As many visitors leave the city of
Alton and drive north along the Great River Road, they are often
surprised to see a rock painting on the side of a bluff that portrays a
pretty vicious-looking winged creature. Years ago, this rock painting
was actually a petroglyph that showed two such creatures. These
monsters, like the modern rendering of the paintings, were called the
"Piasa" by the Illiniwek Indians.
The original painting existed
near this location for hundreds of years and was first described
in the journals of Pere Marquette in 1673 as he was exploring
the Mississippi River. The original site of the painting is now
long gone, but Marquette described the creatures portrayed there
in this manner:
While skirting some rocks, which by their height and length
inspired awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which
at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare
not long rest their eyes. They are as large as a calf; they have
horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red
eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a
body covered with scales, and so long a tail that winds all
around the body, passing above the head and going back between
the legs, ending in a fish's tail. Green, red and black are the
colors composing the picture. Moreover, these two monsters are
so well painted that we cannot believe any savage is their
author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to
reach that place conveniently to paint them.
Marquette also added a drawing of the
creatures to his journal account but the drawing was unfortunately lost
a short time later when his canoe capsized. In 1678 though, a map that
was drawn by the French map-maker Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin
included a picture of the fierce Piasa, based on Marquette's writings.
Father Hennepin, another early explorer of the west, published a book in
1698 called A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America and he
also wrote about seeing the paintings of the Piasa, which incidentally,
were first incised and cut into the bluff and then painted over. Unlike
Father Marquette, Hennepin included the description that the Piasa had
wings, making it a fearsome bird rather than simply an Indian monster.
The reason for this was discovered many years later, as described a
little later in this chapter.
In 1812, the first use of the word "Piasa" appeared in print. Major Amos
Stoddard, who had been earlier appointed by President Thomas Jefferson
as commander of the northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase, wrote
"What they call 'painted monsters' on the side of a high perpendicular
rock, apparently inaccessible to man, located between the Missouri and
Illinois Rivers and known to moderns by the name of Piasa, still remains
to a good degree of preservation."
In 1820, Captain Gideon Spencer came up the Mississippi and got a
glimpse of the Piasa. By this time though, only one of the paintings
remained. The fate of the second creature is unknown but it's likely
that it was destroyed by weather and falling rock, as the bluffs near
Alton can be dangerously unstable at times. Spencer asked the Indians
what the strange painting was and they told him that it was a "Storm
Bird" or a "Thunder Bird" and that it had been placed there long ago.
The Indians would fire their guns at it and some would offer it tobacco
by smoking their pipes and blowing smoke in the direction of the image.
The Piasa painting was located immediately below where the first
Illinois state prison was located in Alton. The painting was partially
destroyed in the 1840's when quarrying was done on the bluff by convicts
from the prison and further work that was done in the 1860's, when the
abandoned prison was used as a Confederate penitentiary during the Civil
War, ruined what was left of it.
A modern rendition of the Piasa painting
The painting was later
described by a Professor William McAdams, an Illinois State
Geologist, who created an illustration of the bird in the
1880's. It is from his drawing that all of the modern-day
renditions of the Piasa Bird come. McAdams also seems to be the
person responsible for creating the mythology of a single
bird-like creature, instead of two monsters, as the Indians
originally passed along the story. In McAdam's day, the original
painting no longer existed. A quarry had purchased the property
and they had blasted away the wall on which it could be found
some time around 1847. The drawing that McAdams created was
based on the testimony of five men who recalled seeing the
painting before it was destroyed. It was later featured in the
Literary Digest and it is believed to be the most
accurate drawing of the Piasa.
Some have criticized McAdams and have
claimed that he created the mythology that the Piasa was a bird instead
of simply a Native American monster. The evidence they cite is that the
Piasa had never been written about or drawn with wings prior to McAdam's
version in Literary Digest, but this is not the case. Another similar
painting that was done of the Piasa at roughly this same time was
created by a man named Ladd, a former mayor of White Hall, Illinois.
According to Ladd, he based his picture on a recollection of the
original image that had been given to him by "Spencer Russell of
Bluffdale, who had been nearer to the Piasa than any person now living".
He spoke to the man who told him this:
I used to climb the rocks to look at it when I was a boy. I have been
within sixty feet of it. I once pointed it out from the deck of an
English steamer to a lady and she looked at it through a field glass. No
wings showed that day for the weather was dry. The colors were always
affected by dampness, and it stood out distinctly after rain. Father
Marquette evidently saw the Piasa on a dry day for he pictured it
Some have also claimed that the word "Piasa" was never a part of the
language of the Illinois Indians but this does not seem to be the case
either. In 1883, the Bureau of Ethnology described the word as an
Illinois Indian name denoting "a bird that devours men". Even among the
Sauk Indians, relatives of the Illinois, the name was known and the
famous Black Hawk's father was himself called Pyesa.
Who created the original painting? No one will ever know for sure, but
it must have existed for some time as part of the culture of the local
Native Americans. It was said that on a flat ledge below the painting
were hundreds of arrowheads and spear points. It is believed that the
Indians who passed the Piasa on the river would "attack" the creature by
firing an arrow at it. It apparently became a custom when floating past
the future site of Alton. The Piasa Bird is considered one of the most
enduring legends of the region - a tall tale, an Indian myth that is
sufficient to entertain children. But what if it isn't? What if there is
more to the "legend" than meets the eye?
The legend of the Piasa Bird dates back to long before the white man
came to region. It has been traced to a band of Illiniwek Indians who
lived along the Mississippi in the vicinity north of present-day Alton.
