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The Legend of the Piasa Bird

Madison County ILGenWeb Coordinator - Beverly Bauser

 

1678 Drawing of the Piasa BirdAs Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, and Louis Joliet, a fur trader, paddled down the Mississippi River near the future site of Alton in 1673, they came across two large figures painted on the side of the bluff. Marquette wrote in his journal:

“As we were descending the river, we saw high rocks with hideous monsters painted on them, and upon which the bravest Indian dare not look. They are as large as a calf, with head and horns like a goat, their eyes are red, beard like a tiger’s and a face like a man’s. Their tails are so long that they pass over their bodies and between their legs under their bodies, ending like a fish’s tail. They are painted red, green and black, and so well drawn that I could not believe they were drawn by the Indians, and for what purpose they were drawn seems to me a mystery.”

 


This original description of the “hideous monsters” painted on the bluffs did not include wings. The wings were added later in “The Piasa: An Indian Tradition of Illinois,” written by Mr. John Russell of Bluffdale, Illinois, c. 1836. Russell was a Baptist minister and professor of Greek and Latin at Shurtleff College in Upper Alton, and served as editor of a local paper called “The Family Magazine.” The story of the Piasa Bird, although fiction, had an extensive circulation. Russell took the name “Piasa” from the Piasa Creek which ran through the main ravine in downtown Alton in its early days. Piasa Creek has since been filled in and drainage pipes added, and paved over to form Piasa Street. According to the story published by Russell, the creature depicted by the painting on the bluff was a huge bird that lived in the cliffs. Russell claimed that this creature attacked and devoured people in nearby Indian villages shortly after the corpses of a war gave it a taste for human flesh. The legend claims that a local Indian chief, named Chief Ouatoga, managed to slay the monster using a plan given to him in a dream from the Great Spirit. The chief ordered his bravest warriors to hide near the entrance of the Piasa Bird's cave, which Russell also claimed to have explored. Ouatoga then acted as bait to lure the creature out into the open. As the monster flew down toward the Indian chief, his warriors slew it with a volley of poisoned arrows. Russell claimed that the mural was painted by the Indians as a commemoration of this heroic event. In the book “Records of Ancient Races in the Mississippi Valley,” 1887, by William McAdams, the author says he contacted John Russell, and Russell admitted the story was “somewhat illustrated.” To Professor McAdams, the story had little, if any, ethnological significance.

To add to more confusion, John Russell published a different version of the Piasa Bird legend in the October 28, 1847, Illinois Journal of Springfield. In this version, the Piasa was a giant condor that was slain by Alpeora, a courageous Indian who killed the monster single-handedly. He returned to his original version of the legend in the July 14, 1848 issue of the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate. Written below is the original story of the Piasa Bird by John Russell:

“THE PIASA: AN INDIAN TRADITION OF ILLINOIS,” BY PROFESSOR JOHN RUSSELL
“No part of the United States, not even the highlands of the Hudson, can vie, in wild and romantic scenery, with the bluffs of Illinois on the Mississippi, between the mouths of the Missouri and Illinois rivers. 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 extent, extending to a similar bluff that runs parallel with the river. One of these ranges commences at Alton, and extends for many miles along the left bank of the Mississippi. 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. This stream is the Piasa. Its name is Indian, and signifies, in the Illini, ‘The bird which devours men.’ Near the mouth of this stream, on the smooth and perpendicular face of the bluff, at an elevation which no human art can reach, is cut the figure of an enormous bird, with its wings extended. The animal which the figure represents was called by the Indians, ‘the Piasa.’ 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 pale faces, when the great Magalonyx and Mastodon, whose bones are now dug up, wereChief Ouatoga and the Piasa Bird still living in the 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 for human flesh, from that time he would prey on nothing else. He was artful as he was powerful, and 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 depopulated, and consternation spread through all the tribes of the Illini.

Such was the state of affairs when Ouatoga, the great chief of the Illini, whose fame extended beyond the Great Lakes, separating 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 bravest warriors, each armed with a bow and poisoned arrows, and conceal them in a designated spot. Near the place of concealment, another warrior was to stand in open view, as a victim for the Piasa, which they must shoot the instant he pounced upon his prey.

When the chief awoke in the morning, he thanked the Great Spirit, and returning to his tribe, told them his vision. The warriors were quickly selected and placed in ambush as directed. Ouatoga offered himself as the victim. He was willing to die for his people. Placing himself in open view on the bluffs, he soon saw the Piasa perched on the cliff, eying his prey. The chief drew up his manly form to his utmost height, and planting his feet firmly upon the earth, he began to chant the death-song of an Indian warrior. The moment after, the Piasa arose into the air, and swift as the thunder-bolt, darted down on his victim. Scarcely had the horrid creature reached his prey before every bow was sprung and every arrow was sent quivering to the feather into his body. The Piasa uttered a fearful scream, that sounded far over the opposite side of the river, and expired. Ouatoga was unharmed. Not an arrow, not even the talons of the bird had touched him. The Master of Life, in admiration of Ouatoga’s deed, had held over him an invisible shield.

