If you travel north of Alton on the Great River Road, you might notice a strange painting gracing one of the bluffs. It’s the Piasa Bird, and according to legend, it used to fly over the Mississippi River and terrorize the locals, long before Marquette and Joliet made their journey to the area in 1673 (by the way, the two explorers were startled to see one of the ancient paintings of the terrifying creature on the bluffs!).
Pronounced “pie-a-saw,” this fearsome creature is depicted as having two white, deer-like horns, red eyes, and a snarling, bearded face. With a body the size and shape of a horse, the Piasa’s long, white fangs protruded from its lower jaw, and its huge wings delivered so much force when it flew that trees would bend. Its stubby legs possessed dagger-like talons, and its long, devilish tail wound around its scaly body three times.
The Piasa, whose very name means “the bird that devours men,” would swoop down on the terrified Illini Indians each day near present-day Alton and would often snatch hapless victims, taking them away to its lair in a cave on the bluffs.
While the Illini’s chief, Ouatoga, had led the tribe through trials of famine, illness, and war in the past, he was much older and bewildered by this horrifying beast. After all, the Piasa Bird seemed invincible since chainmail-like scales protected its entire body and none of the tribe’s best arrows could penetrate it.
Ouatoga had his fill of the carnage the Piasa had wrought. He prayed and fasted for nearly one full moon, beseeching the Great Spirit for answer. One night, the answer came to him in a dream – the Piasa’s weakness lay beneath his wings. The scales did not exist there. After giving thanks to the Great Spirit, Ouatoga came up with a brilliant plan that would abolish the Piasa. He had the tribe’s best arrow maker, Tera-hi-on-a-wa-ka, sharpen arrowheads for an entire day. These arrowheads were then painted in poison while the remainder of the tribe prayed and fasted. They were finally ready to take action.
That night, Ouatoga and 6 of his bravest warriors snuck atop a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. As dawn approached, the warriors hid with bows at the ready while Ouatoga remained visible, standing strong and firm in the face of danger. As the bloodcurdling screams of the man-eating bird shattered the peace around them, the Piasa pounced on Ouatoga. The Illini chief, however, fell to the ground and held onto the nearby tree roots for his life. At that moment, the 6 warriors shot their poison arrows repeatedly into the unprotected area beneath the Piasa’s wings until the monstrous bird succumbed to the deadening effects of the poison. The Piasa released Ouatoga and plummeted below the bluffs into the Mighty Mississippi River, never to be heard of again.
The tribe celebrated their victory as they healed their leader, and Tera-hi-on-a-wa-ka painted the Piasa in tribute to their victory of the monster. It was said that whenever a tribe member passed by the painting, he would shoot an arrow in salute to their great victory.
Although the original painting has worn away, many have attempted to restore it or repaint it completely. In the 1920s, two Alton brothers, Herbert and Orland Forcade, painted the fearsome bird on a bluff, but it was destroyed in 1950 when the road was widened. The city of Alton then painted the Piasa on steel in 1984 and bolted it to the cliff, but it rusted and was brought down in 1995.
Finally, in 1999, Alton resident Dave Stevens repainted the Piasa on the bluffs. This painting is what remains on the bluffs, and it requires frequent maintenance and touch-ups to keep it looking nice and scary. Near the painting is a site that includes a parking lot, restrooms, and three different historical markers to help explain the area’s history and the legend of the terrifying creature.
Although the Illini were said to have driven out the Piasa once and for all, 19th century explorers had reportedly discovered a nearby cave filled with human bones. Some still report sightings of a giant bird flying in the area. Whatever truly happened, one thing is for sure – the legend of the terrifying Piasa Bird will forever persist in Alton!