thy brave sons, in the land of thy fathers. Thou art indeed my daughter, the long deplored Wacoulla, and thy sons shall be my sons. Well do I call to mind an ancient and indistinct prophecy of our seers, that this evil Manitou should be the perpetual scourge of our race until exterminated by a son of the good Manitou of the cave, born of one of the daughters of our tribe, and now right well and gloriously had this prediction been verified. And I, fool that I was, would not hear thee, but adjudged thee to a horrid death. And now, Wacoulla, my daughter, restored to me again, can you forgive me the many sufferings I have caused you. Onecaw and Pessayah, pardon me for what I have unwittingly forced ye all to suffer. Welcome again, thrice welcome to our homes and hearts. Is it not so, my council?" he concluded. They echoed his words and high rose the shouts of the spectators.

 

Prosperity and happiness again smiled over the land. Messengers were sent to surrounding tribes to convey the gratifying news of the destruction of the evil Manitou, and restoration of the chief's daughter. Years passed. Oak-Tappah was gathered unto his fathers and Onecaw and Pessayah jointly succeeded to his sway. Wacoulla enjoyed renown of her sons until a good old age. Fame acquired in killing the Manitou extended the entire length of the Mississippi and congratulations were sent them and their praises sung far and wide. The Kaskaskias, not unmindful of the heavy debt they owed the brothers for avenging the untimely death of a number of their tribe, declared that their own beautiful river should be called the "Onecaw," which name was abridged into that of "Okaw" and is used until now when speaking of the Kaskaskia river. The name Pessayah, since corrupted to "Piasa," was bestowed upon the creek passing through the village from Manitou spring, and also to a large stream a few miles above. The twin chiefs transmitted to their posterity the noble virtues that adorned their characters. During the long ages succeeding, the painting on the bluffs was viewed with superstitious awe by the simple-minded natives who, in passing it, would supplicate the protection of the Great Spirit, and bless the memory of the two brothers. Time in his revolutions, at length brought against the red men a foe more subtle and dangerous than the Manitou. It brought the Europeans, before whom they fled inwild dismay, or were unmercifully slaughtered, and there arose no Onecaw or Pessayah to avenge them.

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LOCATION OF THE PIASA BIRD PAINTING, 1834, BY V. P. RICHMOND
Source: Alton Telegraph, February 8, 1894
183 years ago
When Samuel H. Denton, the first warden of the Illinois Penitentiary, was living in Alton in a log house on what we then called Penitentiary Hill, with his one or two prisoners who he boarded in his own house and worked them during the day in preparing to build the penitentiary, I went first to see the picture of the "Piasa Bird" painted on the face of the rock that fronted the river from the top of the Penitentiary Hill, and then up the hill to see my old friend Denton.

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LECTURE ON THE PIASA BIRD

Source: Alton Weekly Courier, March 4, 1858

The ninth lecture, in course, before the Alton Library Association, comes off this evening at Mauzy's Hall. The lecturer, W. P. Jones, Esq., is a gentleman of talent, and his subject, "The Legend of the Piasa," is one of peculiar attractiveness and interest to the citizens of Alton.  See notice.

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THE PIASA BIRD

By St. Pierre Dumars of Brighton, Illinois

Source: Alton Telegraph, October 11, 1867

[NOTE:  The author concealed his identity under the nom de plume of St. Pierre Dumars.]s

Have you read in the legends of yore;

In the current Indian lore

Of the wonderful Piasa Bird -

Of the scourge of the Red Man's land,

Of a monster, oh, terribly grand.

Then I'll tell you the story I've heard.

 

On the bluffs where a city is now,

Not far past the prison's rough brow,

In the fissures of rocks and in caves

Are the bones both of beasts and of men -

Disentombed they seem to have been

From a host of ab'riginal graves.

 

And these bluffs - in my legend 'tis said,

Were held sacred as homes of the dead

Of an age and a nation gone by;

It was hither they bore from the plain

The red, battle-marred forms of the slain

From their gore to this burial on high.

 

In this region of story untold,

No race was so great or so cold

As the Illini, and none in the fight

Or the chase was so fierce or so skilled;

And the fame of their deeds well-nigh riled

The whole land in those days of their might.

 

In the ages on ages ago,

Ere you deep-rolling stream in its flow

Ever darkied at the white man's oar,

The Illini discovered - with fear -

A grim bird that was hovering near

Had flown down to the cliffs by the shore

 

There it sat, on the peak of the hill

Of their dead, the precursor of ill

Or of good - which, the wonder of all;

Then their priests, who were wiser, knew nought

Of the monster, but rev'rently sought,

If the auger of Heaven should fall.

 

Not long were there deaths for it came

With a sweeping of wings, fierce as flame,

Bearing off to its haunts living men;

Like a vain pyre its thirst seemed increased

By their blood - for its horrible feast

It appeared ev'ry morning again.

