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The Legend of the Piasa Bird
Is the Mystery Legend or Truth?

Stories are based on the Book Haunted Alton by Troy Taylor

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 without wings.

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 monster.

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 words:

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 conjecture.

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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Copyright 2007 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.