PIASA BIRD SPOON
THE LEGEND OF THE PIASA BIRD
by Wayne Bednersh
The sterling art deco spoon depicts a cutout version of a strange
winged monster in the finial which is identified as "THE PIASA BIRD".
The front of the handle is embossed "Alton Ill (Illinois)". The
spoon is tea sized and has a manufacturer mark which I have not been
able to identify. The back of the spoon is engraved with the name
"L.P.Class" in script and the year "1915".
The Piasa bird (pronouced p-ah-saw) is an old Illini indian legend
which appears to have undergone changes over the years.
Apparently when Marquette and Joliet were exploring the area, they
noted a painted monster on a limestone bluff about 50 feet above the
confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi river where the city of
Alton is currently located. In their 1673 journal they described the
painting as "each was as large as a calf with horns like a deer, red
eyes, a beard like a tiger’s, a face like a man, the body covered
with green, red and black scales, and a tail so long that it passed
around the body, over the head and between the legs, ending like a
fishes’ tail." They also drew a picture of the monster.
According to the Illini indian legend, the people of the village were
under constant attack by this great bird which swooped down and grabbed
even full grown adults and carried them away to a bluff where they
became his dinner. The great chief, Ouatoga, had a dream where he hid
20 of his braves (some versions have 6 or 8 braves) in a circle. He
then positioned himself as the birds next victim. Just before sunset,
the bird swooped down and grabbed the chief in its great talons. The
Chief held resolutely to some roots and his men jumped out of their
hiding place and shot poisoned arrows into the birds unprotected
underbelly. The bird fell to its death. Chief Ouatoga was nursed back
The original picture was destroyed by a land developer in 1876. But
this account of the picture was written by Squire Russell of Bluffdale,
“I used to climb the rocks to look at the Piasa when I was a
young boy. I have been within about sixty feet of it. The colours were
always affected by dampness, being very distinct after a rain.”
"The picture was cut into the rock a half inch or more, and was
originally painted red, black, and blue. It had the head of a bear,
large disproportioned teeth, the horns of an elk, the scaly body of a
large fish, and a bear's legs ending with eagle's claws. The tail was
at least fifty feet long, wound three times around the body, and tipped
with a spearhead thrust backward through its hind legs.
"The upper horns were painted red, the lower portion and head were
painted black. The wings expanded to the right and left of its head,
and the Piasa's body was at least sixteen feet long. Its head and neck
were covered with a whiskery mane, and its body...covered with the
three colours... In 1820, Captain Gideon Spencer came up the
Mississippi River and saw the same picture on the rock. He asked the
nearby Indians what it was. They told him it was the Stormbird or
Thunderer, and that it had been carved there by an Indian tribe long
"The current 48-by-22 foot painting situated on a 100-by-75 section of
the Mississippi bluffs just north of Alton (1 mile up the Great River
Road from the Alton Visitor's Center) was completed by the American
Legends Society and volunteers in 1998."
In 1836, "John Russell of Bluffdale, Ill., a 19th-century writer of
frontier romance and adventure wrote: "The Piasa: An Indian Tradition
of Illinois" [which] 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."
Russell in 1847 wrote another article about the piasa bird which had
different details and in 1848 he wrote a third article which changed
some of the details.
Note: fossils of prehistoric flying reptiles have been discovered in
the general area. Also note that the picture by Marquette did NOT show
wings whereas the modern picture and spoon do show wings.
However, the legend is so firmly established in the region that the
detail differences are no longer material.
Of course, scientists tell us that dinosaurs and humans did not
co-exist at any time in history, but there are enough legends of
dragons and strange creatures around to indicate that it is somewhat
possible that a few of these reptiles did co-exist with early man. I
suspect that the vast majority of these creatures died out millions of
years before man emerged, but I would not doubt the ability of a few of
these monsters to have survived in remote areas under the right
Note: as this article was waiting for publication, Chinese scientists
published information about a new ‘prehistoric’ dinosaur
bird. They describe the bird as “At up to 16 feet tall and
26 feet long, Gigantoraptor dwarfed its relatives, a group of small,
feathered theropods called Oviraptorosaurs. The hefty dinosaur weighed
35 times more than other Oviraptorosaurs.” I have no evidence
which would allow me to indicate that the Piasa bird is related to this
new skeletal discovery. A National Geographic artist rendition of this
new creature is included in this article.
After I wrote this article, new facts were published about a similar
bird in New Zealand's Maori Legend.
A giant man-eating bird that appears in ancient Maori legends did
actually exist, according to new research.
The Te Hokioi was described as a huge black-and-white predator with
a red crest and yellow-green tinged wingtips, in an account given to
Sir George Gray, an early governor of New Zealand.
Scientists now think the stories handed down by word of mouth and
depicted in rock drawings refer to Haast's eagle, a raptor that became
extinct just 500 years ago.
It was at first thought to be a scavenger because its bill was
similar to a vulture's with hoods over its nostrils to stop flesh
blocking its air passages as it rooted around inside carcasses.
But a re-examination of skeletons using modern technology, including
CAT scans, by researchers at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch and the
University of New South Wales in Australia showed it had a strong
enough pelvis to deliver a deadly blow as it dived at speeds of up to
The bird has a wingspan of up to three metres and weighed 18kg. It
was twice the size of the largest living eagle and its talons were as
big as a tiger's claws.
Source of this information:
Return to spoon stories
Return to spoon exhibit index