Thunderbirds, mothmen and other unknown flying things are some of the most puzzling of cryptids. They appear in the sky or a nearby meadow, amaze lucky witnesses, and then fly away without any hint as to their intent. Sometimes they seem to portend doom, as in the famous case of Point Pleasant, W. VA’s Mothman, which many think was a harbinger of the tragic Silver Bridge collapse.
In other cases, such as the northwestern Wisconsin daylight sighting by John Bolduan that begins my “American Monsters” book, witnesses are left feeling perplexed yet privileged to have witnessed such a spectacle. Bolduan watched in awe as the tall, silvery-feathered bird took to the air and displayed a 22-foot wingspan.
There’s another example of that flighty ambiguity in my next book due out this fall, titled “Monsters Among Us, an Exploration of Otherworldly Bigfoots, Wolfmen, Portals, Phantoms and Odd Phenomena.” In this incident, a central Wisconsin woman witnessed a gigantic, large bird standing on a bridge near Black River Falls. She was told by a Native American elder that she had seen a Thunderbird.
Why am I bringing these examples up now? I’ve often wished that I had some way to help interpret these incidents, but had never found much contemporary material aside from well-known Thunderbird lore. I was thrilled recently, then, to stumble across a gleam of illumination in my summer reading pile, in a book about one man’s solo canoe adventure down the Mississippi River. The beautifully written work, Nick Lichter’s The Road of Souls, Reflections on the Mississippi, also describes many of the places long considered sacred or otherwise important by our indigenous people.
One of these places is Rock Island, Illinois (specifically, the area known as Rock Island Arsenal across the river from Bettendorf, Iowa). Lichter cites the translated autobiography Life of Black Hawk to explain that this island was once considered a hunting, fishing and horticultural paradise by Blackhawk’s people, the Sac or Sauk. I’ll quote just the last half of Chief Blackhawk’s own statement from Lichter’s book:
“In my early life, I spent many happy days on this island. A good spirit had care of it, who lived in a cave in the rocks immediately under the place where the fort now stands, and has often been seen by our people. He was white, with large wings like a swan’s, but ten times larger. We were particular not to make much noise in that part of the island which he inhabited, for fear of disturbing him. But the noise of the fort has driven him away, and no doubt a bad spirit has taken his place!”
Lichter adds, “The swan’s cave was long ago dynamited out of existence.”
(Image shared from http://cdn26.us1.fansshare.com/photo/mississippiriver/shannon-mississippi-river-watershed-wikimedia-commons-delta-333095664.jpg)
Might the big birds seen up and down the Mississippi since Chief Blackhawk’s day be embodiments of that wandering spirit bird? Blackhawk doesn’t directly call the spirit bird a swan; he merely says it is white, has wings like a swan and is ten times its size. That’s very reminiscent of what Bolduan described. And Webb Lake, where it appeared, is only about five or six miles from the Mississippi in Burnett County, Wisconsin. Moreover, the other encounter I mentioned on the bridge in central Wisconsin was near Black River Falls, a tributary of the Mississippi.
This is just my own fanciful thought, but maybe that great, spirit bird is still winging over the Mississippi, setting down now and again as it searches for another place of peace– another earthly paradise to watch over. I believe it’s as good an explanation of these huge creatures as any.
My final thought is a question inspired by Blackhawk’s words when he suggested a “bad spirit” might have taken the great bird’s place… I can’t help but wonder what shape that bad spirit might have taken…
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