—Barbara Wersba (1932–), The Land of Forgotten Beasts
0. Modern Piasa painting on cliff face above Alton, Illinois.
The Peculiar Piasa
Called “one of the most haunted towns in
America,” Alton, Illinois, is about twelve miles north of St. Louis, situated
between the mouths of the Missouri and Illinois Rivers, on the east bank of the
mighty Mississippi featured in the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But
Alton is also the home of a deeper and more ancient legend—and an intriguing monster
Writing in 1836, Professor John Russell of
Bluffdale, Illinois, described the perpendicular bluffs and cliffs, rising to a
height of 100 feet, that bordered the river’s edge:
In descending the
river to Alton, the traveler will observe, between that town and the mouth of
the Illinois, a narrow ravine through which a small stream discharges its
waters into the Mississippi. This stream is the Piasa (pronounced Pi-a-saw).
Its name is Indian, and signifies, in the Illini language, “The bird which
devours men.” Near the mouth of this stream, on the smooth and perpendicular
face of the bluff, at an elevation which no human art can reach, is cut the
figure of an enormous bird, with its wings extended. The animal which the
figure represents was called by the Indians the Piasa. From this is derived the
name of the stream.1
Fig. 1. Fr. Marquette discovers Piasa petrograph. Image
credit Alton Museum of History & Art.
This now-famous petrograph had been first reported
in 1673 by Pere Jacques Marquette, who was recording his famous journey down the
Mississippi River with Louis Joliet. Here is the entry from Fr. Marquette’s
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. Here is approximately The shape
of these monsters, As we have faithfully Copied It.2
Fig. 2. Drawing of Piasa from Fr. Marquette’s diary, 1673.
in light of later images, the creature originally described and “faithfully Copied” into his diary by
Fr. Marquette is wingless. Created long before the arrival of any European
explorers in that area, the so-called Piasa petroglyph was of no flying
monster, but was actually a typical representation of the Underwater Panther, a powerful
and dangerous creature appearing in the mythology of several native traditions,
particularly in the Great Lakes region, the
Northeastern Woodlands, and the Mississippian culture. These include the Anishinaabe tribes, the Odawa, Ojibwe,
Potawatomi; and also the Innu, Algonquins, and Nanabozho.
Variously called Michi-Pichoux,Mishibizhiw, Mishipizheu,
Mishupishu, Mishepishu, or Mishibijiw (“great
lynx”), or Gichi-anami'e-bizhiw (“fabulous night panther”), these aquatic monsters combine features of several animals:
the body of a mountain lion or lynx; horns of a deer or bison; a ridge
of spiky scales on the back; sometimes bird feathers; and parts from other beasts
as well, depending on the particular myth. They are generally represented with
exceptionally long serpentine tails. The roar or hiss of the creatures may be
heard in the sounds of rushing rapids, and they are even believed to be able to
cause storms. Compare this basket design with Fr.
Marquette’s original drawing:
Underwater Panther basket design, George Gustav Heye Center, National Museum of
the American Indian.
Underwater Panthers are seen as an
opposing yet complementary force to the Thunderbirds (see my previous “Creature
of the Month”), with whom they are engaged in eternal seasonal conflict. Said to inhabit the deepest parts of lakes and rivers, some
were believed to be helpful, protective creatures; but usually they were feared
as malevolent monsters that brought death and misfortune. They often
need to be appeased for safe passage across a lake. As late as the 1950s, the
Prairie Band of Potawatomi Indians performed traditional ceremonies to placate
the Underworld Panther and maintain balance with the Thunderbird.
One variant, Michi-Pichoux,
figured prominently in the folklore of the Cree Indians of eastern Canada,
where it dwelled among the islands of the St. Lawrence River. It was described
by French priest Fr. Louis Nicholas in his Histoire
Naturelle (1675) as a hairy, tiger-like beast more than 18 feet long, with
huge, clawed feet and a paddle tail like a beaver’s. Its enormous head had
fangs more than two feet long, and it preyed upon humans, especially children.
