Monday, October 22, 2018

A study of the Legend of the Piasa "Bird," an ancient Indian pictograph carved and painted on a bluff in Alton, Illinois.

The ancient mound-builders (i.e., Cahokia Mounds in Illinois) and early inhabitants of this continent made attempts to record some of the more important events of their history.

Figures, either carved or painted on the rocks, in some cave shelter, or beneath some overhanging cliff, are not uncommon along the banks of the rivers in the Mississippi Valley, but especially along the great river where its banks form today's boundary between the States of Illinois and Missouri. Some of these pictographs were seen and noted by the first white explorers, the Jesuits, so we know that they outdated the advent of the Europeans and were doubtlessly made long before the discovery of this continent by Christopher Columbus and may quite possibly be referred to that mysterious race known as the Mound-Builders.
Artist Illustration of Cahokia Mounds, Illinois.
The Piasa (pronounced Pie-A-saw) or Piasa Bird is a mythical monster depicted in one of two murals painted by local Indians on bluffs (cliffsides) overlooking the Mississippi River on IL-Rt 100, just north of Alton, Illinois. Its original location was at the end of a chain of limestone bluffs in Madison County, at present-day Alton, Illinois. The original Piasa Bird no longer exists; a newer 20th-century version, based partly on 19th-century sketches and lithographs, has been placed on a bluff in Alton, Illinois, several hundred yards upstream from its origin. The limestone rock quality on the new site is unsuited for holding an image, and the painting must be regularly restored.
Female Piasa
The ancient mural was created before the arrival of any European explorers in the region and possibly before 1200 AD. The image was located at a river-bluff terminus of the American Bottom floodplain. It may have been an older iconograph from the large Mississippian culture city of Cahokia, which began developing about 800 AD. Cahokia was at its peak in about 1200 AD, with 20,000 residents. It was northern Mexico's most significant prehistoric city and a paramount chiefdom. Icons and animal pictographs, such as falcons, thunderbirds, Birdmen, and monstrous snakes, were common motifs of the Cahokia culture. The Piasa creature may have been painted as a graphic symbol to warn strangers traveling down the Mississippi River that they were entering Cahokian territory.

The best known of these old pictographs is that of the Piasa, a remarkable painting that once adorned, or rather was exhibited on, the smooth rocky face of the Bluff now in the city of Alton.
A Sketch of the Piasa. Date Unknown.
John Russel, a former professor of Greek and Latin at Shurtleff College in Upper Alton, brought this curious old pictograph to the general public. He wrote for an eastern magazine, the "Tradition of the Piasa," in 1836, which he claimed was obtained from the Illinois Indians.

"No part of the United States, not even the highlands of the Hudson, can vie, in wild and romantic scenery, with the bluffs of Illinois on the Mississippi, between the mouths of the Missouri and Illinois rivers. On one side of the river, often at the water's edge, a perpendicular wall of rock rises to the height of some hundred feet. Generally, on the opposite shore is a level bottom or prairie of several miles in extent, extending to a similar bluff that runs parallel with the river. One of these ranges commences at Alton and extends for many miles along the left bank of the Mississippi. 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. Its name is Indian and signifies, in the Illini, '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 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. The tradition of the Piasa is still current among the tribes of the Upper Mississippi and those who have inhabited the valley of the Illinois, and is briefly this:

Many thousand moons before the arrival of the pale faces, when the great Magalonyx and Mastodon, whose bones are now dug up, were still living in the land of green prairies, there existed a bird of such dimensions that he could easily carry off in his talons a full-grown deer. Having obtained a taste for human flesh, from that time, he would pray on nothing else. He was artful as he was powerful and would dart suddenly and unexpectedly upon an Indian, carry him off into one of the caves of the bluff, and devour him. Hundreds of warriors attempted for years to destroy him but without success. Whole villages were nearly depopulated, and consternation spread through all the tribes of the Illini. 

Such was the state of affairs when Ouatogo, the great chief of the Illini, whose fame extended beyond the great lakes, separating himself from the rest of his tribe, fasted in solitude for the space of a whole moon, and prayed to the Great Spirit, the Master of Life, that he would protect his children from the Piasa. 

On the last night of the fast the Great Spirit appeared to Ouatogo in a dream, and directed him to select twenty of his bravest warriors, each armed with a bow and poisoned arrows, and conceal them in a designated spot. Near the place of concealment, another warrior was to stand in open view as a victim for the Piasa, which they must shoot the instant he pounced upon his prey.