 

Wassatoga was long honored chief

Of their tribe, and a deep source of grief

Was this terrible bird unto him;

So he prayed the Great Spirit surcease

From its ravages - prayed for release

From this ravenous cannibal grim.

 

As he prayed thus, a plan was made known

How the monster could be overthrown

And destroyed; to the chief 'twas declared

That a victim, exposed should await

Its descent and so risk a dread fate,

While a few chosen archers prepared

 

With full quivers and bows - well equipped

And their poisoning arrows spear tipped -

Should attack this soul fiend of the sky;

If their weapons pour not on the plain

Its life-blood, and it rises again

Then its victim unrescued must die.

 

Wassatoga resolved with his life

In his hand to engage in the strifes;

In the council he rose from his seat,

And his purpose disclosing all slow,

Bade them hear Wassatoga would go

To attempt the precarious feat.

 

On the morrow most gorgeously dressed

In his robes that were richest and best,

In the midst of his tribe he appeared

As the victim, self-chosen, with grand

Self-denial to rescue his band

From a scourge by his braves so much feared.

 

Him the womanly tear-uttered griefs,

Nor dissuasions from all of the chiefs

Could change from his purpose of swerve;

So now waving for silence he said:

"O my brothers and children, this dread

Visitation's from him whom we serve;

 

"The Great Spirit is wroth, and demands

This sore off'ring for sins at your hands;

As your Chieftain then, who is so fit?

Tell me who to ___ charge can lay aught?

I have led forth your warriors - have fought

And have won you these lands where you sit,

 

"I have only this off'ring to make,

Then I sleep - with souls freed shall I wake;

Now, a fearless and withering tree

On the prairie I moulder away, -

Let me perish - up-torn - and decay;

In your hearts let my memory be!

 

"And obey him who stands in my stead,

He the light of more kindly stars shed

O'er the paths of his life than on mine;

Then receive as your leader my son;

May his warriors to victory run

And trophies where battle-fires shine!

 

"The Great Spirit will smile on your yet,

Wassatoga, then never forget,

But remember this debt has been paid

By his life; I go forth to my fate -

Do not hinder my sacrifice - wait -

See the end; preparations are made."

 

Then he ceased and stood out on the height,

When soon flashed in the clear morning light

The metal-hued wings of the bird

That had borne to its haunts - to its cave

And had feasted on many a brave,

Where their bones grow white uninterred.

 

As afar and the nearer it rolls

Comes a storm rushing on, while our souls

Wonder-struck seem to shrink at the sound.

So, on thundering pinions it flew

Down the sky till the chief met its view

When upon him it rushed with a bound.

 

In an instant an arrow-cloud rose

Whizzing loud from a score of tried bows -

That sunk deep in the breast of the foe.

And it fell to the earth with a cry -

A wild scream that the clouds in the sky

Repeated from echoes below.

 

Wassatoga leapt up with a shout -

He was saved! All the warriors came out

From their ambush secure to the shore

Where he stood; all the losses sustained

Were forgot - joy unbounded then reigned

That the "slayer of men" was no more.

 

A memorial rude, cut in stone

On the bluffs was formerly shown

To the traveler passing the spot;

And this image no Indian e'er past

While a bullet or arrow did last

Not bestowing upon it a shot.

 

 

ANOTHER PIASA BIRD ON FACE OF ROCK AT HULL'S BLUFF

Source: Alton Evening Telegraph, June 7, 1902

It has always been a matter of regret that the Piasa Bird pictured in the bluffs at Alton, as seen by the earliest explorers and pioneers of this section, had not been allowed to remain as its makers left it. The greed of commercialism, however, was too strong to permit it, and the Piasa bird, as well as hundreds of other pictures on the bluffs, have been destroyed, and with them probably were destroyed the records of a strange, unknown race who by this means sought to tell something of themselves for the benefit of posterity. Another picture of the Piasa bird, only much smaller than the Alton one is generally represented to have been, is said to be painted on the face of Hull's bluff, and if true, steps should be taken to preserve it. The discovery was made recently by George Dickson and a party of curio seekers who spend much time annually collecting relics of the race that left only relics and hieroglyphics. The party had kodaks with them and took snapshots of scores of rock pictures of curios interesting and entirely strange creatures, and these are being developed now. It was while engaged in preparing an unobstructed view of an object on the rocky face of Hull's bluff that the picture of the Piasa bird was discovered. Mr. Dickson says the picture is a small one, but an exact likeness of the bird as we are accustomed to see it pictured, and he thinks it can be preserved intact if steps to that end be taken at once. The section of rock whereon it is might be cut out and removed bodily, or protective measures, such as building a shelter over and in front of the place to stay the destroying action of the weather, etc., might be adopted with good effect. At any rate, something should be done to keep this Piasa bird picture in the rock where the Indians or some other race placed it, perhaps centuries ago.

