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Historic Diaries: Marquette and Joliet

Early July, 1673: Monsters on the Cliffs

Editor's Note:

During the days covered by this entry, Marquette, Joliet, their voyageurs, and the young Illinois slave traveled south from the modern Iowa-Missouri border to the vicinity of St. Louis. The plants Marquette described have not been identified, but the "two painted monsters" became a well known landmark; they were on cliffs near modern Alton, Illinois. Marquette's drawing of the monsters has not survived. Fifteen years later, Henry Joutel passed this point and offered the following description (pp. 164-165):

"The first of September [1687, we] pass'd by the Mouth of a River call'd Missouris whose Water is always thick, and to which our Indians did not forget to offer Sacrifice. We arriv'd at the Place, where the pretended Figure is of the Monster spoken of by Father Marquet. That Monster consists of two scurvy Figures drawn in red, on the flat Side of a Rock, about ten or twelve Foot high, which Wants very much of the extraordinary Height that Relation mentions. However our Indians paid Homage, by offering Sacrifice to that Stone; tho' we endeavour'd to give them to understand, that the said Rock had no Manner of Virtue, and that we worship'd something above it, pointing up to Heaven ; but it was to no Purpose, and they made Signs to us, that they would die if they did not perform that Duty." You can read Joutel's book in our American Journeys online collection.

The East St. Louis Action Research Project has created a history of the pictographs on its "Piasa Bird" site, where additional citations and leads to 19th-century reproductions can be found.

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Marquette's Journal: "We take leave of our Illinois at the end of June, about three o'clock in the afternoon. We embark in the sight of all the people, who admire our little canoes, for they have never seen any like them. We descend, following the current of the river called Pekitanoui [Missouri], which discharges into the Mississipy, flowing from the northwest. I shall have something important to say about it, when I shall have related all that I observed along this river.

"While passing near the rather high rocks that line the river, I noticed a simple [medicinal plant] which seemed to me very extraor-dinary. The root is like small turnips fastened together by little filaments, which taste like carrots. From this root springs a leaf as wide as one's hand, and half a finger thick, with spots. From the middle of this leaf spring other leaves, resembling the sconces used for candles in our halls; and each leaf bears five or six yellow flowers shaped like little bells. We found quantities of mulberries, as large as those of France; and a small fruit which we at first took for olives, but which tasted like oranges; and another fruit as large as a hen's egg. We cut it in halves, and two divisions appeared, in each of which eight to ten fruits were encased; these are shaped like almonds, and are very good when ripe. Nevertheless, the tree that bears them has a very bad odor, and its leaves resemble those of the walnut-tree.

"In these prairies there is also a fruit similar to hazelnuts, but more delicate; the leaves are very large, and grow from a stalk at the end of which is a head similar to that of a sunflower, in which all its nuts are regularly arranged. These are very good, both cooked and raw.

"While skirting some rocks, which by their height and length inspired awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are as large as a calf; they have horns on their heads like those of deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body covered with scales, and so long a tail that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish's tail. Green, red, and black are the three colors composing the picture. Moreover, these two monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author; for good painters in France would find it difficult to paint so well, and besides, they are so high up on the rock that it is difficult to reach that place conveniently to paint them. Here is approximately the shape of these monsters, as we have faithfully copied it."

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