Fig. 4. Underwater
Panthers in beadwork design.
Moreover, it turns out that the term Piasa is actually from the
Miami-Illinois word páyiihsa—supernatural dwarfs that attack
travelers—and contrary to Russell’s assertion, has no meaning of “man-eating bird.”3
so-called Piasa petrograph was created prior to the arrival of any European
explorers in the region, and possibly before 1200 CE. It may have been an older iconograph from
the large Mississippian culture city of Cahokia, which began developing about
900 CE. The
largest prehistoric city north of Mexico, Cahokia was at its peak about 1200 CE, with 20-30,000 inhabitants.
The Piasa mural may have been painted to warn strangers traveling down the
Mississippi River that they were entering Cahokian territory.3
Fig. 5. Michi-Pichoux. Ojibwa petrograph from
Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. Note canoe and giant
The Alton petrograph was noted
subsequently by LaSalle and other 17th-century French explorers. Additional
sightings were reported in the early 19th century, and a sketch was
made in 1825 by William Dennis, who added wings and labeled it as a “Flying
Dragon.” In 1841 the “Piasa Bird” was included in a lithograph by John Casper
Wild (Fig.6). And in 1846, the petrograph was sketched by Henry Lewis for a
collection of lithographs published in 1854. In 1847, Swiss artist Rudolf
Friederick Kurz described the image as “a colossal eagle.”4
Fig. 6. “Piasa Bird” lithograph by J.C. Wild, who explored
the area in 1841. The picture shows how the bluffs below Riverview Park looked
before quarrying operations six years later created the hollowed-out place
below the park. The small figures show the relative size of the Indian
petrograph that was so awe-inspiring to all who viewed it. (Telegraph archive)
In his 1836 article titled “The Bird That
Devours Men,” John Russell, professor of Greek and Latin at Shurtleff
College, Upper Alton, Illinois, referred to the “Piasa
Bird” for the first time. He also related a legend, which he later admitted
having invented, that became the widely-accepted explanation of the petrograph:
According to Russell’s imaginative fable, long, long ago there lived a terrible bird so vast
that he could carry off grown men, swooping down upon them unexpectedly and
bearing them off to his inaccessible caves in the cliff to be devoured; the
beast having acquired a taste for human flesh from the corpses of an
intertribal battle. Hundreds of warriors attempted to
vanquish the monster, but without success. His depredations depopulated entire
villages, and all the tribes were in despair.
Finally, following a vision from the Great
Spirit, Ouatogo, the great chief of the Illini, selected twenty of his bravest
warriors and concealed them in ambush. Standing in open view as a willing
sacrifice for his people, Ouatago chanted the death chant as the great bird
plunged toward its victim. But moments before the deadly claws could strike, twenty
poisoned arrows were shot simultaneously into the monster’s body. Uttering a
fearful scream of pain and rage, the mighty raptor died without touching the
To commemorate this great victory, the
image of the Piasa was painted upon the face of the bluff, below the caves
where the bird had taken his victims. And forever after, every Indian passing
by that spot in his canoe would fire arrows (and later, guns) at the effigy.
Early French explorers, such as St.
Cosme, indeed reported that by 1699 the images were badly worn due to the custom
of the local Indians to “discharge their weapons” at the petrographs as they
passed. In 1836, Russell confirmed, “The marks of the
balls on the rock are almost innumerable.” In his 1838 book Illinois and the West, author A.D. Jones
also describes the ravages of weapons (firearms) upon the images, and further
refers to the paintings as being named “Piasua.”
Fig. 7. Indians shooting at the Piasa on the cliff face. From
The Valley of the Mississippi
Illustrated, by Henry Lewis, 1846.
