The Piasa Bird: More Fiction Than Fact
John J. Dunphy
While exploring the River Bend stretch of the Mississippi River in 1673, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette saw two Native American pictographs on the bluffs near the site of present-day Alton. These “monsters,” as Marquette referred to them in his journal, were supposedly as large as calves but had deer horns on their heads. The priest noted that the creatures also had red eyes, man-like bearded faces and bodies covered with scales. Both monsters sported long tails that wound completely around their bodies.
The pictographs were so well painted that Marquette found it difficult to believe that they had been created by Native Americans. Even the most talented French painters, he conceded in his journal, would have found it difficult to produce such works. The priest concluded his account by sketching the creatures, but his drawings have not survived for us to examine. Neither Marquette’s nor Jolliet’s journals of the expedition made any mention of Indian legends that explained the pictographs’ significance. It is also important to realize that Marquette’s description of the creatures contained no mention of wings, as are often seen in contemporary characterizations.
Although several travelers passing through the River Bend during the ensuing years reported seeing the mysterious paintings, some scholars have concluded that the figures were obliterated by the elements soon after their discovery by Jolliet and Marquette and could not have been visible after 1700. But public interest in the pictographs never waned.
John Russell, a teacher and writer who had moved to Illinois, heard of the long-vanished paintings while teaching at Alton Seminary. His article, “The Piasa: An Indian Tradition of Illinois,” appeared in the August 1836 issue of The Family Magazine; or The Monthly Abstract of General Knowledge. Signed only with the initials “J.R.,” the article was reprinted in several Illinois newspapers.
Russell claimed in the feature that long before the arrival of pioneer settlers, Indians of this region had been terrorized by a fierce, winged demon that they called the Piasa, which Russell claimed was an Illini word meaning “the bird that devours men.” Modern scholars, however, have long argued that the Illini language contained no such word. Ironically, “piasa” means cat in the Sauk-Fox-Kickapoo language.
Russell stated that the Piasa was so huge that it could carry off a deer in its talons. Once having tasted human flesh, however, it would prey on nothing else. Entire villages were nearly depopulated, and the Illini realized that the Piasa must be destroyed.
Ouatoga, an Illini chief whose village was located near present-day Godfrey, prayed to the Great Spirit for guidance. The Indian deity appeared to him in a dream and directed Ouatoga to select twenty of his best warriors, arm them with bows and conceal them in a designated place. Ouatoga, acting as live bait, stood on a bluff to attract the Piasa. As the bird swooped down to seize Ouatoga, the armed natives emerged from cover and shot their arrows into the beast. Screaming in pain, the Piasa flew to the other side of the Mississippi and died. The Indians then painted the Piasa’s image on the bluff to commemorate their victory over this predator.
Russell astutely saved the most incredible portion of this tale for the conclusion. He claimed that a local guide had led him to a cave in March of 1836 that long had been associated with the Piasa tradition. There they discovered the “sculls” [sic] and other bones of the Piasa’s victims. He and the guide dug to a depth of three or four feet in every quarter of the cave, Russell informed his readers, and found nothing but bones — perhaps the remains of thousands.
Russell’s insinuation that he had stumbled upon the monster’s lair in the presence of a witness greatly augmented the story’s credibility, and it soon captured the imagination of nearly everyone in the region. It is an engaging yarn, to be sure. Native American lore, however, it decidedly is not.
Modern scholars believe that Russell drew on a number of sources when constructing his story, particularly the 1833 autobiography of Black Hawk, the great Sauk warrior, who reminisced about spending many happy days on Diamond Island where “a good spirit lived in a cave in the rocks.” This spirit was white, Black Hawk stated, with large wings like those of a swan, but ten times larger than that creature.
Could this have given Russell the idea for another supernatural creature that dwelled in a cave? Coincidentally, Black Hawk also noted that his father’s name was Py-e-sa.
Yet another possible source for Russell’s legend was the so-called Bone Cave of Grafton, Illinois. Unlike Black Hawk’s giant swan, the Bone Cave was quite real and was described by William McAdams in his 1887 work Records of the Ancient Races in the Mississippi Valley. McAdams chillingly noted that the cave contained many bones — some of them human. Unfortunately, the Bone Cave evidently was quarried away in the early years of the twentieth century, putting it beyond the pale of further investigation.
While this is the version of the Piasa legend that is most familiar to modern readers, there are several other variants that date from the nineteenth century. A citizen of Alton, who signed his or her article only with the initial “L,” published a radically different version of the Piasa tale in the April 20–27, 1844, editions of the Alton Telegraph and Democratic Review.
“L” denounced Russell’s version of the Piasa legend as a “gross fable” and claimed that the tradition had originated with the Potawatomi tribe, rather than the Illini. According to L, the monster was slain by twins named Peasayah and Onecaw, who had been born of a virgin called Wacoulla. In L’s account, the Piasa is described as resembling a hippopotamus with branching horns rather than a monstrous bird. The twins supposedly killed it with metal lances instead of bows and arrows. Peasayah then skinned it and traced its outline on the bluff — hence, the mysterious figures seen by Jolliet and Marquette.
The Piasa mystery became even further muddled when Russell published another account of the legend in the October 28, 1847, edition of the [Springfield] Illinois Journal that differed markedly from his earlier tale. Now the Piasa was a giant condor that was slain by a lone Indian named Alpeora, rather than Outagoa and his twenty warriors.
As though to exasperate his readers beyond all endurance, Russell returned to his original version of the Piasa in a story published in the July 14, 1848, issue of the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate. Significantly, however, he chose to omit any reference to a cave littered with human “sculls” and bones.
