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The Story of Piasata - Indian Maiden

Madison County ILGenWeb Coordinator - Beverly Bauser


And the Legend of the Piasa Bird
As told by James R. Wilson, resident of Jersey County, Illinois, 1818 – abt. 1836

The following newspaper article was found in the Daily Democrat, Jerseyville, Jersey County, Illinois, and contains lengthy letters from Mr. James R. Wilson, of McComb City, Mississippi. These letters from Mr. Wilson detail his story as a youth in 1828, living near where Delhi now stands, Jersey County, Illinois, where he, along with two other lads (Joe and Sam), met an Indian family at the mouth of the Piasa Creek (where it empties into the Mississippi River near Lockhaven). The three youths fell in love with the Chief's daughter, Piasata.

Source: The Daily Democrat, 1900
Introductory Letter from Mr. James R. Wilson:

Dear Sir,
The story of "Piasata," which I have written and mailed to you for publication and in which is given a partial history of three Jersey county boys during the early settlement of your State, is more full and complete, and therefore longer than I intended making it. I was led to commence this sketch by reading in some paper an item in regard to the legend of the "Piasa Bird;" and as I am perhaps the only man living who knows anything of the true history of this bird, at what period of time it lived, and how it was destroyed, I felt it a duty I owed to posterity to give to the public all the information I possess, and state how I came into possession of it. In attempting to do this, youthful memories have crowded so upon me, that I have described many incidents not connected with the bird, but which I believe will interest your readers, especially the younger portion of them.

I go to New Orleans shortly and do not know when I shall return, but if my story interests you and you should desire further information on any subject with which I am acquainted and able to give, if you address me, care of Dr. J. H. Plunkett, McComb City, Mississippi, I will get your letter.
Yours truly, James R. Wilson



Chapter I
I am an old man now; more than four score [80] years have passed over my head, yet, thanks to my early training and a vigorous constitution, I am still quite active and appear to be many years younger. The incidents I am going to relate took place nearly three quarters of a century ago, yet they were so indelibly stamped on my mind, that they are as plain and vivid today, as though occurring only a few months ago. At that time (1828), I lived in Illinois, in what was afterwards Jersey county (it may have been so then, I do not remember), about two miles from where the village of Delhi now stands, but there was not a house there then, nothing but hazel patches, scrub bushes and prairie. My parents located there in 1818, the year that Illinois was made a State, and when I was three years old. Near our place, two other families had taken up homes, and each had a boy about my own age (thirteen); one was Joe, the other, Sam, and I was Jim. Our outdoor labors in building, fencing and clearing up new ground made us strong, active, healthy lads, and we being the only boys in the neighborhood, soon formed an attachment for each other that grew into a friendship which was only broken by the death of the other two - many years afterward.

Our parents were quite indulgent to us in one respect at least; if we worked well during the week they allowed us every Saturday afternoon as a half holiday to enjoy or spend as we pleased. These holidays, during spring, summer and autumn, if the weather would permit, we invariably spent along the banks of a stream called Piasa Creek, which was a mile or more distant from our homes. This creek was much larger then than it is now, in fact there were then many little creeks and lakes in that portion of the state that have since entirely disappeared. The clearing up of the hazel patches and scrub timber, and the cultivation of the soil destroyed the drainage and the loosened earth washed in and filled them up. All these creeks were then literally alive with fish, and should I tell the number of sun perch, bream (or goggle eyes) and other varieties that we boys often caught in a few hours with our rude hooks and lines, this generation would not believe it. We knew every crook and bend of this Piasa Creek for miles up towards its source and down towards its mouth, and had fished and bathed along the entire distance.

This much of an introduction has been necessary to make the story I am telling intelligible. There were no Indians in that portion of the State then, and neither of us boys had ever seen one. All we knew of them was from what we had gleaned out of the few books owned by our different families, and from stories we had heard told by our parents. I know that our belief was, that an Indian was always on the war path, with rifle or bow and tomahawk, seeking to kill a white man or women and children.

One Saturday in the first week of June, we boys having a full holiday, got to the creek early in the forenoon and decided that we would go down the stream farther than we had ever been before. Therefore, without stopping any place to fish, we walked briskly along, following the old "buffalo trail" until we concluded that we were at least two miles beyond our regular stopping place, when, on suddenly turning a bend of the creek, we saw before us an Indian wigwam, and were confronted by an Indian dog, which made no attempt to bite us, but certainly made noise enough for half a dozen dogs of its size. To say that we were frightened but poorly expresses the situation. We expected every second to hear the crack of rifles and feel bullets tearing through our bodies; but just as I had said "Indians, boys, let's run for our lives," and we had turned about to do so, we beheld a tall, dignified looking Indian quietly standing in the path before us. Talk about teeth chattering, knees trembling, eyes bulging, and all the other symptoms of fright - I am satisfied we had all those and the balance of them, if there are any more. I know that I expected to see him draw his tomahawk and scalping knife, as I thought every Indian must have them, and I am certain that the hairs on our heads stood up as straight as ever a porcupine raised its quills. But just then, when we believed all was over with us and our lives were not worth the fishing poles we carried, the Indian raised his hand and motioning us backward, said in broken English, "kaw, kaw," (no, no) "white boy no run, heap good Indian, no hurt white boy." I have wandered over many states since then and have been charmed with sweet strains of music and song, but I think that the rough guttural tones of that Indian's voice were sweeter far to me then than any note I have ever heard since. Seeing that our fears were subsiding, the Indian again motioned us backward, saying, "no run, me no hurt. See wigwam. See squaw. See Piasata."

