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  • Writer's pictureMorgana Calder

The Haunting Terror of the Mississippi Bluffs...The Piasa Bird

High above the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, a legendary beast once loomed on a limestone bluff. This was the Piasa Bird, a dragon-like creature that has fascinated locals for centuries.

The first mention of the Piasa Bird comes from the 1673 journal of French explorer Jacques Marquette, who was on a historic voyage down the Mississippi with Louis Jolliet. Marquette described seeing a painting of a creature "as large as a calf with horns like a deer, red eyes, a tiger's beard, a face like a man's, a scaly body, and a long tail that wound around its body and ended in a fish's tail."

This wasn't just a cool piece of art; it was a depiction of a terrifying legend. The Piasa Bird was said to be a man-eating monster that would swoop down from the bluffs, snatch up victims, and carry them back to its cave for dinner. For years, it terrorized the local tribes.

But every monster meets its match, and for the Piasa Bird, that was the brave chief Ouatoga. Determined to end the creature's reign of terror, Ouatoga came up with a plan. He used himself as bait, standing alone on the bluffs as the Piasa Bird attacked. At the last moment, Ouatoga's warriors, armed with poisoned arrows, ambushed the beast and took it down.

The original painting on the bluffs didn't survive the test of time, thanks to 19th-century limestone quarrying. But the legend lived on, passed down through generations. In the early 20th century, local historians and artists decided to recreate the painting on a nearby bluff, using Marquette's descriptions.

Today, visitors to Alton can see this modern version of the Piasa Bird, a vibrant and fearsome reminder of the region's rich Native American heritage and the enduring power of myth. Standing in its shadow, we remember the countless generations who have been captivated by this tale of bravery and cunning.

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