Martin Beem offered yet another version of the Piasa in “The Piasa-Birds: A Legend of the Illinois,” which was published in the June 14, 1873, edition of the [Springfield] Illinois State Register. Beem’s account was quite similar to Russell’s first version, differing only in that the Illini and Ottawa tribes were presented as allies, the chief who offered himself as live bait was named Lin-cah-tello and twenty-five warriors emerged from cover to bring down the Piasa. To his credit, however, Beem ventured into originality by introducing a Lover’s Leap angle. It seemed that Lin-cah-tello was the grief-stricken father of a maiden who sometime earlier had leaped from the bluff with her lover.
Another intriguing version of the Piasa legend came from the pen of P.A. Armstrong in his 1887 book, The Piasa, or the Devil Among the Indians. Now the Piasa supposedly was a tradition of the Miami tribe, as well as the Illini. This time there were two winged monsters, a detail that at least was consistent with the fact that Jolliet and Marquette saw two pictographs on the bluff.
Armstrong contended that the Piasa possessed a tremendous appetite for deer, elk and even young buffalo but never menaced Indians until the Miamis were engaged in a devastating battle with the Mestchegamies (also spelled, according to Armstrong, as Michigamies). Suddenly, the mighty birds swooped down and carried off two Miami chiefs, leaving that tribe terrorized and demoralized.
The Mestchegamies thought the monsters’ arrival was an omen from the Great Spirit and pressed against their Miami foes with renewed vigor until victory was theirs. The slaughter was ruthless. Many Indians were driven into the Mississippi itself, where they drowned. Armstrong ominously noted, however, that what appeared to be a blessing soon proved to be a curse. The Piasa Birds now preferred human flesh rather than the animals they formerly caught. The victorious Mestchegamies nonetheless painted the creatures’ images on the bluff — perhaps in gratitude for their battle appearance, or perhaps in an attempt to appease the birds into sparing Indian lives.
Like some intellectuals of his day, Armstrong postulated that the Piasa Bird actually had existed and might have been a dinosaur that still dwelled in the Western Hemisphere when the ancestors of the Indians migrated to the New World. Henry Lee Stoddard proposed a theory in a 1927 article that deserves especially high marks for creativity. He argued that the pictographs were symbols representing the four seasons.
Stoddard observed that the colors green, red, orange and black were frequently used to represent the seasons in Old World art: green for spring, red depicting summer, orange for fall and black signifying winter. True, orange was missing in Marquette’s description of the paintings, but that didn’t deter Stoddard.
He also saw signs of the Zodiac in the Piasa. Those deer horns were really the horns of Taurus the Bull (the Zodiac sign for April 21 to May 20) and represented spring. Its lion-beard signified Leo the Lion (July 23 to August 22) and symbolized summer. The winding tail might have been the tail of a scorpion and thus represented Scorpio (October 23 to November 22), while its man-like face represented Aquarius the Waterman (January 20 to February 19) and winter.
Stoddard thought any North American paintings that demonstrated such a sophisticated knowledge of the Zodiac suggested an extensive system of communication between the world’s continents must have existed sometime in the past. He also contended that Indians were not the prehistoric race of North America and concluded that the earthen mounds and artwork of pre-Columbian America were actually created by a mysterious lost race.
Here, Stoddard is essentially echoing Marquette’s sentiment that the original pictographs were so well-painted that he couldn’t believe they had been created by Native Americans. Many Europeans and Americans of European descent refused to believe that North American Indians had achieved any appreciable degree of civilization. Therefore, they reasoned that the magnificent earthen mounds (some even fashioned in the shape of animals) and artwork that so astonished explorers and early settlers had been created by some race that preceded the Indians. Some even thought that this lost race had vanished precisely because it had been annihilated by Indians.
But why did native Americans paint those bizarre images on the River Bend bluffs? Modern scholars remain divided, although some intriguing theories have been bantered around. Archaeologist Jerome Jacobson posited in a paper presented in 1986 at the Alton Museum of History and Art that the pictographs depicted an underwater panther, a familiar Indian deity. While Russell might well have lifted the name Piasa from Black Hawk’s autobiography, Jacobson’s theory would neatly justify calling the creature a piasa since the term indeed meant cat in the Sauk-Fox-Kickapoo language.
But we can be sure of one thing. Despite the doubts of Marquette and Stoddard, those two pictographs were indeed painted by Native Americans. If Marquette was correct in his judgement that even the best French painters couldn’t have produced such masterful works, then those lost pictographs should induce us toward a greater appreciation of Native American civilization.
Fictitious or not, a winged rendition of the Piasa has been repainted on the bluffs near Alton numerous times over the years. The most recent depiction on the Great River Road was painted in 1996.
Armstrong, P.A. The Piasa, Or The Devil Among The Indians. Morris, Illinois: E.B. Fletcher, 1888.
Dunphy, John J. “The Mystery of the Piasa Bird,” Springhouse Magazine (Volume I, Number 6; September-October 1984).
— . “Monster on the Bluffs,” Fate (Volume 38, Number 1; January 1985).
— . ”Book Review: In Search of the Piasa,” Springhouse Magazine (Volume 8, Number 1; February 1991).
— . “Piasa Legend Is Pure Fiction,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch; February 5, 1996.
— . “Clipping the Piasa Bird’s Wings,” Ancient American (Volume 9, Number 60).
McAdams, William. Records Of The Ancient Races In The Mississippi Valley. St. Louis: C.R. Barnes Publishing Company, 1887.
Sparks, Everett L. In Search of the Piasa. Alton Museum of History and Art, 1990.
Stoddard, Henry Lee. “The Piasa or ‘Thunderbird,’” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, (October 1927).
Temple, Wayne. “The Piasa Bird: Fact or Fiction,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, (Autumn 1956).
- John J. Dunphy’s latest book is “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” which includes interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army’s 7708 War Crimes Group.