When the chief awoke in the morning, he thanked the Great Spirit and, returning to his tribe, told them his vision. The warriors were quickly selected and placed in ambush as directed. Ouatogo offered himself as the victim. He was willing to die for his people. Placing himself in open view on the bluffs, he soon saw the Piasa perched on the cliff, eying his prey. The chief drew up his manly form to his utmost height, and, planting his feet firmly upon the earth, he began to chant the death song of an Indian warrior. The moment after, the Piasa arose into the air, and swift as the thunderbolt darted down on his victim. Scarcely had the horrid creature reached his prey before every bow was sprung and every arrow was sent quivering to the feather into his body. The Piasa uttered a fearful scream that sounded far over the opposite side of the river and expired. Ouatago was unharmed. Not an arrow, not even the talons of the bird, had touched him. The Master of Life, in admiration of Ouatogo's deed, had held over him an invisible shield.

There was the wildest rejoicing among the Illini, and the brave chief was carried in triumph to the council house, where it was solemnly agreed that, in memory of the great event in their nation's history, the image of the Piasa should be engraved on the bluff. Such is the Indian tradition. Of course, I cannot vouch for its truth. This much, however, is certain that the figure of a huge bird, cut in the solid rock, is still there and at a height that is perfectly inaccessible. How and for what purpose it was made, I leave it for others to determine. Even to this day, an Indian never passes the spot in his canoe without firing his gun at the figure of the Piasa. The marks of the balls on the rock are almost innumerable.
Near the close of March of the present year (1836) I was induced to visit the bluffs below the mouth of 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 and fifty feet on the perpendicular face of the bluff, with barely room to sustain one foot. The unbroken wall towered above me, while below was the river.
After a long and perilous climb we reached the cave, which was about fifty feet above the surface of the river. By the aid of a long pole placed on a projecting rock, and the upper end touching the mouth of the cave, we succeed in entering it. Nothing could be more impressive than the view from the entrance to the cavern. The Mississippi was rolling in silent grandeur beneath us. High over our heads a single cedar tree hung its branches over the cliff, and on one of the dead dry limbs was seated a bald eagle. No other sign of life was near us, a Sabbath stillness rested on the scene. Not a cloud was visible on the heavens; not a breath of air was stirring. The broad Mississippi was before us, calm and smooth as a lake. The landscape presented the same wild aspect it did before it had met the eye of the white man. 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, animal bones, and arrowheads were mingled in the utmost confusion. To what depth they extended I was unable to decide; but we dug to the 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."

We have given the popular tradition of the Piasa and a description of the bone cavern that was supposed to contain the bones of the monster's victims. The strange story, in some form or other, has had the most extensive circulation. A few years after the publication of the tradition of the Piasa, a letter was sent to Russel at Bluffdale. He answered that there was a somewhat similar tradition among the Indians, but he admitted, to use his own words, that the story was "somewhat illustrated."

As a mere tradition, the story of the Piasa has little, if any, ethnological significance. Cinderella's Slipper and Mother Goose stories tell no more of the unwritten history of Europeans than the myths of the Onondagas or Tuscaroras do of the origin of the Indians. But it is interesting to know that what we now call the Piasa was, in fact, not only an old pictograph but one of a series of ancient pictographs or hieroglyphic records that were seen, and some of them described by the first white men that saw our great rivers and looked for the first time upon the beautiful scenery along their shores. That these old records may be preserved, and perhaps be at some future time translated, is the object of this volume, in accomplishing which we shall find recompense in part for many weary but not unpleasant days among the mounds, caves, and relics of the Mound Builders and aborigines.
Inside of one of the caverns at Piasa Park, Alton, Illinois.
The first notice of the pictograph, now known as the Piasa, is from that courageous and devoted Jesuit priest, Marquette, who was made famous by the historian Parkman in his "Discoveries of the Great West." Marquette and Jolliet, in the French missionary stations on the upper lakes, had heard frequently from the Indians of the Great River or "Father of Waters," which, although discovered by De Soto nearly 200 years before, was still unknown to white men as far north as the Missouri and Illinois. In 1673, these two intrepid voyagers, with a small party, started out from Green Bay to find the "Great Water." The Indians of the lakes endeavored to deter them from going. The country, they said, was filled with savages and frightful creatures, and in the Great River, in a particular part, there was a great monster whose roar could be heard at a great distance, and these terrible creatures swallowed every person who came near them. Traveling on their way and crossing overland to the Wisconsin, Marquette and his companions descended that stream to its mouth and entered the Mississippi. They descended it, stopped a while at the mouth of the Illinois River, ascended the Bluff just above today's town of Grafton, and had their first view of the Missouri River. Where these rivers went, they did not know, nor what manner of life they contained, nor what inhabitants there were on the banks. One can easily imagine that their eyes and ears were wide open, nor were the frightful stories of monsters forgotten, when these intrepid men again pushed off their frail canoes, keeping close to shore, into that mighty, rushing unknown river. Parkman tells it from Marquette's diary.

