ONCE, in the long ago, before the white man
had heard of the continent on which we
live, red men, who were brave and knew not what
fear was in battle, trembled at the mention of a
great man-eating bird that had lived before the
time told of in the traditions known of their oldest
This bird, which, according to the Indian legends,
ate men, was known as the Piasau.
The favorite haunt of this terrible bird was a
bluff on the Mississippi River, a short distance
above the site of the present city of Alton, Illinois.
There it was said to lie in wait, and to keep watch
over the broad, open prairies. Whenever some
rash Indian ventured out alone to hunt upon this
fatal ground, he became the monster's prey. The
legend says that the bird, swooping down with the
fierce swiftness of a hawk, seized upon its victim
and bore him to a gloomy cave wherein it
made its horrid feasts. The monster must have
had an insatiable appetite or a prolonged existence,
for tradition declares that it depopulated
whole villages. Then it was that the wise men
began to see visions and to prophesy the speedy
extinction of the tribe. Years of its ravages followed
one upon another, until at length, according
to the legend, was lost all reckoning of the
time when first that strange, foul creature came to
scourge their sunny plains. The aged men, whose
youth was but a dim memory, could say only that
the bird was as it had always been. None like it
had ever been heard of save in vague traditions.
There was one, Onatoga, who began to ponder.
ONATOGA IN THE FOREST
Now, Onatoga was the great leader of the Illini;
one whose name was spoken with awe even in
the distant wigwams north of the Great Lake.
Long had he grieved and wondered over the will
of the Great Spirit; that he should look upon the
men of the Western prairies, not as warriors, but
as deer or bison, only fit to fill the maw of so pestilent
a thing as this monstrous bird! Before the
new moon began to grow upon the face of the sky,
Onatoga's resolve was taken. He would go to
some spot deep in the forest where by fasting and
prayer his spirit would become so pure that the
Great Master of Life would hear him and once
again be kind and turn His face back, in light,
upon the Illini.
Stealing away from his tribe in the night, he
plunged far into the trackless forest. Then,
blackening his face, for a whole moon he fasted.
The moon waxed full and then waned; but no
vision came to assure him that the Great Spirit
had heard his prayers. Only one more night remained.
Wearied and sorrow-worn, he closed his
eyes. But, through the deep sleep that fell upon
him, came the voice of the Great Spirit. And this
is the message that came to Onatoga, as he lay
sleeping in body but, in his soul, awake:
"Arise, Chief of the Illini! Thou shalt save
thy race. Choose thou twenty of thy warriors;
noble-hearted, strong-armed, eagle-eyed. Put in
each warrior's hand a bow. Give to each an
arrow dipped in the venom of the snake. Seek
then the man whose heart loveth the Great Spirit.
Let him not fear to look the Piasau in the face;
but see that the warriors, with ready bows, stand
near in the shadow of the trees."
Onatoga awoke; strong, though he had fasted
a month; happy, though he knew he was soon to
die! Who, but he, the Great Chief of the Illini,
should die for his people—for was it not death to
look on the face of the Piasau?
Binding his moccasins firmly upon his feet, he
washed the marks of grief from his face, and
painted it with the brightest vermilion and blue.
Thus, in the splendid colors of a triumphant warrior,
he returned homeward. All was silent in the
village when, in the gray light of early day, he
entered his lodge. Soon the joyful news was
known. From lodge to lodge it spread until the
last wigwam was reached. Onatoga's quest was
Then the warriors began to gather. Furtively,
even in their gladness, they sought his lodge, for
the fear of the Piasau was over all. A solemn
awe fell upon them as they gathered around the
chief, who, it was whispered, had heard the voice
of the Great Spirit. Without, on that high bluff,
they knew that the fiend-bird crouched, waiting
for the morning light to reveal its prey. Within,
in sorrowing silence, they heard how the people
could be saved; but the hearts of the warriors
were heavy. All knew the sacrifice demanded—their
bravest and their best!
"ONATOGA, NEVER CEASING HIS CHANT, FACED THE PIASAU FEARLESSLY"
Onatoga chose his twenty warriors and appointed
them their place, where the rolling prairie
was broken by the edge of the forest. Then, when
the sun shot its first long shafts of light across the
level grasses, the chief walked slowly forth and
stood alone upon the prairie. The world in the
morning light was beautiful to Onatoga's eyes.
The flowers beneath his feet seemed to smile, and
poured forth richest perfumes; the sun was glorious
in its golden breast-plate, to do him honor;
while the lark and the mock-bird sang his praise
in joyous songs.
He had not long to wait. Soon, afar off, the
dreaded Piasau was seen moving heavily through
the clear morning air. Onatoga, drawing himself
to the full measure of his lofty height, raised his
death-song. The dull flutter of huge wings came
nearer, and a great shadow came rushing over the
sunlit fields. Onatoga, never ceasing his chant,
faced the Piasau fearlessly. A sudden fierce
swoop downward! In that very moment, twenty
poisoned arrows, loosed by twenty faithful hands,
sped true to their aim. With a scream that the
bluffs sent rolling back in sharp and deafening
echoes, the foul monster dropped dead! The
Great Spirit loved the man who had been willing
to sacrifice his life for his people. In the very instant
when death seemed sure, he covered the
heart of Onatoga with a shield; and he suffered
not the wind to blow aside a single arrow from its
mark,—the body of the fated Piasau.
"CUNNING CARVERS CUT DEEP INTO THE ROCK THE FORM OF THE PIASAU"
Great were the rejoicings that followed and
rich were the feasts that were held in honor of
Onatoga. The Illini resolved that the story of the
great deliverance and of the courageous love of
Onatoga should not die, though they themselves
should pass away. The cunning carvers of the
tribe cut deep into the living rock of the bluff the
terrible form of the Piasau. And, in later years,
when young children asked the meaning of this
great figure, so unlike any of the birds that they
knew upon their rivers and their prairies, then the
fathers would tell them the story of the Piasau,
and how the Great Spirit had found, in Onatoga,
a warrior who loved his fellow-men better than he
loved his own life.