GHOSTS OF THE PRAIRIE
THE LEGEND OF THE PIASA BIRD
No collection of stories about the Alton area of Illinois (and the lands along the Mississippi River) would be complete without some mention of the Piasa Bird. While this is not actually a ghost story, it is Altons claim to uncanny fame.
The original site of the Piasa Bird painting is now long gone. Many years ago, dating back to the days of Marquette (and perhaps long before), there existed a rock painting of a fearsome creature on a bluff near Alton. This monster would best be described as having a face like an animal with sharp teeth; horns atop its head; a bird-like body; sharp talons; a lengthy tail; and two huge wings.
The painting was described by a Professor William McAdams, an Illinois State Geologist, who created an illustration of the bird in the 1880s. It is from his drawing that all of the modern-day renditions of the Piasa Bird come. Even in his day, the original painting no longer existed. The property had been purchased by a quarry and they had blasted away the wall on which it could be found sometime around 1847.
The legend of the Piasa Bird dates back to long before the white man came to Illinois. It has been traced to a band of Illiniwek Indians who lived along the Mississippi in the vicinity of Elsah, a small town just upriver from 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, Owatogas 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 creature 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 did not.
After that, nearly every morning, the great bird would appear in the sky and carry away a member of the tribe, either 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.
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 birds massive wings were heard. The Piasa swooped down toward Owatoga. Just as the tip of the creatures 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. The arrows 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 Piasa 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 bird 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 his book Illinois and the West, AD Jones wrote that he had visited the spot in June of 1838 and examined the image. "The ten thousand bullet marks upon the cliff seemed to corroborate the tradition related to me in the neighborhood. So lately as the passage of Sac and Fox delegations down the river on their way to Washington, there was a general discharge of their rifles at the Piasa Bird. On arriving at Alton, they went ashore in a body, and proceeded to the bluff where they held a solemn war council."
Just two years before the council of Indians took place, in July of 1836, a Professor John Russell discovered something very unusual concerning the legend of the Piasa Bird. Russell was a professor at Shurtleff College and probably 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."
Was this cave really the lair of the Piasa Bird? 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?
Who knows? But this account certainly makes me none to quick to dismiss the Piasa Bird as merely a legend!
If you want to see the painting of the bird today, it has been re-created on a bluff just outside of Alton. Take the Great River Road toward Grafton about one mile and the painting appears on the right side of the highway.
Copyright 1999 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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