Kansas Pioneer Encounters

One of the best research tools I’ve found for Kansas Pioneers has been Books of the Kansas Collection. Most of them are diaries written by pioneers. Some are stories passed along. All the ones I’ve come across have been very entertaining.
The following excerpts come from one woman’s account. You can tell from her musings she was a woman who knew how to find humor in even the worse of situations. I have a feeling, though, that with constant cannon fire and cholera, rattlesnakes were the least of this author’s fears.
This first selection comes from Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior by Sara T. L. Robinson. The author, as you can see, seems to have been a guest of a state prison. For those of you who do not know much about this era in Kansas history, it was during a time known as Bleeding Kansas. A time when pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions warred fiercly. If Mrs. Sara Robinson was a prisoner at Lecompton, Kansas’ first capital, a pro-slavery capital, then she most likely held the values of the anti-slavery camp dear to her heart. Bleeding Kansas deserves many, many blogs of its own.

Its pages were penned during a three months’ residence of the authoress in the United States Camp, at Lecompton, with her husband, one of the state prisoners.

This first was written in the month of June possibly in the year 1856.

7th. — Mr. H. was very ill with an attack of pleurisy. Doctor being absent, I felt anxious, yet did the best I could. A mustard plaster and some simples removed the difficulty of breathing, and he slept quietly. He said he never was as sick before, but I was thinking he imagined himself sicker than he was just before night, and as I was wondering where E. could be, she came in, pale and almost breathless, with just enough left of life to say, “O, that rattlesnake!” I laughed at her at first; but being convinced that seeing a snake of some kind was a reality to her, and not quite liking the idea of their making a home in our neighborhood, we started out with shovel and hatchet for a battle. The spot where she saw him was very easily found, as the pail she had in her hand, while coming up the path from the spring, she set down when she came upon him. She had heard a buzzing noise, like that made by a large grasshopper, for some minutes; but her attention was attracted by a small bird flying backward and forward across the path, and no great height above it, and did not, therefore, perceive the snake until she was within a foot of him. Hastily setting down the pail, as he lay there coiled ready to spring, she took another path to the house. We looked along both paths, above and below, and far out on the hill-side, but found nothing. His fright was undoubtedly equal to hers, not being particularly partial to the cold bath she gave him in getting down her pail so hastily.

10th. — Was awakened by a little tree-toad on my pillow this morning. He must have climbed up the low roof of the ell part, and in at the window. I found a mouse in the tub, and a swallow came into the kitchen flapping his wings wildly, and seeming much frightened, as we were at breakfast. I am wondering if all the “four-footed beasts and creeping things ” have appointed a place of rendezvous upon our premises; and suggest, laughingly, that “the rattlesnakes will come next.” Scarcely had we finished breakfast, before the cry from near the wood-pile was, “Here’s a snake!” It measured about eighteen inches in length, was ugly looking, and had four rattles.

June 12th

Many people were in, in the evening. The wind was blowing, and I heard a rustling near me. I looked, but saw nothing. An hour later, as I relinquished my seat, and went to make arrangements for extra beds, a gentleman very positively said, “I hear a rattlesnake.” Near where I had been sitting, the yellow-spotted reptile had crawled in between the last floor-board and the siding, and already his head had reached the window-casing. We had serious objections to his farther progress towards the chambers, or to his greater length of days. After a moment’s more envenomed rattling, all was still. Like the other, he had four rattles, and was undoubtedly looking for his lost mate. One of the gentlemen, Judge Conway, to whom the front room had been appropriated as a sleeping apartment, the mattresses being removed each morning, felt nervous about such companions for bed-fellows, and, to be prepared against the possible contingency of another similar visit, turned his boot-tops into one another upon retiring.

Although this one does not speak of an encounter, it is interesting as you will see.

18th. — The morning sun never shone more brightly than now. We found everything in the house damp, but had taken no cold. The cholera patient was doing well. The gentleman of the house assured me he slept well, but it was a mystery to me where he found a dry nook. Had a fine ride home in the early morning light, which gives to every object a double value. “Old Gray” nibbled at the “compass plant,” which always points northward in these prairies, occasionally cropping its bright yellow flowers with a satisfied air as he trotted along. The rattlesnake weed was also blooming in profusion. Nature is ever mindful of the needs of her children, and provides an antidote against the bane of rattlesnakes, and a sure guide over the wide prairie in the compass plant. When I reached home, found the doctor gone to attend upon a broken limb. A man, in rafting logs down the river, had met with this misfortune. The doctor has many calls professionally, and, though he assures them all that he is not now a practicing physician, he looks in upon many to advise them.