Now, I knew what was meant by wigwam and squaw, but as to Piasata I had grave doubts. I thought it was some animal he had captured and as we walked towards the wigwam, he in the rear, (he was not going to give us a chance to run), I kept a sharp look out for danger, but to our amazement, as we neared the opening in the wigwam, and Indian girl of about our own age stepped out, and at sight of her and her nod of welcome, all our fears at once vanished, for she was certainly not a creature to be afraid of. She had on buckskin moccasins and leggings and a buckskin skirt, but there was no bead trimming and tassels as we had seen represented in pictures. Her hair was very black and hung loose about her shoulders, reaching nearly to her waist. Her eyes were also black and much larger than Indians usually have, while her features were regular and without the high cheek bones that belong to the Indian, of whatever tribe or people. Her complexion was much lighter than that of either her father or mother, but this was due, as we afterwards learned, to the fact that her mother, who was her father's second wife, was of a mixed race - Indian and Spanish. She wore around her body a garment reaching from her shoulders to her waist, made out of figured cloth which was only a straight piece with holes cut for the arms (which were bare) and looped together in front with buckskin strings or thongs. Beneath her skirts she wore short pants, reaching from leggings to waist, which were fastened around her body with a buckskin cord made of several narrow strips braided together. These pants were made of cloth and were certainly of a peculiar pattern. They were cut in two pieces or halves, and were neatly laced together with long buckskin strings. There was not a button, hook and eye or a pin about her clothes. Of course, many of these things we learned afterwards. She was not robust or large limbed, but rather spare, yet like her father, she appeared to be quite muscular and stood as straight as the proverbial arrow.

It does not take young people long to get acquainted and in an hour's time we were all talking to her and listening to her replies in broken English. She was certainly very pretty, but she did not have those extremely small feet and hands that many writers give to their Indian heroines or sweethearts, and she was certainly ours from that day onward; and for months afterward there was a great rivalry between us boys as to which of us should command the greatest share of her attention.

Chapter II
She showed us many things of her making (moccasins, leggings and other fancy articles), together with her father's war bow and quiver of arrows, and a flint lock rifle, which she said was to "heap kill buffalo and Indians." She also showed us a smaller bow and arrows, which she said was to "heap shoot mark." During all our conversation with her, the old Indian, though seeming very much interested, did not speak to us, only muttering an occasional "ugh" or "kaw" (yes or no), but when she showed us the smaller bow and arrows, he said, "white boy shoot bow?" We nodded assent and he then took them and saying, "Piasata heap shoot mark," started off up the road we had come, motioning us to follow him. We did so, understanding that he was challenging us to shoot against her. Now, we boys all had bows, though crude in comparison to this one, but we thought we could do some pretty fair shooting and were perfectly willing to have a trial with her. Stopping where there was a straight stretch of road for a hundred yards or more, he took his knife and cut off the outer bark of a tree, making a mark about six inches in diameter; then, motioning us to follow him, he walked off fully seventy-five yards from the tree, then turned and commenced to string up the bow. Piasata stood by, seeming perfectly satisfied, but we boys made him understand that we could not shoot so far and wanted to go much nearer to the mark. He gave us a look of disgust and muttered, "ugh, white boy shan-go-da-ya," (which we afterwards learned meant coward). He walked back to the place we indicated, about forty yards from the mark; then handing me the bow and arrow; he said "shoot heap straight." Well, I took a good long aim, shot, and missed the tree (about a foot in diameter); Sam then shot and did the same; Joe followed suit, hitting the tree, but his arrow was sticking about two feet under the mark. It was now Piasata's turn to shoot and I hoped that she would miss the tree also. There were six arrows left in the quiver. She selected three and handing her father two to hold for her, she stepped on the spot we had shot from and almost instantly let fly an arrow, followed by another as quick as her father could hand it to her and both struck the mark, one in the edge, the other near the center. But without giving us time to praise or congratulate her, she took the last arrow and walked up the road until fully one hundred yards from the tree, then turned and shot nearly as quickly as before, the arrow striking within three inches of the mark. The Indian offered us boys another arrow, but we were discouraged and disgusted and would not shoot again. We complimented Piasata on her skill and told her we were glad she beat us, which was just one of our little lies. She tried to console us by saying, "never mind, white boy shoot heap good someday." But I made up my mind to break my bow and arrow as soon as I got home, and never shoot again. The old Indian made no comments, but his face showed that he was very much pleased at our defeat and with her shooting, though, of course, he knew how it would end before the trial.

As we wanted to take home some fish to show for our day's outing, we now prepared our lines and, in an hour, had caught all that we wished to carry; then telling our newly made friends good bye, and with this rather doubtful invitation from the old Indian to renew our visit, "ugh, white boys heap come more some time," we started homeward.

On the way, we decided on two things; first, not to say anything to our parents for the present about our Indian friends, and second, that we were all three desperately in love with Piasata.

The next day, Sunday, was ours, and we agreed to meet as early as possible at the old ford (the road leading from Delhi to Alton crosses the creek at the place) and each to bring something for ourselves and Indian friends to eat. We met about nine o'clock and upon making an inventory of the victuals we had secured, we found the result to be as follows: Sam had his pockets full of biscuits and the leg and wing of a chicken; Joe had half of a "Johnny cake" and a chunk of boiled venison. He had split open the cake of corn bread and had put in a big lot of butter, then had wrapped it up in about a yard of calico. The heat of the sun and the warmth of is body had caused the butter to melt and run out and one side of his tow-linen coat looked as if he had fallen into a kettle of soap grease to which the calico had added sundry red and green spots. As to myself, I had hooked a dewberry pie, a small piece of ham and a chunk of "corn pone." I had tied them up in my father's many-colored handkerchief, and which for convenience in carrying I had swung over my shoulder. The juice had run out of the pie and trickled over my tow-linen coat until, with stains added from the handkerchief, it had about as many colors as the famous coat worn by Joseph. We were in a pickle, and how on our return home to account for the condition of our clothes without giving up our secret or telling a plain lie, bothered us. But it is hard to dampen the spirit of a frolicsome boy and we were soon laughing over our mishaps while trudging briskly along the trail that led to the Indian's camp. On our arrival, the old Indian and his wife merely nodded and said "ugh," while Piasata shook hands with us, but it was plain to be seen from their faces that we were welcome.

