Southern Illinois History Page

Piasa legend is pure fiction!

The Second Reading bookshop

As Native American lore, the Piasa Bird legend is about as authentic as those silly toy tomahawks wielded by Atlanta Braves fans at baseball games.

The best-known and most commercialized version of the legend was born in the fertile imagination of one John Russell of Bluffdale, Ill., a 19th-century writer of frontier romance and adventure. Russell's "The Piasa: An Indian Tradition of Illinois" was published in the August 1836 issue of The Family Magazine, or Monthly Abstract of General Knowledge. The work purported to be the retelling of an Illini tribe legend, although scholars have long noted that Russell later admitted to his son that the story was simply fiction that had been inspired by the account of those eerie bluff paintings seen by Marquette and Jolliet.

All the classic elements of the Piasa Bird legend we know today are present in Russell's story: the winged monster who lived in a bluff cave and fed on Indians, the brave Illini chief Ouatoga who offered himself as live bait to attract the Piasa, and the 20 warriors who emerged from cover to let fly poisoned arrows that killed the monster. Russell concluded the story with his alleged discovery of a cave in the bluffs that was heavily littered with "sculls [sic] and other bones." This spurious finding of the monster's lair, replete with the remains of its victims, gave what seemed to the readers of that day as 'blood-chilling credibility to Russell's chronicle.

Reprinted in a number of frontier newspapers, such as Alton's Telegraph the story became a minor classic that many readers obviously mistook for the factual retelling of a Native American narrative.

Ironically, Russell published a very different version of the Piasa Bird legend in the Oct. 28, 1847, Illinois Journal of Springfield. Now the dreaded Piasa was just a giant condor that was slain not by Ouatoga and 20 warriors but by Alpeora, a courageous Indian who killed the monster single-handedly. As though to exasperate readers beyond all endurance, Russell returned to his original version of the tale in the July 14, 1848, issue of the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate. This time, however, he judiciously chose to omit any purported discovery of a bluff cave filled with "sculls" and bones.

Scholars believe that Russell drew upon a number of sources when constructing his Piasa Bird legend, particularly the 1833 autobiography of Black Hawk, the great Sauk warrior, who reminisced about spending many happy days on Diamond Island for "a good spirit has care of it, who lived in a cave in the rocks .. He was white, with large wings like a swan's, but ten times larger." Could this have given Russell the idea for another supernatural creature who dwelled in a cave? Oh, incidentally, Black Hawk also stated that his father's name was Py-e-sa.

Yet another possible source for Russell's legend was the so-called Bone Cave of Grafton, a very real natural curiosity described. by William McAdams in his Records of Ancient Races in the Mississippi Valley (1887) as a cavern containing many bones, "some of Which had been those of human beings." Unfortunately, the Bone Cave was evidently quarried away around the turn of the century, putting it forever beyond the pale of further investigation.

In light of its dubious origin, should the Piasa Bird legend be disowned and cast aside by Alton? Never!

Native Americana it is not, but the bluff monster has become such an integral part of the city's history and-folklore that it must be preserved. The creature should be painted anew on our bluffs, but I would strongly recommend that this latest representation be based on Marquette's 1673 description of the original "two painted monsters," a description that emphatically included no mention of wings. An excellent model for this new painting would be the figure depicted on a 1678 map titled "The Explorations of Louis Jolliet" that portrays a bizarre wingless creature somewhat resembling panther.

However, I would also recommend that John Russell's yarn no longer be foisted on the unsuspecting public as a prehistoric Indian legend.

To knowingly pass off the literary creation of a white writer as authentic Indian folklore is an affront to all Native Americans. For that matter, it is an affront to anyone who respects the truth.

John J. Dunphy of Godfrey is a free-lance writer, bookshop owner, and founder of the Metro East Writers' WorkShop.

Contact Dunphy by e-mail or visit the Second Reading Bookshop on the web.

Created May 4, 2004 by Jon Musgrave © 2004