The Piasa Bird (pronounced pie-uh-saw), is a local legend with its roots in Alton. The name ‘Piasa’ was derived from the Algonquian Illinowek language and means ‘a bird that devours men’. A myth passed on for generations, the Piasa is described similarly to a dragon or chimera with wings, mismatched features, and incredible strength.
The Illiniwek were a group of 12 – 13 Native American tribes that inhabited the Mississippi River Valley stretching from Lake Michagao (Michigan) through Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. Of the original dozen tribes, only five still survive: the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Peoria, and Tamaroa. It is estimated around 10,000 Illiniwek tribal members lived along the great rivers before European contact in the 17th century decimated the population. The State of Illinois was named after the Illiniwek via transliteration by French explorers.
One of these early explorers, Father Jacques Marquette, in recording his 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, 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.”
There were purportedly multiple rock paintings along the Mississippi in the past- though it is debatable what Marquette actually witnessed. The only visual depiction from his story was a dragon-adjacent creature sketched in his journal. Some believe the original painting was actually a depiction of a mythical Native American water panther that Marquette hastily misconstrued. After Marquette's encounter, the legend only grew, changing and becoming more grandiose as stories do with imagination and time.
The story goes that the Illini Native Americans had been plagued by a beast for many years that 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.
Around the year 1700 records indicate the original painting of the Piasa Bird had nearly disappeared from exposure to the elements. Rock quarrying and powder mills also contributed to destroying the bluffs through the 19th century, possibly even destroying the stony canvas the painting once occupied. Several iterations of the creature were created over the years- from colorful paintings to metal cutouts. In the 1990’s the current Piasa Bird was repainted on the cliff where it watches over the Mississippi and Great River Road today.
Urban legends abound about the creature. Some believe the Piasa lived in caves along the Mississippi and that the creature could’ve been a remnant of the prehistoric era- though the "caves" most point to near the current painting are simply glorified rock quarries. One story claims the beast laid eggs in the quarries, another that the rock quarrying disturbed spirits that cursed the area, and yet more intricacies have evolved over the years- the dubious and sensational likes of which keep such American myths alive.
The Piasa is the mascot of Southwestern School District- the painted metal cutout of the previous Piasa Bird is located at Southwestern High School's football field and there is a small town near the high school called Piasa. Pieces of the legend are sprinkled into names of neighborhoods, streets, and businesses.
Regardless of origin, the dragon-like creature has become a symbol of Alton and the region- a piece of American mythology that has passed into the 21st century.