We presented our motley lot of provisions to the squaw, who was certainly much pleased to receive them. She was a good looking half-breed, about thirty-five years old and a little inclined to corpulency [stoutness], but I felt certain that the use of a little soap and water would improve matters with herself as well as her husband. They both dressed very much the same as I have described Piasata, but with this difference, she was always neat and clean, while they looked the opposite.

Chapter III
I will here digress long enough to make a few general remarks about Indians and their character as a race. Since the time I speak of, I have lived with them, have fished and hunted with them, and have fought with them in their tribal wars, and against them with U. S. soldiers (as a scout) from Dakota to California. As a general thing, the Indian is a coward, always seeking to overcome you by numbers, ambush, or treachery. There are some exceptions to this - now and then you find one who is recklessly brave, who will face death in any form and fight as long as he has life or strength to resist. They are almost universally dirty in their habits, but from the nature of the life they lead, they could not well be otherwise. Their famed fleetness of foot, their noble appearance in paint and feathers, and the beauty of Indian maidens that story writers tell us about is, as a general thing, all bosh. I have seen a few warriors who had pride enough to keep themselves clean and were really fine looking; and a few runners, who perhaps, in even a short race, could equal or surpass the speed of our fleetest Anglo-Saxon; and a few Indian girls (full-bloods) who were really good looking, but they were exceptions. Indian girls, from their manner of living, fade quickly; they usually look old at thirty and at fifty are ugly hags. I have seen Indian girls who were beautiful in face and figure and who had small feet and hands, but they were the half-breed Chickasaws and Choctaws in the Indian Territory. I have seen the same along the Alapata flats and Kissimmee River in Florida, but they were half-breed Seminoles. To the half-breed Indian girls, I will pay this compliment, they are as a rule modest and strictly virtuous; while the full-bloods - well, they have had a poor chance and we will not discuss the matter. The men bear their age much better than the women, but not in comparison with the white man. Indians are nearly always clumsy and are very seldom equal in quickness or suppleness to an active American. Their training, however, hardens their muscles and their wind, or endurance, is marvelous. With anything like equal strength, an Indian will wrestle a white man out of breath and finally handle him at will. In a melee with one where life is at stake, I would advise the white man to kill him first and do his wrestling afterwards. As a runner, there are a few as I have said, very fleet in a short race, but their forte is in distance. They will run at a moderate pace for ten or twelve hours, stopping only a few minutes now and then to eat a little dried venison or take a drink of water, and they are off again. They will rest and sleep perhaps not over two hours (if the case is urgent) in twenty-four, and cover in that time the remarkable distance of over one hundred miles. The love and undying friendship of an Indian is always to be doubted. I have known such, but as a rule in dealing with them, trust with one hand and keep the other ready for defense. In love they are stoics; in hatred, implacable; in vengeance, fiends incarnate. Such is the Indian as I know him, with but few exceptions.

But returning to our friends, we spent the time very pleasantly for an hour or so talking with them as best we could and each trying to gain the largest share of Piasata's attention. I thought Joe had gotten ahead of us by giving her his piece of greasy calico and I at once donated my father's large cotton handkerchief, which certainly put me in the lead, and I felt quite elated over my victory. But now, the old Indian, who had thus far made no remarks except his usual "ugh, ugh" or "kaw, kaw," said to us, "white boy heap run fast." We knew this was a challenge for a foot race with Piasata and at once nodded assent. We were really glad he made it, because wrestling and foot racing were our principle amusements and we considered ourselves experts at both, Sam and myself especially so. She had beaten us with bow and arrows and we felt sure that we could even up matters in the foot race. We made ready by removing our shoes (we had no socks) and tying our "galluses" [suspenders] tight around our waists, while Piasata said she was "heap ready" just as she was. We went up the road to where we had held our shooting tournament, the old Indian stopping at least two hundred yards from the tree we had shot at, indicating by a sign that it was to be the end of the race. We were again compelled to make a kick, the distance was too great. We knew that one hundred yards was our limit for best speed and insisted on running this distance. He reluctantly gave in to us, muttering "ugh esa kaw mahugo tayse," (shame upon you, no brave heart). As we did not then know the meaning of his expression, we were satisfied with gaining our point and I felt sure that Sam or myself would show Miss Piasata our heels.

The old Indian took his stand about one hundred yards from the tree and signed for Piasata and myself to clasp hands ten paces back of him, then start and "break hands" when we reached him, and "scoot." We did so, and I being quicker than she, gained several yards on her in the first twenty-five and began to feel a little sorry about beating her so badly and was thinking of slowing up a little, when phew! she moved up even with and passed me in spite of my utmost exertions to keep up with her and reached the tree fully six yards ahead of me. I was both worried and astonished, because I had thought myself a pretty swift runner, but I shook hands with her over my defeat and we went back to the starting place, she telling me "heap short race, run faster long race." Without resting a minute, she took Sam’s hand and they were off on their trial, she beating him worse than myself, which so discouraged Joe that he refused to run at all. The old Indian showed by his countenance that he was highly pleased at our being so badly beaten and said "kaw, white boy no heap run," and we were willing to admit that he told the truth about it. He then, to show us the speed and wind of Piasata, placed Joe about seventy-five yards from the tree, myself about one hundred yards from Joe, and Sam equally as far beyond me, thus arranging for her to beat all three of us at once, she having to run three times as far as either of us. Well, she and Sam started and before I could get a good ready and my lungs well inflated she was right upon me, Sam eight or ten yards behind her, and to be certain that I got a good start, I lit out ten or fifteen feet ahead of her, but it was no "go." She passed me within fifty yards, running like a deer, but she looked at me as she passed and said "shango da ya," (coward). I called to Joe to start right then, that it made no difference, she would beat him out anyhow. He did so and ran his best, but she passed him before he reached the tree, apparently running faster than at the commencement of the race. The old Indian was mad at our unfair way of starting. I knew I had done wrong, but I managed to make him believe that I knew Piasata would beat us and I wanted to see how fast she really could run, which pleased and pacified him. We laughed over our defeat, complimented Piasata on her fleetness and told her we were glad that she had beaten us, which was another of our little lies, as we felt bad over it and would have beaten her if we could. She told us her real name was We-ish-a-wa-she (running fawn). I know we all thought the name very appropriate, only we felt sure that she could outrun a fawn. Why she was named Piasata and could shoot so well and run so fast will be explained hereafter.