Again, they were on their way, drifting down the great river. Leaving the mouth of the Illinois River behind, they glided beneath that line of bluffs on the northern side, cut into fantastic forms by the elements. The great bastions and enormous pillars gave them the idea that they were approaching some giant ruins, and for a long time after, the bluffs about where is now Elsah were marked on the old French maps as "Ruined Castles." Gazing with open eyes as they sped along, Marquette's attention is attracted to several singular pictures that are outlined on the bluffs - heathen Manitous {among certain Algonquian Indians: a good or evil spirit as an object of reverence} to this valiant priest.

They beheld a sight that reminded them that the Devil was still paramount in the wilderness. On the flat face of a high rock was painted in red, black, and green a pair of monsters, each as large as a calf, with horns like a roebuck, red eyes, a beard like a tiger, and a frightful expression of countenance. The face was something like that of a man, the body covered with scales and the tail so long that it passed entirely around the body, over the head, and between the legs, ending like a fish, 
during 1844 and '45.

He confesses that at first, they were frightened, and his imagination and that of his credulous companions was so wrought upon by these unhallowed efforts of Indian art that they continued for a long time to talk of them as they plied their paddles.

Several explorers who followed a few years later speak of the pictures described by Marquette, as well as of others seen on the Bluff. Douay and Joutel make mention of them. The former, bitterly hostile to his Jesuit contemporaries, charges Marquette with exaggeration in his account of them. Joutel could see nothing terrifying in their appearance but says his Indians made sacrifices to them as he passed. St. Cosme, who saw the pictures in 1699, says that they were even then badly effaced, not so much from the elements as from the almost general custom among the Indians of shooting arrows at the pictures as they passed.

The book "Illinois and the West," by A. D. Jones, Boston, 1838, contains the tradition of the Piasa (he spells it Piasau) in a somewhat different form from that of Russel but the same in substance. He says, "After the distribution of firearms among the Indians, bullets were substituted for arrows, and even to this day, no savage presumes to pass the spot without discharging his rifle and raising his shout of triumph. I visited the site in June 1838 and examined the image, and the ten thousand bullet marks on the cliff corroborate the tradition related to me in the neighborhood.

Lately, as the Sac (Sauk) and Meskwaki (Fox) delegations passed down the river on their way to Washington, their rifles were discharged at the Piasau Bird. On arriving at Alton, they went ashore in a body. They proceeded to the bluffs, where they held a Solemn war council, concluding with a splendid war dance under the cliff on which the image manifested the most exuberant joy."

Another author says that the picture of the Piasa was visible on the rocks during 1844 and '45. A few years after this, the face of the Bluff was gradually quarried away to make lime, and about the time our civil war commenced, all traces of the ancient picture had disappeared.

There is a spirited pen-and-ink sketch, 12 by 15 inches in size, purporting to represent the ancient painting described by Marquette. The picture is inscribed in ink: "Made by Wm. Dennis, April 3, 1825." The date is in both letters and figures. On the top of the picture, in large letters, are the two words "FLYING DRAGON." This picture, which has been kept in the old Gilham family of Madison County, bears the evidence of its age and was sketched some years before Russel's story of the Piasa was written. "Dragon" or "Flying Dragon" was the common name for it before Russel's account of the Piasa came out.

In 1825, a sketch of the bluff painting was discovered and depicted a horned, seemingly scaly creature that suggested many of the exotic details claimed by Marquette. This discovery is inevitably what prompted John Russell, a former professor from a town near Alton, to publish his own account of the painting in 1836. In his publication, he provided a backstory for the Piasa Bird and as it would turn out, it happens to be the very story engraved on the arrowhead monument at the park. His piece goes into greater detail though and adds vivid descriptions of a cave filled with the bones of all those who had been killed by the Piasa, which he estimated to be in the thousands.

