It’s interesting how different regions of this great big country have legends that have been passed down from generation to generation. We, personally, enjoy learning local lores so it was a treat to discover one in Alton, IL. Since most everyone has heard stories of Big Foot and the Lock Ness Monster, but, I’m betting very few, except locals, know about the Piasa Bird (pronounced Pie-a-saw) I’ve decided to share the story here.
According to legend the Piasa story goes all the way back to 1673 when Father Jacques Marquette was traveling down the Mississippi River and spotted a creature in the area where Alton, IL now stands. According to Father Marquette’s journal the creature ”was 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 it passed around the body, over the head and between the legs.”
Although many stories exists about the Piassa bird the most common legend tells the store of how the bird was believed to be a man eating creature that destroyed entire villages and put the fear of God in the Illini tribe. Many warriors tried to destroy the bird yet none were successful.
Chief Ouatoga, a well-known and respected chief, went into seclusion where he fasted and prayed for guidance on how to defeat the Piasa bird. Eventually the Great Spirit appeared to Chief Ouatoga and told him to select 20 of his best warriors and arm them with bow and poisoned arrow. The Great Spirit instructed that the warriors should hide and use one lonely warrior as bait in a large open area.
Chief Ouatoga used himself as bait and trusted that his men would keep him from harm. Soon, the Chief spotted the Piasa bird watching him. As he began to chant the warrior death chant the Piasa bird took flight and swooped down to scoop up the Chief. Right before the Piasa bird clutched the Chief in it’s talons the 20 hidden warriors unleashed their poisoned arrows into the body of the bird. Having been fatally injured the bird gave off a scream and died. Chief Ouatoga and his tribe were saved.
If you want to visit the bluff where the Piasa bird could have been waiting I recommend visiting Piasa Park on the edge of Alton, IL. This is a small park adjacent to the byway and is a fun stop for travelers. There are restrooms, an overlook plaza, paved walkway, and, most importantly, a painted Piasa Bird on the bluff. A large granite “arrowhead” tells the story of the bird.