Chapter IV
After our race, we returned to the wigwam, where we found the squaw broiling fish over some coals, and though they did not appear to be overly clean, we boys, upon invitation, pitched in and helped eat them, besides a good portion of the victuals which we had brought, gaining from the old Indian a muttered expression "that we could heap eat better than we could run," which was true. All healthy boys can do the same. Dinner over, which we ate from bark plates, the old Indian filled his pipe with some villainous stuff (certainly not the famous kinikinnick) [smoking material typically made of mixture of various leaves or barks with other plant materials], lighted it, and after taking a few puffs, handed it to us to do the same. We boys did not use tobacco, but felt that we must smoke the "peace pipe" with him and after many coughs and spits, much to his delight, we succeeded in taking several whiffs apiece and our friendship was cemented from that day.

After finishing his pipe, he asked us boys if we could "heap swim." We knew what was coming and not caring to be humbled again we told him "heap little." Fronting the wigwam, not ten yards distant, was a "deep hole" as we called it and a pretty place to swim. but how could we go in swimming? We could not strip off before them and we had no extra clothes or bathing suits. The squaw, from our looks of dismay, comprehended our difficulty and told us to take off our shirts and moccasins (brogans), keep on our pants and we would be "heap fixed" and that Piasata swim too. We were telling her that we could not undress before women, when the old Indian pointed to our shoes and shirts and said "take off," this settled it; we were afraid to disobey him and we at once went behind the wigwam and got out of them in a hurry. When we returned, covered with blushes instead of shirts, we were confounded at sight of Piasata. She stood before us draped like ourselves. She had removed moccasins, leggings and body cloth. She wore a pair of pants only, made and fastened around her waist and as I have before described, and this is how I learned the manner of their making and fastening. Mothers have the instinct of motherhood the world over, and noticing our surprise at her appearance, she told us Indian people bathed that way and all together. This I afterwards found to be true, I have seen scores of both sexes, little and big, bathing together, the men wearing breech-clouts only and the women a single skirt or short pants.

Piasata smiled at us and pointing to Sam, who was very dark skinned, said he would make "heap good Indian," and to Joe, who was very fair, she said he was "heap white girl boy." About myself she made no comments and I was very much mortified over it, but was eased a little when the old Indian said that I would make "heap strong man someday." Though we bathed together this time, and often afterwards, I never saw her give a sign or look that would indicate that she felt she was acting unwomanly. She was modest in her immodesty. We had the greatest respect for her and soon thought nothing of her undressing to go in bathing with us (which we always did in front of the wigwam). The old Indian and his squaw took a seat on the bank, which was several feet above the water, and motioned for us to go in. Piasata took the lead, diving down head foremost, we following after her. We bathed for an hour at least, swimming and diving, each trying to show off to the best advantage, but our principle fun and annoyance and that which gave the greatest delight to her mother and father, was Piasata's ducking us. We were her equals in swimming, but she could beat us badly in diving. I believe she could see under water, equal to a fish. She would dive down and the first thing we knew, she would have one of us by the ankles and down we would go also. She half drowned us, and yet she was so expert in diving away from us, that we never succeeded in ducking her a single time. Whenever we saw her go under water we at once made a break for the bank, but seldom reached it in safety. Sam was her special favorite in this sport, and I think she made him swallow enough water during that summer to start a mill pond.

After leaving the water, we dressed ourselves, Piasata doing the same, emerging from the tent in a fresh suit, looking more interesting than ever. As it was time for us to start homeward, we told them goodbye, and with an invitation to "heap come more," we left with the incidents of a day's sport engraved upon our minds that time never effaced. Now, the problem confronted us as to how to account for the condition of our clothes, Joe’s and Sam’s coats were stained and greasy, while mine looked still worse from berry and handkerchief stains; and our pants were streaked all over with mud. We talked the matter over as we hurried along and finally a bright idea struck one of us, that we would fall into the creek (accidentally of course) and get wet and stained all over alike. We soon came to a clay bank suitable for our purpose where a small drift log had lodged, and after removing our shoes we carefully walked out on it and of course fell off. After several attempts to climb back up the bank, slipping and rolling over each time, we finally got out again, but what a sight we were, all grease and berry stains were certainly hidden with mud. Our parents had often seen us come from the creek wet and somewhat drabbled, but never in our present condition; so we decided not to say anything about our Indian friends, but to tell them how we walked out on a small log, of its turning and our shoes slipping and we falling into the water and climbing out up a clay bank. We felt sure from our appearance that this little lie would be swallowed whole without hesitation or comment. It being but little out of their way, Sam and Joe went home with me and as it happened, their parents had spent the day with mine and all were present when we entered the house and made our agreed statement as to the cause of our appearance. Sam’s father asked him some question about the locality of the log, but before he could answer my father pointed to our shoes and asked how we managed to fall into the water by our shoes slipping and get our clothes so wet and muddy, yet keep our shoes dry. This settled it, we were caught "red handed," and we then truthfully told them the whole story about the victuals, our Indian friends and of our swimming with Piasata. After scolding us for telling a story and reminding us that boys were never as smart as they thought themselves to be, they laughed at our miserable appearance until we felt disgusted over our experiment and decided that it was best to tell the truth at all times.

