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The Bird That Devours Men
Posted by Failed Success on 03/18/06 at 11:17 PM
From the dark recesses of history comes a legend so amazing and terrifying, it’s astonishing that more people don’t know of its existence.
If you live in the St. Louis area, chances are you are familiar with the legend; or may have heard bits and pieces of it here and there. As historians and scientists dig deeper into this legend, more becomes known about a monster from the past that called the St. Louis region its home, and may still call it home today.
Upon exploring the Mississippi River in 1673, Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette noticed the strange likeness of a creature painted and sculpted on the side of the bluffs. The creature was described as a large creature with horns like a deer, red eyes, a beard like a tiger, a face like a man, 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. The painting depicted a dark secret that, up until now, only the Illinois Indians had known.
The Illini lived on the banks of the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, surrounded by forests and tall bluffs. The location is now home to the city of Alton, IL. The Chief of this village met with Joliet and Marquette and, when asked, reluctantly told the explorers the two hundred year old tale of the beast they now called the “Piasa Bird” which meant “bird that devours men”.
One night, several braves had returned to the village with a terrifying tale of a monstrous beast that had attacked their scouting party. They explained that the flying monster had swooped from the sky and picked up men and carried them off into the night. Their arrows had merely deflected off of its tough scales as they tried to defend themselves.
For several weeks the village suffered as the creature they were now calling “Piasa” attacked at night, carrying off a victim each time to an unseen fate. The Illini turned to their chief, Ouatoga, to rid them of this menace. After conversing with the Great Spirits, Ouatoga devised a plan. He believed that the creature would be vulnerable under its wings, where the scales did not protect. He had his warriors hide in the forest with poison-tipped arrows, while he offered himself as bait. The Piasa Bird appeared and went directly for the chief. He threw himself to the ground and held on to a tree root as the Piasa Bird tried to carry him off. Immediately, his warriors emerged and shot their arrows into the soft underbelly of the creature. In a scream of agony, it tumbled over the side of the bluffs and disappeared into the river.
In honor of this great victory, they painted the image of the Piasa Bird on the face of the bluffs. Believing that the Piasa Bird had lived in a large cave that was nearby, they warned all villagers to stay away from the cave, as they did not want to awaken any more of these evil spirits. In two hundred years, they had not encountered another menace like this.
Joliet and Marquette scoffed at this tale, attributing it to silly Indian folklore. However, they were both explorers who had spent a great deal of time discovering and documenting new species they encountered in their journeys west. Despite the chief’s warnings, they decided to explore the cave and see if they could find some evidence of this strange species.
They amassed a party of white settlers and an Illini scout named Pow-Ka-Ha-Toh (Sees in the Darkness) who was well known to the villagers as being able to see in the night as if it were daylight. They entered the cave and, armed with torches and muskets, began to work their way into the bluffs. As they explored deeper into the cave, they began to feel the crunch of bones underneath their feet. Further examination revealed them to be the bones of many different animals, some they even believed to be human remains.
Suddenly, a mist and wind swept through the cave, extinguishing their torches. In the darkness they began to hear loud shrieks and screams. Pow-Ka-Ha-Toh told Joliet that he saw many reptilian creatures, about the size of eagles, swarming towards them. Behind these creatures, he saw an enormous reptilian monster and declared it to be the “Piasa Bird”. The party fired a volley into the darkness from their muskets, and then fled towards the mouth of the cave. There was panic and confusion as the men struggled to reach the cave opening; meanwhile screams of men filled the air and were abruptly silenced. Joliet, Marquette, Pow-Ka-Ha-Toh, and one other settler were the only ones to make it out of the cave.
They returned to the village and Pow-Ka-Ha-Toh told the chief what had happened. The chief, angered that they had awakened the evil spirits, forced them to leave the village. Joliet and Marquette returned to the nearby French outpost of St. Louis and amassed an army of traders, soldiers, and able bodies to help them eliminate what they saw as a threat to trade and settlement opportunities in the region. When they returned to the village, they found it destroyed and deserted. They heard cries and screams in the distance.
A few minutes later, they noticed a dark mass approaching in the northern sky. Hundreds of winged creatures, followed by the enormous Piasa Bird, were descending upon them. The soldiers began firing their muskets, cannons, and ship-mounted artillery into the mass. The creatures began to fall from the sky as they were struck by the ordinance, but still on the mass of creatures came. The solders, with Joliet and Marquette at the lead, fought a pitched battle with the creatures as men and equipment were picked up and thrown about. Bodies were torn apart as the Piasa Bird and its minions swarmed the soldiers.
Slowly the soldiers began to drive the creatures back towards the bluff using torches and bonfires. The creatures appeared to fear the heat of the flames. Several other boats had arrived with more soldiers and weapons to reinforce the makeshift army and join the battle. Under Joliet’s direction, the soldiers fought to force the monsters towards the bluffs and back into the cave where they had discovered them. Joliet figured that he could trap the creatures inside the cave and then seal it shut. Once the creatures were driven back into the cave, fires were set all around the mouth of the cave to keep them at bay. Cannoneers came forward and blasted the cliff face with a volley of cannonballs, creating an avalanche of rock and debris, effectively sealing the cave.
Upon their return to St. Louis, Joliet and Marquette reported to the governor what had transpired. They agreed that the menace had surely been destroyed and, in the interest of protecting their profits and interests in this new land, decided to keep the story of the Piasa Bird and its kin quiet. Naturally, the story did not stay a secret long. Survivors of the battle spun their tales, and even Marquette’s own journal sported some illustrations of the beast he had first seen painted on the bluffs. Most settlers, however, believed it to be a tall tale, concocted by glory seeking soldiers and crazy Indians and felt no fear in venturing into the region. As years passed, settlers built settlements and outposts all along the river and built the city of Alton where the old Illini village had been. The Piasa Bird and its kin were never seen or reported again. The original painting on the rocks of the Piasa Bird was left there as an amusement for travelers, until it was destroyed during excavation of the bluffs.
Today, historians and scientists seek to unravel the mysteries surrounding these great and terrible creatures. They search to find the line of what is myth and what is reality. Were these creatures dinosaur-like leftovers from a prehistoric time? Were they a new species altogether? Were they large birds given incredible powers by the imaginations of the Indians and early settlers?
Historians find new clues and evidence all of the time, and soon we may know the truth. They have fought to keep the legend alive and have continued to keep a large painting of the Piasa Bird on the bluffs, as an homage to the brave warriors of the past, and in the hopes of new found evidence for the future. But as people turn up missing in the bluffs, and mysterious disappearances on the river mount every year; more people are beginning to believe that the Piasa Bird, or its descendants, still dwell in The Great River Bend.
Some references regarding the Piasa Bird:
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