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 chiefs.

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.


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 successful!

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 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.


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.