Our fathers then told us that it was not uncommon for one of two Indian families to come up the Piasa a few miles from the Mississippi in the early fall to fish and hunt. They would salt down the fish, jerk (sun dry) the deer meat, then decamp before the coming of winter. They supposed this one had come from somewhere over in Missouri, but could not account for his appearance before the commencement of the hunting season. They commented a little on our choice of company, but said they had no objection to our visiting them. This settled it, each of us was now sure that someday Piasata would be his wife and that we could never, no never, be happy if we failed to get her.

Chapter V
The incidents related in the foregoing chapters fitly describe our amusements during the entire summer and early fall. We seldom failed to visit our Indian friends on Saturday afternoons and Sundays and always met with a nod of welcome from the old Indian with his "ugh, ugh," and with a warm reception from Piasata, who soon learned from us to speak very good English, while she in turn taught us her language so that we could, and often did, carry on our conversations in her own tongue, which I afterwards found out was the Algonquin. The old Indian was of the Piasa tribe, a branch of the Algonquins, and had been a noted chief among them after leaving the Piasa and was a hereditary chief in his own tribe. He was born near where his wigwam then stood, as were his father and grandfather before him. After we boys learned to talk with him in his own language, he became much more communicative. He told us of his tribe, their history as he knew it, and the history of the great Piasa bird and how they destroyed it. The events I am speaking of were in 1828, or 72 years ago. The Indian was then, as he counted by "moons," 67 years old and must have been born about 1760. His father, he said, was 25 years older than himself and must therefore have been born about 1735. He told us of things that took place along the Piasa (told him by his father) as far back as 1745, and of events that happened in that portion of the state (told him by his grandfather) as far back as 1720, and by his great grandfather as far back as 1690. I could tell many of them, but it would make this story too long. They were not traditions, as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had taken part in them, and had told him of them in person. I am only the third person removed, yet I can relate things that took place in Jersey County over two hundred years ago. I remember this old Indian's (I will call him Chief hereafter) description of their tribal wars and battles with the Okaws, Illinis and other tribes now forgotten. Their last big battle was fought against these tribes combined, and took place near where Delhi now stands, between there and the Little Piasa, about a mile distant from the village. Though only a boy of twelve, he took part in this engagement (which must have been about 1772), fighting by the side of his father. According to his statement, he did bravely, killing several of the enemy with his arrows. The old chief took us over the battleground and showed us where they had lain in ambush in the long grass, and how the enemy had marched right up to them, without suspecting their presence. They, thinking their march unknown, intended to go down to the Little Piasa and cross it at what was afterwards called Gardiner's ford, then take the "buffalo trail" down by the "deer lick" and "buffalo wallow" to the Big Piasa and attack them in the rear. But the Piasas, having gained information of their coming, sprung a great surprise on them by ambushing them on the route they knew they would take and completely defeating them.

According to his account, great numbers were killed and many wounded. I doubt the number killed, as I never knew any tribe to face an enemy until their loss was very heavy. They will fight while yelling, as only Indians can, but when a dozen or so are killed and as many wounded, if one side does not run the other will. There are only two ways that suit an Indian to fight, unless there are big odds in his favor, that is from ambush, or on a run, either after you, or from you. But, to return to my story - we boys often visited the battlefield and where rain had washed little gullies, we would often find a pocket full of stone arrow heads and judged that there must have been a sure enough big fight there. He also told us of another big battle, in which they were the victors, fought several years before this (about 1767) near where the town of Jerseyville now stands. The road from Jerseyville to Grafton passes over the battlefield (or did), perhaps not over a mile distant from the former place. I suspect boys have often found arrowheads there and wondered how they come to be there in such quantities.

Growing weary of continual warfare over hunting grounds, his branch of the Piasa tribe moved across and up the Mississippi (I have forgotten at what date), joining a tribe of Algonquins, and made their home in what is now Dakota. There he married, in after years, his second wife, a half-blood, and when a girl was born he named her Piasata (meaning crooked water) in remembrance of his tribe and their former home on the Piasa. Piasata's success in shooting, running and swimming is easily accounted for. Two villages stood near each other, only a small stream separated them; the only amusements the children had were swimming, running, or shooting with bow and arrows and they grew up in daily practice of all three (when weather permitted), the children on one village trying to outdo those of the other; and Piasata became very expert in all three amusements, as we boys afterwards found out. But it seems natural for an Indian to be expert with bow and arrow. I have seen Indian boys six or eight years old, who would knock a quarter out of the end of a split stick, three times out of five, at ten or twelve yards distance. It does not take one very long to get tired of putting up quarters for them to shoot at, they getting the quarter if they hit it first shot.

Chapter VI
This visit on which we met the old chief and his family was the first time he had been to his boyhood's home since leaving it, which was, I think, about 1780. They had come down the Mississippi and up the Piasa in a large birch canoe, and had camped where their village once stood, and he had erected his wigwam where his father's stood when he was a boy. On a little hill nearby he showed us the graves of his ancestors and told us that he wanted to see the old place again before he went to the "Happy hunting grounds." Of course, he told us this and many other things I have mentioned, after we learned to speak his language. He told us also, as I have before mentioned, about the "great Piasa bird;" how for a long time it destroyed their children and even half-grown youths, and how, at length, after a hard fight, they had succeeded in killing it. They afterwards painted a picture of it on the bluff rocks on the Mississippi at or near the mouth of the Piasa, where he said there was a cave in which it lived. I never saw this picture, but have often heard that it really existed, in fact have talked with persons who said they had actually seen it. If painted there as he described, and still visible, they must have used colors remarkable for durability, as the work was done about 1690, over two hundred years ago. This was in 1828, the old chief was then 67 years old, and was born therefore about 1760, his father about 1735, his grandfather about 1710 and his great-grandfather about 1680. It was when his great-grandfather was a boy of ten or twelve that they killed this great bird, and therefore about 1690. The way Indians count by moons and seasons, they lose a year or over in every twenty-five, and his great-grandfather was probably born about 1675, and other dates given should be moved back accordingly.