Russell allegedly later acknowledged to his son that he had fabricated this account, but within just a few years of his article’s release, this legend of the Piasa was being repeated and elaborated far and wide and eventually became widely accepted. A variety of explanations of the origins of the painting exist today, ranging from credible attempts to place what Marquette and Jolliet saw into the broader context of Indian culture and the history of European colonization of North America all the way to outlandish claims about Chinese exploration of the Mississippi.

The name Piasa or Piasau was undoubtedly used by the Indians. In his History of Black Hawk (Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak), Col. Paterson says that Black Hawk's father was named Piasau but does not give the word's meaning. Piasau was said to have been killed in a battle with the Osages on the Merrimac River in Missouri. Black Hawk, then a young man, fought by his father's side, and it is said he carried the dead body of his parent on horseback from the battleground to their home on the Rock River in Illinois. Black Hawk was a very intelligent Indian, and we had conversed with several white people who knew him, especially a surgeon in the Black Hawk War. On more than one occasion, he approached the chief on the subject of the mounds and the picture of the Piasa, but Black Hawk seemed to have no information on the topic.

Black Hawk

It is a bit singular that Marquette, in his description of the picture, should always speak of two, as though there were two of the figures when many later authorities should mention only one. It is singular, too, that all modern writers on the subject and those living who remember to have seen the picture (for there are several old citizens who claim to have been familiar with the figure) should always refer to the creature's wings. Although he describes it in detail, Marquette does not mention wings.

"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 2 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."

One of the most satisfactory pictures of the Piasa we have ever seen is in an old German publication entitled "The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated. Eighty illustrations from nature, by H. Lewis, from the falls of St. Anthony to the Gulf of Mexico." Published about the year 1839 by Arenz & Co., Dusseldorf, Germany. One of the large full-page plates in this work gives a fine view of the Bluff at Alton, with the figure of the Piasa on the face of the rock. It is represented as having been taken on the spot by artists from Germany. 
This illustration was drawn three or four years after Russel wrote his story of the Tradition of the Piasa. The account in the German work tells of the tradition and says the pictograph was growing dim and showed evidence of great age.
Closeup of the carving from the cliff in the picture above.
These German artists faithfully sketched what they saw dimly outlined, being what remained in 1839 of Marquette's famous monsters. In the German picture, just behind the rather dim outlines of the second face, a ragged crevice is shown as though of a fracture. Part of the Bluff's face might have fallen and thus nearly destroyed one of the monsters, for writers speak of but one figure in later years. The whole face of the Bluff was quarried away in 1846 and 1847.

Parkman says Marquette drew the monsters, but it was lost. "I have, however," continues he, "a facsimile of a map made a few years later by order of the Intendant Duchesneau, which is decorated with the portrait of one of them, answering to Marquette's description and probably copied from his drawing."

Through the kindness of Mr. Parkman, he sent a copy of the portrait of which he speaks, but it was not even close to Marquette's description, nor did it refer to the well-known figure that once adorned the Bluff at Alton.

It is a fact, though not generally known, that there were several of these old pictographs in the vicinity of Alton, and this may account for some of the early differences in the description. Three or four miles above Alton, below the mouth of the stream called Piasa Creek, is a series of these old pictographs, the most prominent of which are the outlines of two giant birds without wings. That these were noted by the early voyagers, there is no doubt.

Many years ago, many of the old citizens of Alton met to discuss the location and appearance of the Piasa. Among those present were the Hon. Samuel Blackmaster and Henry G. McPike, the mayor of Alton at that time. The two gentlemen were especially familiar with the old pictograph and spent some time making a sketch of the Piasa.

From these various sources, an engraving was made of the Piasa. It may be objected to by some finding the work overly elaborate for an Indian artist, and that has merit." This conveys the criticism without explicitly agreeing with it. But Marquette, after describing the picture as representing a hideous dragon, combining birds, animals, reptiles, and fishes with a man's face, remarks: "These monsters were so well painted that the Indians could hardly have designed them. Good painters in France would hardly have done as well."

When it is remembered that Marquette was a priest with education and no small degree of cultivated intelligence, our interest is increased as we wonder who could have been the author of this remarkable pictograph. It is also a matter of interest to the ethnologist {the science that deals with the division of human beings into races and their origin, distribution, relations, and characteristics} to know that, in common with the nations of the old world, most of the Indian tribes of this country had traditions of dragons and other monsters.

