The Tale of the Piasa Bird

The legend of the Piasa bird, which was believed to devour men.

Piasa Bird Alton IL

A modern reproduction of the Piasa bird painted on a cliff above the Mississippi River just north of Alton, Ill.

Photo Courtesy Sam Moore

Content Tools

From 1666 until his death in 1675, French Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette, better known from our grade school history books as “Pere Marquette,” ministered to natives around the western Great Lakes in the part of the new world then called “New France.” Members of the local Illinois tribe told the French of a large river that flowed south and, hoping it would prove to be a direct route to the Pacific Ocean, authorities sent an expedition under Louis Joliet to explore the watery highway. Marquette, who spoke several native languages, joined the party as chaplain and translator.

“Horns on their heads”

Leaving early in 1673, Joliet’s party canoed down Lake Michigan to Green Bay and up the Fox River, portaged west to the Wisconsin River and then down it to the Mississippi. At some point in their southward journey, as Marquette later wrote in his journal of the voyage: “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 it 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 three Colors composing the Picture. Moreover, these two monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to reach that place Conveniently to paint them.” He then sketched the petroglyph, but the drawing was later lost.

Enduring legend

No one knows who painted the original images on the limestone cliffs above the Mississippi, nor why, but various legends surround the strange-looking critter. One of the most prevalent, as allegedly told by the Illini Indians, was that long ago a big, birdlike creature that could carry off a large deer in his claws but which had acquired a taste for human flesh nested in those bluffs.

Many Illini warriors died in attempts to kill the monster, whose depredations on tribe members had become intolerable, but all were unsuccessful. Finally, Ouatoga, a brave and famed chief of the tribe, went off by himself to fast and pray to the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit then appeared to Ouatoga in a dream and told him to arm some of his best warriors with bows and poisoned arrows and bid them hide about Piasa’s bluff. Another warrior was to offer himself as bait to draw the fearsome creature within bowshot of the hidden archers.

The warriors were selected, armed and hidden, and Ouatoga himself acted as the bait. Soon, the chief saw the monster perched outside his lair eyeing his breakfast hungrily and the chief chanted the warrior’s death song while the Piasa bird dived toward him, but just as the beast’s talons extended to grasp his prey the hidden warriors loosed their arrows with deadly aim. The Piasa uttered a horrible scream that echoed up and down the river, died, and plunged into the Mississippi, never to be seen again — Chief Ouatoga and the tribe were saved!

The original images were destroyed by the ravages of centuries of weather and limestone quarrying during the mid-1800s, but one has been reproduced on a cliff just north of Alton, Ill., as a 48-by-22-foot painting that can be viewed from the Great River Road. FC  

To read about the Hapgood Plowing Co., check out Piasa Bird Plows.