A note on the compass plant. First, the picture came from Oklahoma Biological Survey. Second, I have found several occasions where pioneers often believed off the wall tales, or remedies. Like how tying a raw chicken to your abdomen would draw rattlesnake venom from the body after having been bittern. So when I saw the little tidbit about the compass plant alway pointing north, I had to investigate further. And they were at least partly right. The flowers do point in a north-south direction. Most of the time.

Kansas Rattlesnakes

Then I had my first introduction to rattlesnakes. I was sitting in the door, and the children were playing just outside when I heard that horrible rattle. I did not have to be told what it was. I grabbed the children into the house and put them up on the bed, and took hold of a board, as it was all I could get hold of. By the time I had done that it was inside the house and running across the floor. I kept striking at it and missing it for quite a while; I felt I must kill it or some of us would be bitten. At last I killed it, although I nearly killed myself. Then I told the children that I would never live in a place where the rattlesnakes came into the house, that we would get to the timber where their father was and tell him so. Well, we had not gone a hundred yards when we saw another one, stretched out sunning itself, so we passed by on the other side, but we had not crossed the field until we say the third one, all of them large. The one we killed had seven rattles; that is as large as they generally are on the prairies. Although that was our first sight of a rattlesnake, it was not our last. For a number of years, they were plentiful. They were round about us, sometimes under our feet, sometimes gathered up in a bundle of something we were handling, sometimes in our houses. The strangest part of it was that none of us were ever bitten.

I’m telling you up front there is no way on God’s green Earth I’m getting close enough to a rattlesnake to snap pictures. Not even through a glass window.

So for sanity’s sake, y’all can go here Great Plains Nature Preserve.

Kansas is home to three different species of rattlesnakes. One is found in the eastern half of the state. One is found in the eastern and central part of Kansas, and the last one is found only in the western part.

If you choose to use a rattlesnake in your book, then you need to be sure what part of the state your story is set.

Since my story is set in the eastern part of Kansas we’ll look at the Timber Rattlesnake first and then the Massasaugas (what a name). And wouldn’t you know that the Timber, the largest of the rattlers, would be found in my neck of the woods.  *shivers*

This one’s coloring is kind of a dull gray, but you can see the chevron markings.

This next one is vivid and you can clearly see the stripe down the center of its body. As far as rattlesnakes go, its kind of beautiful (never thought I’d say that)!

According to the Great Plains Nature Preserve, this baby is in need of conservation. Now, I’m all for conservation as long as its not in my backyard. If it comes down to me or the snake, the snake has got to go.

This next snake, the Massasaugas, is found throughout eastern and central Kansas. It also happens to be the smallest of the trio.

Again, this one has some beautiful coloring. They also tend toward browns, which I think would a little more difficult to spot in and amongst the brush. I think if I had a choice, I’d rather come across this one. It’s smaller than the Timber and easier to see than its brown sibling.
I can also say that this little rattler is doing just fine in the conservation area.
The last of Kansas’ rattlers can be found in the western half of the state, and for that I’m very grateful.

As you can see by his coloring he probably blends in nicely with the prairie landscape, even more so than the Massasauga. 
The Prairie Rattlesnake is also doing fine in the whole conservation area.
And, just in case you think these creatures are small, let me put it all in perspective for you.
The Massasauga, which is the smallest of the rattlers, measures up to 33 1/2 inches. Yeah, I’m thinking that’s a bit too long myself, but compared to the Prairie and the Timber, it’s a piece of cake. The Prairie, the one that takes up residence in the western half of Kansas measures up to 57 1/8. I suppose you’re wondering what the Timber measure in at. No? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway, if I don’t you’ll google, so I’ll save you the trouble. 63 1/2″! The record for the Timber is 74 1/2″


The day before, a large rattlesnake, attracted by the genial warmth near the stove, had, without waiting for invitation, or being assured of a welcome, crawled in through a huge crack, and stretched out his three feet of length. With a scream or two on the part of the lady, and some dexterous and telling blows by a stronger arm, his snakeship was rendered harmless, though a most ugly object. I noticed a bottle of medicine on the little white-covered table, and over it pinned upon the wall a recipe for rattlesnake bites, and a sure cure.

Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior Life by Sara Robinson
You might be wondering why I’m placing information about rattlesnakes on my blog. It’s all in the name of research. I have a scene with a few rattlesnakes and I wanted it to be as close to realistic as possible. My findings, both with the snakes and the people who encountered them, amazed me. Poor dh has had an ear full.

*Picture taken from Herp Journal

Anyway, over the next few posts I’ll be posting on rattlesnakes. So if they give you the hebbie jebbies, I’m giving you fair warning now.
Post 1- rattlesnakes indigenous to Kansas
Post 2- encounters
Post 3- popular treatments amongst settlers
Post 4- the round-up