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QUARRYMAN FINDS HUMAN SKELETON - ARE THE REMAINS THAT OF CHIEF OUATOGA, FAMOUS BECAUSE OF THE PIASA BIRD?
Source: Alton Evening Telegraph, November 12, 1902
William Herrin, who is employed at Dan Maher's quarries on McGuan street, while removing surface earth from the bedrock Tuesday afternoon, found a human skeleton at a depth of about ten feet from the top of the earth. He gathered the bones and took them to his home on Wharf street, where he expects to wire them together properly and let men learned in that way have a chance to determine whether the remains are those of a male or female, prehistoric personage or what is left of Ouatoga, the great Indian Chieftain who was the chief cause of the Piasa Bird being "killed dead." It is not likely, however, that the skeleton is that of an Indian, or more properly of a common, ordinary every day Indian, as the Indians do not place their dead that deep in the ground, if placed in the ground at all. Of course, in the case of a chieftain, they might have taken extra precautions in disposing of his remains. There never was a cemetery, so far as known, in the vicinity of Maher's quarry, and the chances are that what is known now is all that will ever be known of the skeleton.
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KILLING THE PIASA BIRD AGAIN

Source: Alton Evening Telegraph, June 20, 1904

The Piasa Bird must, like a cat, have more than one life. At least the Red Men of the state are killing it again up at Chautauqua today where they are enjoying their annual picnic. They have arranged, among other things, to reproduce perfectly the killing of the bird. There is said to be a large crowd and a good time. The "bird" being slaughtered is a large tin one, arranged on a wire in such a way as to appear to be flying through the air and swooping down on the populace when at the proper point he gets his finish and his career closes amid loud applause.

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WHAT WAS PIASA BIRD LIKE?

Source: Alton Evening Telegraph, March 17, 1917

In the course of a few weeks or months, Alton may be rent by a controversy that will make all others take a back seat. The question of who is to be Mayor may not be in it. There are differences of opinion as to what the painting of the Piasa Bird on the bluffs looked like. Eben Rodgers has given permission to have the picture painted on the bluff at his place, which is close to where the old picture was made originally. But before the Piasa Bird is repainted, the question will have to be settled as to what the painting was like. The drawings made of it are crude. Nobody ever thought of making an accurate drawing of the monster, at least that would appear from the variety of description given. H. M. Schweppe has some facts about it he got from his father and uncle, and which he compared years ago by conferring with other old men who had seen the bird's picture and remembered it, and he claims that his description is right. D. M. Humiston gave to the Telegraph yesterday a copy of a sketch of the bird made years ago by a man who saw it. The late William McAdams gave a description he had obtained from a man who saw it and claimed to have sketched it. Marquette made a picture that is very crude. He was the first white man who reported seeing the painting. When we get it settled just how the bird looked on the bluffs, we can go ahead and repaint him, but it would be folly, Manager Herb of the Board of Trade thinks, to paint an unauthorized reproduction on the bluffs that would always be the subject of controversy. The debate must be settled, then the picture can be painted. Other authorities are coming in offering their services to help out, and we may have to call a congress of experts on the subject of the Piasa Bird to get it right.

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WOULD SELECT NEW PLACE FOR PIASA BIRD

Source: Alton Evening Telegraph, June 12, 1918

When it was originally planned to restore the picture of the Piasa Bird on the bluffs at Alton as a feature of the Madison County Centennial, it was intended to select the site nearest where the old picture was. The painting made by the Indians was on the bluff  just west of Lovers' Leap, where the stone quarry that was operated for years by Henry Watson is located, just below Riverview Park. It would be impractical to put the painting in the quarry, as it is said it would not be plainly visible from the river. A place was offered on the bluff at the place of Eben Rodgers, the old Raible homestead, which is very close to where the painting was, but there is too much smoke from passing engines and from the Bluff Line round-house to make that place continue in consideration. Yesterday an inspection of the bluffs was made by William L. Waters of Godfrey, and Harry D. Herb, and they concluded that the most acceptable place was up the river a short distance, its choice being contingent upon the amount of money that can be raised. The painting will be restored by popular subscription, and will be maintained. The committee in charge is corresponding with various authorities and are seeking permission to make some copies of the early paintings of the picture. One of these was drawn by Marquette, the explorer, the first white man who saw it. This picture was given by the French government to the United States and is in this country. The movement to restore the Piasa Bird languished for a time but it has been given a new start and it is expected that the bird will soon be on the rocks. There are many caves along the river bank, where, tradition said, the great bird lived, and fancy can choose any one of these caves as being the authentic home of the monster the Indians told about.

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