I have heard traditions of this bird from other sources, both from Indians and white people, but never believed that any such sized bird as these traditions affirmed and he described, ever existed, except in pre-historic ages. I am satisfied that a large, voracious bird actually destroyed these youths or children, and was killed as the old chief described. But from knowledge gained in after years and from his description of its habits, its lofty flight a mere speck in the sky and of its rapid descent on its prey and how it could disable and even kill with the stroke of its wing or bill, I believe that it was a huge Condor from the Andes mountains, which had from some cause wandered that far from home and on account of its solitary life, it became more daring and savage than usual and attacked human beings instead of sheep or calves, there were none there and in preference to eating carrion. Instances are not rare where birds, large as well as small, have wandered thousands of miles from home and never seemed to know how to return. But from other descriptions he gave, I am satisfied that the "great Piasa bird" was a lost or wandering Condor from some part of South America.

It seems that they at first regarded the coming of this bird as a curse sent upon them, for one of their tribal wars by Gitche Manito (the great spirit), whom they tried in many ways to appease, making no effort to destroy it. But its forays became so destructive that they concluded that it was sent by Mitche Manito (the spirit of evil) and determined to kill it. Their first attempts were failures, several warriors having arms broken by strokes of its wings and their faces and bodies badly torn by its bill. They only succeeded in wounding it so that it disappeared for a few days, then it was back again, more savage than ever. They then decided on another plan of attack, which according to his description, was as follows: On the top of a hill, the one on the right hand on the road going from Delhi to Alton, that you descend to ford the Piasa or the one you ascend after crossing the creek, I have forgotten which, they dug a hole early in the morning, several feet deep, and covered it over with branches of hazel bushes; then they fixed up hiding places for a number of warriors and were ready for the battle. The old chief's great-grandfather was the boy selected to stand by the hole to attract the attention of the bird. It was soon seen rapidly descending and as it came near the earth, the boy parted the bushes and jumped into the hole, spreading them back again and thus disappearing from its sight. It had no sooner lit, then they commenced shooting at it with their arrows, many of which were driven in its body. Though badly wounded and unable to see the warriors behind their screens, it would not retreat, but ran around in a circle looking for them. Finally, one wing was pinned to its side by several arrows, and they thought that it was safe to attack it in a hand to hand fight, and rushed out with tomahawks and clubs to finish it. but they made a mistake. No vital part had been touched and though wounded in many places, it made a ferocious fight, breaking an arm of one warrior with its sound wing, knocking out an eye of another, while it tore the flesh on the bodies and face of others with its bill, making wounds that left their marks through life. Finally, the boy crept out of the hole and running up behind the bird, caught it by one foot, and pulling back with all his strength, threw it on its side, when a warrior jumped on its head holding it down, while several others chopped away at its neck with tomahawks, until they cut its head off. They then held a feast for several days, all the neighboring villages joining in as all had lost children by it. They removed the flesh and broke up bones to make charms or medicine bags, one of which he showed us, asserting that it contained some of the bones of this great Piasa bird.

Such is the legend of the bird and of its killing as told us by the old chief on the banks of the Piasa in 1828.

Chapter VII
Strange as it may seem, the incidents which I have related refer to things which are said to have happened on the Piasa 210 years ago (1690), and yet the tale, tradition, or story, has passed through but one person to me. The old Chief's great-grandfather lived to be upwards of ninety, dying about 1772. When he was a boy of twelve, he had often heard him relate the history of the bird, of its coming, how it destroyed their children, and of its killing, and the part he took in it, and as he (the old Chief) told these tales to me, they have passed through but one person, though happening 210 years ago. Time, and an Indian's imagination, no doubt added much to the size of this bird, if not to its destructiveness. He pictured it as twenty-five feet from tip to tip of wings, with a body as big as a pony, and, when standing erect, seven or eight feet high. If, as I believe, it was a large condor, its actual size was sufficient for their imagination in after years to build up into the huge bird he described. A large male condor will measure from fifteen to sixteen feet from tip to tip of wings, having a body from three and a half to four feet in length. The ferocity of the condor when hungry is not equaled by any other bird. Though belonging to the vulture class, it is also a bird of prey, and Woods, in his history of birds, affirms that two of them have been known to kill full grown sheep, lambs and even the savage puma, literally tearing them to pieces with their terrible bills. In like manner, they have been known to kill full grown cattle and to maim and cripple persons who attempted to drive them away.

But, I must bring this story of early life in Jersey county to a close, omitting much that I would like to tell, because the tale is getting too long and I am tired of writing it. I pass over, therefore, a description of the exhibitions the old Chief gave us of his skill in the use of his war-bow and long arrows, as well as the many strange Indian legends he told us and the history of his people in the sha-shah (long ago). The month of November came on, and the old Chief, his Indian name was Soan-ge-ta-ha (strong hearted), told us that at the next new moon he would leave there and go back to his people in the northwest. As this would occur in a few days, we boys knew that we had but one more visit to make, and on that Sunday, I shall never forget how each of us wore his best clothes and tried to look his prettiest in order to charm the "running fawn," knowing it was his last chance. But, somehow, before we arrived at their camp we seemed to have a foreboding of evil. We talked it over, thinking perhaps we would find that they were gone, or that Piasata was sick, or anyhow that something strange had happened. When we got within a half mile of the camp, we found Piasata's dog sitting in the road awaiting our coming, something he had never done before, and he looked cowed and downcast, as if he were in trouble. He trotted along in front of us, straight up to the wigwam, and, to our consternation, there lay our little Indian maiden as though she were asleep, but she was dead.

