During a recent Master Naturalist class at the Cope Environmental Center, respected herpetologist John Iverson of Earlham College was asked about rattlesnakes in Wayne County. Judging from the nodding heads in the room, his reply that there are no poisonous snakes in our county is a well-known fact to those who have lived in our area for some time. The gentleman asking the question breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps he felt more secure in traipsing about the Cope grounds knowing he was safe from poisonous snakes.
After class I approached John to relay that in my research here at the library on the early Wayne County pioneers, I had run across evidence in the form of first-hand accounts of a now extinct rattlesnake population in Wayne County. I volunteered that I would send him some of those documents through email. The sending of that information seems to have led to the opening of a whole can of worms, or, in this case, snakes.
The article that I sent John included two first-hand accounts of rattler occurrences in our area, both of which came from the Richmond Daily Telegram of August 20, 1888.
My father moved…to Whitewater in 1813 and rented Earlham farm. We raised a good crop of corn that year and killed 60 large rattlesnakes, my mother killing two of them herself. — David Pegg.
Said place was situated on Middle Fork of Whitewater, three miles above Richmond. Cousin David Hoover informed me in 1896 that it was then owned or occupied by Paul Starbuck. Mother often told of a sensational development on this place, in the shape of a rattlesnake den, in a rocky bank near the house. Before the reptiles were exterminated which was effected by building fires over and around their den, they pervaded the premises, and it need not be said, were anything but welcome guests. — J.H. Julian.
In turn, John forwarded this information along to his professional associates in the field of herpetology. A fascinating discussion ensued among the herp experts. Were these really water snakes referred to in the article? Copperheads? Did the original range of timber rattlesnakes in our state include Wayne County?
Tom Beauvais, who has spent twenty-five years researching historical occurrences of massasauga rattlesnakes here in the Midwest supplied the following articles:
In the spring of 1807 a hurricane blew down much of the timber on the land that is north of the Main street section line. The ‘fallen timber’ became a hiding place for wild cats, foxes, coons, and other small vermin, as well as various kinds of snakes, especially rattlesnakes. They were destroyed in great numbers when they would be gathering in for winter quarters along the river cliffs.” Fox, H. C., Memoirs of Wayne County and the City of Richmond, 1912, p. 59.
As in other places along the Whitewater, rattlesnakes abounded here at an early day. About a mile above where the town (Abington) now is a number of women who were, on a Sunday, sauntering for pastie, along the stream, re said to have killed, with clubs and poles, upwards of thirty rattlesnakes.” History of Wayne County Indiana, 1884, p. 260.
“What was pronounced a rattle snake was killed in one of our (Richmond) public thoroughfares, last Friday.” Cambridge City Tribune, 26 June 1873.
“A rattlesnake was killed in one of the public thoroughfares of Richmond, last week.” Logansport Weekly Journal, July 5, 1873.
“A rattlesnake having seventeen rattles was killed in Center township Wayne County recently.” Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel, 30 June 1874.
Tom stated that “the reports talking about ‘large numbers of snakes and winter quarters along the river cliffs’ indicate timber rattlesnake presence. The ones about a snake on the thoroughfare could have been (1) a snake coming over the bluff and wandering into town on its own, or (2) a snake that was in a hay wagon going into town…”
He continued, “I don’t think the reports are referring to water snakes. They are talking about rattlesnakes, large rattlesnakes in large numbers and dens. I don’t think the locals would go to all that effort to kill watersnakes. Rattlesnakes were a definite threat to public health back then—people and animals got bitten and sometimes died.”
Alan Resetatar, whose many credentials include working at Chicago’s Field Museum, in his response to John Iverson stated , “Elaborate means of extermination were used such as building stockades around the dens in the fall/winter so that snakes could be concentrated and killed en masse as they emerged in the spring. This wiped out entire populations.”
The conclusion that these bonafide experts reached, as in the words of IPFW’s Bruce Kingsbury, “… is the likelihood that timbers were more widely distributed 150 years ago than today.” The reality of the loss of that original range is best stated by John Iverson: “Such a shame they are gone. We have done our best to extirpate rattlesnakes from the state.”
— Eric Burkhardt
Many thanks to John Iverson and his friends for sharing their expertise on this subject.