Krystie’s Kuriosities: The Piasa Bird

Krystie Morrison

kemorrison@lc.edu

 

Alton, Ill. is the home of the McPike Mansion, Robert Wadlow, and other mysterious and interesting stories. One particular tale that locals love to talk about is the Piasa Bird. The story of the Piasa, which stands for “a bird that devours men,” has been passed from generation to generation of Illini Indians and locals from the Alton area.

 

As the legend states, many warriors from the Illini and surrounding tribes tried to vanquish the beast, but failed time and time again until along came a chief by the name of Ouatoga.

 

Chief Ouatoga decided to separate himself from his tribe, fast in solitude and pray to the Great Spirit for protection of his people. At the end of his fasting period, the Great Spirit came to the chief in a dream and told him to gather 20 warriors with bows and poison arrows and hide them in a place where the Piasa Bird could not find them. However, one brave soul would need to stand in the middle of an open field as a sacrifice for the monster. That brave soul would be chief Ouatoga.

 

The fateful day came upon the tribe and everything was in place. Chief Ouatoga could see the beast and noticed that it was eyeing him as prey. Ouatoga began a chant that is known as a death chant among warriors and the bird took off towards him. The Piasa Bird was just within reach of the chief when arrows sailed through the sky and struck it in midair. The Piasa gave one last scream that echoed throughout the area and fell to its death from the bluff.

 

As a way to commemorate this great feat, the tribe painted a visual of the beast on the side of the bluff where he was defeated once and for all.

 

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet called the “Piasa” a bird-like monster upon seeing it painted along the bluffs of the Mississippi river. A journal entry found from one of the men had a detailed description of the monster. The entry went as follows: “as large as a calf with horns like a deer, red eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, a face like a man, the body covered with green, red and black scales and a tail so long that it passed around the body, over the head and between the legs.”

 

Today the painting of the Piasa Bird can be seen by visitors coming over the Clark Bridge and driving along the Great River Road, though the version that is seen today is not the original Piasa Bird that had been painted by the Illini tribe. During the 1950s, construction workers used explosives to remove rock from the riverside and destroyed the painting. A replica was put up in 1968 on the side of the bluff, but then removed again in 1995 due to onlookers admiring the great beast and causing traffic issues.

 

The City of Alton and the community decided that it was time to give the Piasa Bird a final resting place. In 1998, a man by the name of Dave Stevens resurrected the 48 foot long, 22 foot high painting on the bluff and the city created a viewing area for visitors to come and learn about the intriguing legend. The Piasa Bird will forever look over the Mighty Mississippi and welcome visitors from all over the world. 

 

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