I have often wondered if that dog could reason; he knew how we all played together, as he was always with us and he knew that she was dead. He had met us a long way from camp, seeming to know that it was the day and hour that we made our regular visit, and he had led us straight to the tent, looking first at her and then at us, as though begging us to do something for her - to bring her to life again. Tears were plentiful that morning, but the old Chief (stoic all of them) shed not a single one. Yet his face and the twitching of his muscles showed plainly his suffering. Her mother wept as freely as ourselves, as she told us how she had been killed. She had evidently climbed a tree to catch a bird she had wounded, when a limb gave way and she fell to the ground, breaking her neck in the fall. The dog came back without her and by his actions, got them to follow him, when he led them to where she lay, but she was dead; her neck was broken and she had evidently died without suffering, as there was no trace of pain on features. Her mother had dressed her in her best and brightest clothes, and she looked so natural that we boys could hardly realize that our little We-ish-a-wa-sha had gone from us forever. Her father, with tomahawk and other rude implements, had dug a grave scarcely two feet deep, by those of his ancestors, and there we boys, two at her head and one at her feet, carried her on a dressed deer skin and gently lowered her body down into it. Her mother then placed all of her trinkets and playthings beside her, including all the gifts we had made to her, and then folded the deer skin over her and she was hid from our sight forever. With canoe paddles and hands, we boys filled up the grave and shaped it as best we could, for our eyes were blinded with tears. We thought it best to leave them alone in their sorrow, and soon told them goodbye; her mother was weeping as freely as ourselves, but the old Chief, in his own tongue without a quiver in his voice, told each of us goodbye. Holding our hands in his, he said that he would soon join Piasata in the happy hunting grounds "beyond the sunset;" then exclaiming, "showain, showan, nemeshin (I sorrow, I suffer, pity me), he turned and entered the tent and we never saw him again.

On the following Sunday, we boys visited Piasata's grave and we saw that it had been opened since we left. Wondering for what purpose this had been done, we dug down a piece to make an examination, and found her dog buried above her. Whether he had died from grief, or whether the old Chief had killed him in order that he might go with her to the "land of the Great Spirit," we, of course, could not know, but from our knowledge of their belief, we judged that he had not died a natural death.

Chapter VIII
Piasata, though only an ignorant Indian girl, managed and controlled us boys equal to an experienced woman. An entire summer had passed, and there had been no quarrels or contention between us, nor had we been jealous of each other, because she made us believe that she loved us all just the same. Only the week before her death, she drew a circle in the dust, a heart inside of it, with three arrows just touching the edge of the circle. The arrows represented us boys, and in the Indian sign language, the figure meant that we were all equal in her love or friendship.

Those unacquainted with the Indian sign language would be astonished at the amount of information that can be conveyed through the medium of a few little figures. We learned to write and read this language from the old Chief and Piasata, and it afterwards proved to be of great benefit to all of us, and especially to me, when on duty as a scout. I have often read messages written on rocks, banks of clay, or hard ground, intended for Indians only; thereby enabling me to circumvent them. All Indian sign language is about the same; some tribes use a few different figures to represent the same thing, but in most cases, if you can read the sign figures of one tribe, you can read those of another. I will mention one or two figures as used by the Algonquins or Dakotas as a sample. A little tent or wigwam, with a moccasin pointing towards it means, "Come to see me, you are welcome." With the moccasin pointing from it, means "Keep away, I do not want to see you." Strike a half circle two or three inches in diameter, with the ends resting on a base line; the circle represents the heavens, the base line the earth, the left-hand corner represents sunrise, the center of circle - noon, and the right-hand corner - sunset. If a wet day, a few little strokes or lines extending downward from circle a half inch or more in length, indicates it. If the forenoon is rainy, the lines are made between center of circle (noon) and sunrise; or if the afternoon is wet between the center and sunset. If you wanted to represent night, a few little crossed lines are made for stars, while the same straight lines are used to show whether raining or clear weather. If it is desired to represent moonlight, the moon is shown whether full, old or new, and the hour of night by its location on the circle. A full moon is represented by a small circle, with two short lines crossing in the center; an old one, by a half moon standing on end, and a new one by same figure lying down, sharp ends pointing upwards. Indians count time nearly invariably by the moon, from full to new moon and from new to full moon. Thus, if a party writes a message at midnight, ten days after full moon, the represent a full moon below the base line of circle, then ten small dots or lines, with an old moon in center of circle. If they should pass at nine o'clock a.m., they would show the sun half way between the sunrise and noon points, with the age of the moon below base line, in the manner already described. If the message is written by a war party, every figure of a moccasin represents a warrior, and the course it points, the direction they were traveling; while a figure of a pony with dots after it indicates the number of ponies they had with them. Thus, through this little figure, with a few short lines, small crosses and circles, a party of Indians will leave a long and accurate message to those who come after them.

Once, while in pursuit of a band of cut-throat Indians who had committed some fiendish murders, our captain was about to give up the chase, as I could not tell how far we were behind them. We knew if we were then two days behind them, that they would gain the mountains and make their escape, and we would have a long wearisome ride for nothing. As we did not think that there were any Indians to follow after them, we did not expect to find messages left for them along the way. But just then, I discovered one written on a bank of clay, and on deciphering it, found that there were eleven in the party; that they passed there at about nine o'clock that day; that the party had divided, five going to the right, the others to the left, separating at an angle of about thirty degrees. We knew at once that we had them. I knew the country as well as they did, and knew that their separating and taking different routes was to mislead us; as they were making for a certain pass and would meet there again. By their angling route, they would lose many miles, and we pushed straight ahead, taking a near cut and actually reached the pass ahead of them. As it was dusk when they rode into it, they could not see our trail, and we had them hemmed in before they suspected our presence. We gave them a chance to surrender, but they tried to break through our ranks and we just had to kill them. By the message, we knew that another party was coming after them and we got them also.

