Legendary BIRD depicted in a petroglyph on a bluff by the Mississippi River in Illinois.
Etymology: Illini (Algonquian) word of unknown derivation. Similar to the Cree (Algonquian) piyesiw ("thunderbird") and the Ojibwa (Algonquian) binesi ("large bird"). In Kickapoo (Algonquian), peisa means "cat"; to the Miami and Peoria (Algonquian), paisa means "dwarf," while to the Meskawki (Algonquian), paia'shi-wuk were Little People. An alternative suggestion is from the French paillissa ("palisade"), meaning the bluffs along the Mississippi River.
Variant names: Blue bird (Creek/Musko-gean), Hu-huk (Pawnee/Caddoan), Piesa, Storm bird.
The PlASA, a legendary bird formerly depicted in a petroglyph on a bluff along the Mississippi River in Illinois. (From a postcard in the author's collection)
Physical description: Length, 16 feet. Covered with scales. Antlers. Bearlike face. Glowing red eyes. Large teeth. Bearded. Batlike wings. Eaglelike claws. A long, forked tail.
Behavior: Has a preference for human meat. Powerful enough to carry away a deer in its talons.
Distribution: Mississippi River bluffs near Alton, Illinois.
Significant sightings: The Piasa bird was said to have been killed by the Illinois chief Ouatoga (with the help of twenty warriors) and commemorated in a petroglyph that existed in 1673 when Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet visited the area. The petroglyph was carved into the rock a half inch or more and was painted red, black, and blue.
A Big Bird that looked like a naval torpedo was seen flying at a height of 500 feet over Alton, Illinois, on April 24, 1948, by E. M. Coleman and his son. Sightings continued over St. Louis, Missouri, during the following week.
Present status: The original petroglyph has long been eradicated, partly because of both the Indi ans' and the whites' habit of using it for target practice. It apparently had disappeared by 1867. No reliable sketch has survived. In 1924, Herbert Forcade painted his conception of the Piasa on the bluffs where a sand plant now operates on the 600 block of West Broadway, but the image was blasted away in the 1960s to make room for construction of the Great River Road. A 3-ton metal replica of the Piasa was mounted on the bluffs near Norman's Landing, 2 miles west of Alton, in 1983, but it was removed in 1995. The Piasa's latest manifestation is a 48-foot x 22-foot painting on the bluffs completed by the American Legends Society and many volunteers in 1998. Piasa Park, opened in 2001, surrounds the painting and offers an interpretive center. Possible explanations: (1) A surviving rhamphorynchid (a fossil flying reptile), proposed by Perry Armstrong. Rhamphorynchus was a long-tailed pterosaur that lived in Europe and Africa during the Late Jurassic, 150 million years ago.
(2) For other possibilities, see Big Bird and
(3) A Native American legend, not based on fact.
Sources: Jacques Marquette, "Voyage and Discovery of Father Marquette and Sieur Joliet in North America" , in Sidney W. Breese, The Early History of Illinois (Chicago: E. B. Myers, 1884), pp. 235, 258-259; Henri Joutel, Diaries , in Jean Delanglez, ed., The Journal of Jean Cavelier (Chicago: Institute of Jesuit History, 1938), pp. 11-20; Amos Stoddard, Sketches, Historical and Descriptive, of Louisiana (Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1812), p. 17; John Russell, "The Piasa: An Indian Tradition of Illinois," Alton (III.) Evening Telegraph, September 28, 1836; Henry Lewis, The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated  (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1967), pp. 281-283, 303; Perry A. Armstrong, The Piasa, or The Devil among the Indians (Morris, Ill.: E. B. Fletcher, 1887); Tom H. English, "The Piasa Petroglyph: The Devourer from the Bluffs," Art and Archaeology 14 (1922): 151-156; Norbert Hildebrand, "The Monster on the Rock," Fate 7 (March 1954): 13-19; Wayne Calhoun Temple, "The Piasa Bird: Fact or Fiction?" Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 49 (1956): 308-327; Ruth Means, ed., The Piasa (Alton, Ill.: Arts Council, 1970); John E. Hallwas, "John Russell and the Piasa Legend," Midamerica 9 (1982): 9-22; Everett L. Sparks, In Search of the Piasa (Alton, Ill.: Alton Museum of History and Art, 1990); George E. Priest, The Great Winged Monster of the Piasa Valley: The Legend of the Piasa (Dallas, Tex.: George E. Priest, 1998); John L. Moore, "The 'Piasa' as a Representation of the 'Underwater Panther,'" Cryptozoology Review 3, no. 1 (Summer 1998): 20-26; Sue Hurley, "Piasa Bird Takes Flight," St. Louis PostDispatch, September 14, 1998; Piasa Bird, http://www.altonweb.com/history/piasabird/.
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