Schoolcraft, who traveled in the early days among the Indians, saw their primitive customs and heard their traditions, gives us much information about their history and antiquities in his splendid works. He mentions a number of these traditions. He says:

"The Dacotah’s [the Dakota’s] believe that thunder is a monstrous bird flying through the air, and the noise we hear is the fluttering of the old and young ones. These birds were large enough to carry off human beings, which the young ones were sometimes foolish enough to do. The Dacotah’s also have a tradition that one of these thunder birds was killed, back of Little Crow's village on the Mississippi. It had a face like a man, with a nose like an eagle's bill. Its body was long and slender. Its wings had four joints to each, and were painted with ziz-zag lines to represent lightning. The back of the bird's head was red and rough like a turkey."

We could not fail to observe the resemblance between the description of the Thunder Bird of the Dacotahs and that of the Piasa of the Illinois. Again, he speaks of a great "medicine animal" to which the medicine men of some tribes were accustomed to apply, seeking to propitiate (win or regain the favor of - a God, spirit, or person - by doing something that pleases them) its powers to assist them in their healing arts. Curious to know their idea of the appearance of this monster, Schoolcraft finally persuaded Chief Little Hill of the Winnebagos and himself, a medicine man, to make him a drawing of the animal, which we reproduce here. This animal, he was told, was seldom seen and then only by medicine men. This chief had in his medicine bag a piece of bone that he claimed was part of the remains of one of these animals. Some small portion filed off from this bone was a potent cure for ailments.

The same author gives other illustrations of these Indian Manitous, with serrated backs, representing the scaly bodies of these dragon-like creatures. 
The Winnebago Medicine Animal.
Another interesting pictograph, sculptured deeply in the hard rock, some twenty-five or thirty miles above the mouth of the Illinois River, on the west bank of that stream, high up on the smooth face of an overhanging cliff. It remains today [in 1887], probably in nearly the same condition when the French voyagers first descended the river and got their first view of the Mississippi. The animal-like body, with the human head, is carved in the rock in outline. The huge eyes are depressions like saucers, an inch or more in-depth, and the outline of the body has been scooped out in the same way as the mouth.

The figure of the archer, with the drawn bow, is painted, or rather stained with a reddish-brown pigment, over the sculptured outline of the monster's face. Although difficult to access, we have approached nearly enough to this pictograph to examine it. It appears of great age, although protected by its position from the elements. I somehow received the impression that the painted figure of the human form with the bow and arrows might have been made later than the sculpture. However, the lapse of centuries has affected the painted portion of the archer's form, and one now has to seek a favorable light on the Bluff to get a good view of the outline.
Pictograph on the Illinois River.
There was a tradition among the early white settlers, which they seemed to have obtained from the Indians, that the arrow shown in the figure, which points obliquely toward the foot of the Bluff some distance beyond, indicated some buried treasure in that direction. Several deep excavations in the debris at the foot of the cliff still attest to the work of credulous treasure-seekers.

Our pottery collection from ancient mounds has several pieces ornamented with dragon-like devices. We illustrate two of these: burial vases with a most pronounced dragon head standing up from the vessel's rim. There is the great mouth with the teeth revealed, protruding tongue, fierce eyes, and the general aspect of the Piasa and those mythological representations of the dragon so frequently found in Asia.
From Cahokia Mounds, Illinois.
We present a sketch of another. It is all the more interesting since we found with it a magnificent collection of more than a hundred pieces of pottery at the base of the grand Cahokia Mound in the American Bottom in Madison County, Illinois.
From a Mound in Missouri.
This is the largest artificial mound in the United States, and perhaps in the world, being one hundred feet tall and covering sixteen acres of ground with its base. It is the center of a group of seventy-two others that surrounds it, and this work will describe it. They are situated on a level plain, miles from any natural elevation. For a complete description and survey of them. Monk's Mound."
Monk's Mound with Notre Dame de Bon Secours atop it.
This 1887 Illustration of Monk's Mound is a figment of the Artist's Imagination.
Upon taking these curious old burial vases from the place where they had rested for ages, it was like exhuming a museum of natural history in ceramics, for these were the shapes of animals, birds, reptiles, fishes, and almost all animated nature, together with the shapes the human form. Among them were several vases adorned with dragon heads.