This tribe, led by a chief named Owatoga, hunted and fished the valley
and the river and lived a contented life until the "great beast" came.
One morning, Owatoga's son, Utim, and a friend were fishing when they
heard a terrible scream. They looked and saw a huge bird rising from the
edge of the river. The legend states that the bird was of such
dimensions that it could carry away a full-grown deer in its talons, and
that once it obtained a taste for human flesh, it would eat nothing
else. The creature the two men saw had a young man gripped in its claws
and it carried him away and out of sight. Quickly, the two young men
returned to their village and found their people very frightened. They
waited all day for the young man to escape from the bird and return, but
he never did.
After that, nearly every morning, the great bird would appear in the sky
and carry away a member of the tribe, a man, woman or a child. Those who
were carried off were never seen again. The people began to call the
bird the "Piasa", which meant "the bird which devours men". Owatoga
realized that they were powerless against this beast and he retreated to
his lodge to fast and to pray for guidance. He emerged the next day with
a plan that had been revealed to him in a vision.
According to his vision, Owatoga was to take six of his finest braves
and climb to the top of one of the highest bluffs. The young men were to
carry with them only their bows and a quiver of poisoned arrows. They
were to hide themselves while Owatoga stood on the edge of the bluff and
waited for the Piasa to appear. When the monster came, the chief was to
throw himself down on the rocks and hold on while the bird attempted to
carry him away. As it did so, the braves would appear with their bows
and slay the beast.
Of course, all of the men in the tribe offered to help kill the Piasa,
but Owatoga chose only young, unmarried men, his own son among them. The
arrows were sharpened and poisoned and the group climbed to the top of
the bluff. The six young men hid themselves beneath a rock ledge and
Owatoga stepped out to the edge of the cliff. He folded his arms and
waited for the creature to appear. Suddenly, the sky darkened overhead
and the bird's massive wings were heard. The Piasa swooped down toward
Owatoga. Just as the tip of the creature's sharp talon sunk into this
shoulder, Owatoga threw himself flat upon the rocks. His hands curled
around the roots of a tree and he clung desperately to them. The Piasa
roared in frustration and its wings beat furiously, trying to lift the
Indian from the rocks.
The wings unfolded once more and as it exposed itself, the young men
burst from their hiding place and fired their arrows at the beast. They
found their mark but the Piasa continued to fight, trying over and over
to lift Owatoga from the rocks. Then, with a howl of agony, the creature
released him and collapsed backward, crashing over the edge of the
bluff. It spiraled down out of sight and plunged beneath the waters of
the Mississippi. The terrible creature was never seen again.
Despite his wounds, Owatoga recovered from his battle and joined in the
celebration over the death of the Piasa. They ate, danced and celebrated
into the night and the next day, they painted a colorful tribute to the
Piasa on the stone face of the bluff where it had been destroyed. From
that time on, any Indian who went up or down the river fired an arrow at
the image of the Piasa Bird in memory of their deliverance from the
When the white men settled this region and heard the tales of the Piasa,
they found no evidence (at first) to suggest that this creature really
existed. But the Indians who still lived here at that time certainly
believed it had. As mentioned previously, they took great pleasure in
loosing arrows at the creature as they passed on the river and later
would fire their rifles at it also.
In July 1836, a Professor John Russell discovered something very unusual
concerning the legend of the Piasa. Russell was a professor at Shurtleff
College in Alton and had interest enough in the local legend to do a
little exploring and research into the story of the creature. His
adventures were later recounted in a magazine article in 1848 and in
Records of Ancient Races in the Mississippi Valley by William
McAdams in 1887. Here is how his story appears, written in his own
Near the close of March of the present year, I was induced to visit
the bluffs below the mouth of the 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 fifty feet on the
perpendicular face of the bluff, with barely room to sustain one foot.
The unbroken wall towered above me, while below me was the river.
After a long and perilous climb, we reached the cave, which was about
fifty feet above the surface of the river....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 a 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 is impossible to
In 1873, Martin Beem authored an article on the Piasa Legend for the
Illinois State Journal of Springfield, Illinois. The legend he describes
is similar to that recounted by Professor Russell and he also described
the Indian bones that were found in the cave. With the publication of
these articles, the story grew and was told and re-told countless times.
In 1875, author A.D. Jones also wrote about the paintings and not long
after, Edmund Flagg, on a tour of the western country, claimed that he
also saw the bone-filled cave and corroborated Russell's story.
Was this cave really the lair of the Piasa? Did this bird, always
thought to be merely a mythological creature, actually exist? Did the
monster really carry off and slay a large number of the Native Americans
who once lived in this region? Could such a giant bird actually exist?
As a simple answer to a number of complex questions --- no one really
knows. The mystery of the Piasa Bird remains unsolved and while many
have gone in search of this elusive cave over the years, none have yet
been able to find it. This is not as strange as you might think though.
There are many remote areas in this immediate region, overgrown by
forests, lost among the bluffs and simply forgotten. Homes, buildings,
churches and cemeteries have all just been abandoned by time and so it's
very possible that the same thing could happen with natural formations
like caves, hundreds of which are scattered through the bluffs along the
river. I have talked to witnesses who have entered caves with Indian
drawings on the wall, untouched for generations, and even talked to a
man who recalls seeing an ancient rendition of the Piasa above the
Illinois River beyond Grafton, Illinois. This petroglyph has proven to
be as elusive as the bone cave of the Piasa Bird. But the search goes on
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