The Piasa Bird (pronounced pie-uh-saw), is a local legend in the Alton, Illinois area. The name ‘Piasa’ comes from the Illini Native Americans and means ‘a bird that devours men’.
Father Jacques Marquette, in recording his famous 1673 journey down the Mississippi River with Louis Jolliet, described the ‘Piasa’ as a bird-like monster painted high on the bluffs along the Mississippi near what is now the City of Alton. According to Marquette’s diary, the Piasa was “As large as a calf with antlers like a deer, red eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, with the face of a man- its 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.”
The Illini Native Americans had been plagued by the beast for many years and said it was powerful enough to carry off a full-grown deer. Legend has it that hundreds of warriors had tried killing the beast, but had failed. It continued to destroy whole villages until Chief Ouatoga, a chief renowned even amongst neighboring tribes, separated from his tribe and fasted for a whole moon cycle. On the last night of his fast, Ouatoga was visited by The Great Spirit who directed him to gather 20 warriors, give them a bow and poisoned arrows, and wait in a designated spot upon the bluffs to ambush the creature.
Chief Ouatoga stood on the open bluff as bait and when the creature noticed him it swooped down to carry him away, but the warriors, hidden in the bushes, released a barrage of poisoned arrows. The creature shrieked and flew over the Mississippi river, crashing dead into the water.
In 1698 records indicate the original painting of the Piasa Bird had nearly disappeared from exposure to the elements and rock quarrying destroyed the original bluff where the painting once was in the 19th century. In the 1990’s the Piasa Bird was repainted on the cliff where it watches over the mighty Mississippi and Great River Road today. Some believe the dragon-like creature lived in the large caves along the Mississippi and that the creature could’ve been a remnant of the prehistoric era. Many urban legends surround the beast still. One story claims the beast laid eggs in the extensive caves beyond the monument- another that the caves were cursed and that the later rock quarrying disturbed evil spirits that have cursed the area. The dragon-like creature has become a mascot of Alton and the great rivers that local legend says it once dominated and is even the school mascot of Southwestern School District #9- the metal, painted cutout of the previous Piasa Bird is located at Southwestern High School's football field.