There was the wildest rejoicing among the Illini, and the brave chief was carried in triumph to the council house, where it was solemnly agreed that, in memory of the great event in their nation’s history, the image of the Piasa should be engraved on the bluff.

Such is the Indian tradition. Of course, I cannot vouch for its truth. This much, however, is certain – that the figure of a huge bird, cut in the solid rock, is still there, and at a height that is perfectly inaccessible. How and for what purpose it was made I leave it for others to determine. Even at this day an Indian never passes the spot in his canoe without firing his gun at the figure of the Piasa. 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 Illinois River, above that of the Piasa. My curiosity was principally directed to the examination of a cave, connected with the above tradition, as one of those to which the bird had carried his 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 in our progress, I stood at an elevation of one hundred and fifty feet on the perpendicular 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 climb, we reached the cave, which was about fifty feet above the surface of the river. By the aid of a long pole placed on a projecting rock, and the upper end touching the mouth of the cave, we succeed in entering it. Nothing could be more impressive than the view from the entrance to the cavern. The Mississippi was rolling in silent grandeur beneath us. High over our heads a single cedar tree hung its branches over the cliff, and on one of the dead, dry limb was seated a bald eagle. No other sign of life was near us, a Sabbath stillness rested on the scene. Not a cloud was visible on the heavens; not a breath of air was stirring. The broad Mississippi was before us, calm and smooth as a lake. The landscape presented the same wild aspect it did before it had met the eye of the white man. The roof of the cavern was vaulted, and the top was hardly less than twenty feet high. The shape of the cavern was irregular, but so far as I could judge, the bottom would average twenty by thirty feet. The floor of the cavern throughout its whole extent was one mass of human bones. Skulls and other bones were mingled in the utmost confusion. To what depth they extended I was unable to decide, but we dug to the depth of 3 or 4 feet in every part of the cavern, and still we found only bones. The remains of thousands must have been deposited here. How and by whom, and for what purpose, it impossible to conjecture.”

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THE PAINTINGS ON THE BLUFF
The creatures painted on the bluffs near Alton were visible at least until 1845. A few years later, the face of the bluff was gradually quarried away for the purpose of making lime, and about the time of the Civil War commenced, all traces of the ancient picture had disappeared. In later years, the Piasa Bird, using the John Russell story as a guide, was painted on the bluffs. This time wings were added. This tradition has continued to this day.

The Piasa by Henry LewisIn the book, “The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated,” by H. Lewis, published about the year 1839, a painting of the Piasa Bird appears with wings. This book was written a few years after John Russell’s story. It was Professor William McAdams’ belief that Lewis, who also traveled the Mississippi and visited the site of the creatures on the bluff, made a sketch of what they saw dimly outlined, being what remained of Marquette’s famous monsters. Why Lewis’s sketch included wings remains conjecture. Did Lewis actually see wings on the monster, or did he add them after reading the story of the Piasa by John Russell? We may never know.

According to Professor William McAdams, three or four miles above Alton, below the mouth of the Piasa Creek (note that the Piasa Creek that ran through Alton was called “Little Piasa,” and a larger Piasa Creek exists further upriver from Alton), is a series of these old pictographs, the most prominent of which are the outlines of two huge birds without wings. They were painted or stained in the rock with a reddish-brown pigment, and were situated on the bluff more than one hundred feet above the river. On the top of the bluff above these pictographs were a number of small ancient mounds. When excavated, it was found that they contained human remains. These drawings and mounds have long since faded away.

According to the “History of Madison County,” 1882, painted on the bluff near Alton were two figures representing the Good and the Evil Manitou (life force or Spirit). Large numbers of Indians visited the site frequently to worship, shooting their arrows or guns at the Evil Manitou.

IN SUMMARY
I believe the Piasa Bird, as we know it today, was a symbol of the Evil Manitou – an evil spirit that brought hardships to the tribe, such as drought, war, and sickness. Shooting their arrows or guns at the Evil Manitou was to show their bravery, and ward off any troubles it may try to bring. According to Father Marquette, he and Joliet were warned before their long journey down the Mississippi of a Manitou, or Spirit, which they could not pass. As further evidence of the meaning of the painting on the bluffs, Mrs. Mary M. Bostwick of Alton recalled how the Indians, coming down the Mississippi in their canoes, shot at the painted monster on the bluffs with their arrows. She stated they did not regard it as a bird, but rather as a Devil and enemy of the tribe.

In summary, although many have referred to the John Russell fiction story as truth, it is not. There is no basis on which to try and determine whether or not the Piasa Bird actually lived in pre-historic times, since it was not real. The Piasa Bird was a symbol to the Native Americans – a symbol of a spiritual force that they believed could bring good or evil to their communities.


                                           The Piasa Bird

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