The tradition of the Piasa is analogous to the well-known tradition of St. George, the patron saint of England, who was noted for his piety and knightly valor. Traveling in Asia, he came to a city besieged by a horrible dragon that had taken up its abode in a swamp on the outskirts of the village. Each day, it appeared to claim for its daily repast an inhabitant until the number of its victims began to tell fearfully of the depletion of their population. All efforts to destroy the monster had been in vain. The people drew lots each day to see who should be the next victim. Upon the day of St. George's arrival, the afflicted city was in the utmost consternation because the king's daughter had drawn the unlucky number in casting lots for the next day. Of course, she was beautiful, and when St. George got a glimpse of her, it was a bad day for the dragon, for he went to sharpening his sword and spear, as any true-blooded Englishman would, notwithstanding the Encyclopedia Britannica says he was born in Asia Minor. The next morning, the valiant-hearted knight mounted on his war horse in company with the maiden, who walked and went toward the swamp in the presence of the whole city. The dragon met them, and there was a terrible conflict, which ended with the monster's death by a thrust into its vitals from the spear of St. George. In depicting the scene, some historians have intimated that the girl ran away during the conflict, which is why St. George didn't marry her, but this is not generally believed. Of course, there was great rejoicing in that city, and they carried St. George, as the Illini did Ouatogo, in triumph and had a great Knight Templar banquet.

The pretty and romantic story of St. George has its counterparts among nations in all parts of the world. However, some writers go back for its origin to the mythology of the Aryans and give it a solar significance.

The Buddhists' caves in India are carved and painted great dragons without numbers that would fit Marquette's description of the "Piasa," or the Dacotahs' "Thunder Bird." And sometimes, too hideous images of monsters like these, it has been the custom of the nations of the world to offer up even human sacrifice.

That idea that primitive people should have worshiped the sun seems natural enough. It might be accounted for by the fact that this great luminary seemed, on each recurring season, to give new life to the earth by its warming rays and furnish them with sustenance and warmth, their greatest necessities. The sun seemed to them, and is really, a sort of creative power that brought within their reach the means of existence. To the savage, this was God.

But a puzzling fact to ethnologists is that primitive people so widely separated, even by oceans, whose distant continents and parts of the earth seem to have such wide intervals of connection (especially since their condition gave them such meager means of knowing one another that isolation would seem complete), should have so many customs in common, observances that were alike, and similar traditions.

According to Stevens and other writers, Central America presents many figures of dragons and monsters of that description in the sculptured walls of the ruins of Yucatan and elsewhere.

The last American Antiquarian gives a fine cut of a veritable dragon-head sculptured on the facade of the old pyramid of Xohicale in Mexico.

Since it is admitted that the primitive inhabitants of this continent still do not have an adequate theory regarding their origin, any point Germaine makes regarding the subject is of interest.

The painting on the bluff (below) where the original painting appeared was quarried and thus destroyed during the 19th century. Thankfully, the painting was recreated and later restored during the 20th century, giving birth to the petite yet enchanting Piasa Park.
Piasa "Bird" on the Bluff 1/4 mile south of the current Piasa Alton location. Circa 1950.
Closeup of the Piasa "Bird" at the old location above. Circa 1950s.
The Piasa "Bird" on the current Bluff. © Dr. Neil Gale
The Piasa "Bird," Note the Faded Colors from the Elements. © Dr. Neil Gale
The Piasa "Bird" Closeup of the Facial Features. © Dr. Neil Gale
When contemporary historians, folklorists, and tourism promoters look for a narrative description of the story behind the Piasa "Bird," they often rely on Russel's account. This colorful version of the tale can be adapted to allow a wide range of interpretations and allow other neighboring communities and counties to claim promotional rights to the legend.

Today, Piasa Park is an attractive stop for motorists, picnickers, and bicyclists, set at the base of the giant Piasa Bird mural painted on the side of this huge Bluff. 

Additional Reading:

     The History of the Illinois Country from 1673-1782.

     The Illini Tribal History from the Illinois Country through the Mid-1830s.

     The History of the Illiniwek in the Illinois Country.

     Potawatomi Tribal History, including the Potawatomi of the Prairie.

     The Starved Rock Massacre of 1769 - Fact or Fiction?

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Great. I big part of local (ALTON area) lore

  2. Very well written article! The many facets of this legend and their inconsistencies are what make it such a remarkable mystery! I will reread this next time I’m in the area!

  3. I remember the 1950's version from my childhood! It was an awe inspiring thing to a ten year old.

  4. Wonderful article! I am just finding out about things like this, the Cahokia Mounds, and The Tully Monster in the last ten years. I wish we had covered these a little bit in school.

  5. Fabulous! My favorite of all your interesting posts I’ve read. Thank you.


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