But to return to my story; forty years after the events I have narrated took place, I was on business for a while in Dakota. There were many Indians scattered about the place where I was located, and I noticed one old squaw frequently stood and took a good long look at me. One day I spoke to her kindly, asking her what she wanted. She then came close to me and after another long look, she took my hand and said: "Jim, Piasata," and I knew that she was her mother. Indians sometimes forget a kindness, but never a feature or an injury. She was old, wrinkled and ugly, but her heart was still warm and tender in feeling, for the "running fawn" sleeping on the banks of the distant Piasa. She told me that the Chief had been dead for many years; that after Piasata's death, he "heap done nothing but think," meaning that he had grieved his life away, thinking of the loss of his child. We talked of the "olden times," and she was greatly pleased to learn that I had a few years before made a pilgrimage to Piasata's grave. I gave her a fine blanket and some money, in remembrance of my little Indian sweetheart; and as I left the next day, I never saw her again.

Chapter IX
Strange as it may seem, our meeting with the old Indian Chief and his family marked out the destiny of us boys. We imagined that all Indian girls were like Piasata and we talked "Algonquin" until our parents wished that we had never seen an Indian. We covered nearly everything we could write on, with figures of the sign language, in fact, we used it when writing messages to each other. Upon one occasion when my father was going over to Sam’s home, while I pretended to dust off his coat, I shyly chalked a few figures on his back for Sam’s eyes, and Sam actually succeeded in chalking an answer on his coat tail. We talked of Indians and the great west until we grew discontented, and at eighteen (1833), with our parents' consent, we left home to seek our fortunes elsewhere.

Joe wandered all over the northwest as hunter, trader, scout or trapper, as the occasion suited. He finally bought ten acres of ground very cheap near the then small city of Chicago. The city grew until finally it spread all around him and he sold out at a price that made him rich. He died a few years ago at the age of 77. Sam wandered over the west and southwest scouting, hunting and trading, sometimes rich, sometimes poor, but finally settled down in California in 1850. He died at the age of 79, leaving a fine estate for his family.

As for myself, I had no thought when learning the Indian tongue and to write and read the sign language of how useful it would be to me in a few years afterwards. Thus, ends the history of three Jersey county boys, We-ish-a-wa-sha, and the "great Piasa bird."

Post Script by the editor of The Daily Democrat:

In the letter which Mr. Wilson sent with his story was the following account of his visit to Piasata's grave while on his visit to Jersey County, which we did not publish in the introduction of the story because of reference made to the grave of the "running fawn," and other things not understood until after reading the chapters which make up this interesting history of an Indian Chief and his family:

Chapter X
I got a horse and rode from Delhi over the old battle ground, and down to Gardiner's Ford on the Little Piasa; then followed the old "buffalo trail" (still traceable) to the "deer lick" and "buffalo wallow." I afterwards visited the Big Piasa, but the roads had been changed so much, that I secured a guide to pilot me there and back again. We struck the stream at one of our favorite fishing places and there found the ruins of a sawmill, old and about rotted away. The guide said that it was called "Van Horne’s Mill" and it was built perhaps by a relative of the Van Hornes I have mentioned. We went down to where the old Chief had camped, but the open space where the wigwam stood had grown up so thick with bushes and briars that we could scarcely get through them. After considerable hunting, I felt certain that I had located the grave of Piasata, the more so, from some large pebble stones, which I remember the old Chief had taken from the bed of the creek and placed around it. However, I wanted to be certain about it and got the guide to go to a farm house and get a spade. We then dug down a piece and soon turned up the skull of a dog, and I knew her bones were resting beneath it. We replaced the skull and fixed up the grave, and I gathered up a large bunch of wild Sweet Williams and placed them on it, in memory of the Indian girl we boys loved so well.

However, living among them cured our infatuation; we failed to find any more Piasatas, and eventually married among our own people.


In the following information are details regarding the article above, that will give further explanation to items mentioned in the story:

The Piasa Creek referred to in this article, is the "Big Piasa Creek,” which empties into the Mississippi near Lockhaven and the Piasa Boat Harbor. Maps show the Piasa Creek runs throughout Jersey (just south and east of Delhi) and Madison County, with many branches. Some of these branches run through Madison County into Alton, Illinois. "Little Piasa" Creek runs through Macoupin County into Madison County.

According to James Wilson's statement above, he was born about 1815. According to Civil War records, there was a James R. Wilson enlisted in the Confederate Army, 45th Mississippi Infantry, Company E, "McNair Rifles," as a Second Lieutenant. He enlisted at Natchez, and resigned in March/April 1862. At the time of his enlistment in 1861, he was age 32 (according to their records), and would have been born approximately 1829. The McNair Rifles Unit was raised in Pike County, Mississippi. The city of McComb, in which the James Wilson who wrote this story lives, is in Pike County, Mississippi. However, it is unproven if these two James Wilson’s are one of the same.

The Indian Maiden in this article, Piasata, was named after Piasa Creek, which means "Crooked Water." Maps show the Piasa Creek is indeed very crooked and winds throughout Jersey and Madison Counties.

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette saw the “Piasa Bird” (as it was later called) painting on a limestone bluff overlooking the Mississippi River while exploring the area. Mr. Wilson states he thought the bird was killed in 1690, and the image painted on the bluff afterwards. This is a 17-year difference. Could the bird actually have been painted before its demise, as a warning to other Indians of potential danger? We may never know.

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