03 February 2008

Tradition of the Great Piasa of the Mississippi River

From the journal of Edmund Flagg during a tour of the Illinois territory in the summer of 1836.


Nor is the interest experienced by the traveller for many of the spots he passes confined to their scenic beauty. The associations of by-gone times are rife in the mind, and the traditionary legend of the events these scenes have witnessed yet lingers among the simple forest-sons. I have mentioned that remarkable range of cliffs commencing at Alton, and extending, with but little interruption, along the left shore of the Mississippi to the mouth of the Illinois. Through a deep, narrow ravine in these bluffs flows a small stream called the Piasa. The name is of aboriginal derivation, and, in the idiom of the Illini, denotes "The bird that devours men." Near the mouth of this little stream rises a bold, precipitous bluff, and upon its smooth face, at an elevation seemingly unattainable by human art, is graven the figure of an enormous bird with extended pinions. This bird was by the Indians called the "Piasa;" hence the name of the stream. The tradition of the Piasa is said to be still extant, among the tribes of the Upper Mississippi, and is thus related:

[Piasa bird of the Mississippi River]
"Many thousand moons before the arrival of the pale faces, when the great megalonyx and mastodon, whose bones are now thrown up, were still living in the land of the 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 of human flesh, from that time he would prey upon nothing else. He was as artful as he was powerful; would dart suddenly and unexpectedly upon an Indian, bear him off to one of the caves in the bluff, and devour him. Hundreds of warriors attempted for years to destroy him, but without success. Whole villages were depopulated, and consternation spread throughout all the tribes of the Illini. At length Owatoga, a chief whose fame as a warrior extended even 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 his fast the Great Spirit appeared to him in a dream, and directed him to select twenty of his warriors, each armed with a bow and pointed arrows, and conceal them in a designated spot. Near the place of their 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, returned to his tribe, and told them his dream. The warriors were quickly selected and placed in ambush. Owatoga offered himself as the victim, willing to die for his tribe; and, placing himself in open view of the bluff, he soon saw the Piasa perched on the cliff, eying his prey. Owatoga drew up his manly form to its utmost height; and, placing his feet firmly upon the earth, began to chant the death-song of a warrior: a moment after, the Piasa rose in the air, and, swift as a thunderbolt, darted down upon the chief. Scarcely had he reached his victim when every bow was sprung and every arrow was sped to the feather into his body. The Piasa uttered a wild, fearful scream, that resounded far over the opposite side of the river, and expired. Owatoga was safe. Not an arrow, not even the talons of the bird had touched him; for the Master of Life, in admiration of his noble deed, had held over him an invisible shield. In memory of this event, this image of the Piasa was engraved in the face of the bluff."

Such is the Indian tradition. True or false, the figure of the bird, with expanded wings, graven upon the surface of solid rock, is still to be seen at a height perfectly inaccessible; and to this day no Indian glides beneath the spot in his canoe without discharging at this figure his gun.

Editor's footnote in source publication: "The version of the tradition of this version by Flagg was probably from the pen of John Russell, who in 1837 began editing at Grafton, Illinois, the Backwoodsman, a local newspaper."

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