In March of 1836, led by “an intelligent
guide, who carried a spade,” Russell claimed to have made the arduous climb
over the perpendicular face of the 150-foot cliff to reach a cave, about fifty
feet above the surface of the river, which was attributed in legend to be one
of those where the Piasa had carried his victims. Clambering with great
difficulty through the opening, he found himself in a cavern about twenty by thirty
feet wide, with a vaulted ceiling at least twenty feet high. Astonished, he said
that “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 the depth of three or
four feet in every part of the cavern, and still we found only bones. The remains
of thousands must have been deposited there.” 5
Tragically, the entire cliff, petrographs,
cavern, and alleged bones were dynamited into oblivion only eleven years later
in 1847, when the property was purchased by a limestone quarry, the Mississippi
Lime Company. In 1882, although he had never seen the
original image, or the drawing of it in Fr. Marquette’s diary, Professor
William McAdams, an Illinois State geologist, drew up an entirely imaginative
illustration of the “Piasa Bird” that subsequently became the definitive
Fig. 8. The Piasa
by William McAdams, 1882.
Based on McAdams’
drawing, various renditions of
the original pictograph have been painted on the Mississippi River bluff at
Alton since 1924, only to weather away over time. While Fr. Marquette described
the original petrograph being only “as large As a calf,” in
1983 a 39-foot-wide reconstruction of the supposed
image of the Piasa based on McAdams’ drawing was created in painted steel by
the Alton-Godfrey Rotary Club, and attached to the limestone quarry wall, along the Mississippi River at
Norman's Landing at Alton, Illinois, near the original location. The site became a place of annual pilgrimage by local
Indians in ceremonial costume, perhaps unaware of its dubious provenance.6
A performance of the Piasa Indian Dancers during the dedication ceremony in
1983 celebrates the conclusion of a more than
year-long volunteer effort coordinated by the Alton-Godfrey Rotary Club.
Unfortunately, this colorful cartoon
version of the Piasa was removed in 1996 by the landowners because the
increased traffic flow became a nuisance. It was later moved to a new Sports
Complex at Southwestern high School, Madison County,
Illinois, where the Piasa was adopted as the school’s mascot. The corroded
metal monster was refurbished by the industrial art students, and there it
remains to this day.
Fig. 10. Final home of painting of
Piasa on metal plate at Southwestern high School.
The most recent painting
of the Piasa was created in 1998 by artist Dave Stevens of Godfrey, Illinois.
It measures 48 feet long and 22 feet high, and is located in a new facility
called Piasa Park, along the Great River Road. The park covers an area of 2.5
acres within the old limestone quarry.
Fig. 11. Piasa painting
on quarry wall by Dave Stevens, 1998.
However, there is something odd about these
modern images, which we are supposed to believe are replicas of the original
petrograph. They do not at all resemble either the 1673 drawing in Fr.
Marquette’s diary, or even the later renderings by William Dennis, J.C. Wild, Henry
Lewis, and others. Rather, they bear an uncanny similarity to a pen drawing
from a 17th-century bestiary manuscript, titled “The Manticora
Monster of Tartary,” which would seem to be the prototype upon which McAdams
based his popular Piasa image from which all subsequent versions derived. Note
the fierce bearded human face with horns, the draconic wings, the large body
scales, and the knobby scorpion tail which appear for the first time on graphic
interpretations of the Piasa. I am unaware that anyone else has noticed this remarkable
resemblance, and I may be the first to make this connection:
Fig. 12. “The Manticora Monster of Tartary,” 17th century.
Look for part 2 to post in June. References:
1.McAdams, William, “The Bird which Devours Men,” Records
of Ancient Races in the Mississippi Valley, C.R. Barnes; Cambridge, UK,
2.“The Piasa Bird,” The IBEX Archive, www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/ibex/archive/vignettes/piasa.htm
4.“The Piasa Bird,” Op cit.
5.McAdams, Op cit.
6.Taylor, Troy, “The Legend of the Piasa Bird,” 1999, Ghosts
of the Prairie: Haunted Illinois, http://www.prairieghosts.com/piasa.html
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