Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Rattlesnake Hunters of Lake George

Timber rattlesnake illustration

Two creatures that most people go out of their way to avoid are poisonous spiders and venomous snakes. While such spiders are uncommon in Warren County, there are snakes in our area with a lethal bite. Since before early settlers came to the area timber rattlesnakes have inhabited certain spots along the rocky slopes of Lake George. For generations, they were considered creatures that were best eliminated, and it was only forty years ago that rattlesnakes in New York were designated a threatened species and protected by law. For over one hundred years before this law was enacted a bounty hung over the head of every rattlesnake in Warren County, and for a few brave souls, seeking out this dangerous prey became a lucrative occupation.

One of the earliest newspaper accounts of rattlesnake hunting brought with it a tragic ending. In mid-April of 1877, sixty-eight-year-old Town of Bolton farmer Stephen Burton went by boat with his brother and son to hunt rattlesnakes at a spot known as Larkins Den along the rocky slope of Lake George’s Tongue Mountain Range. During their search, Stephen encountered a massive, six-foot-long rattlesnake that he quickly caught using a forked stick. Seeing some value in taking the snake alive, he hesitated in securing it and the snake maneuvered itself under a nearby rock. Attempting to gain control again, Burton grabbed the reptile by the tail, and with that opening, the rattlesnake turned and bit his right hand. Normally prepared for a snake bit with a bottle of turpentine, he found that it had been left behind when they came on shore, so time was lost before the bottle was retrieved and he could douse the wound. To assist in this treatment, he also took a swallow of the raw turpentine, which only increased his injuries by burning the skin from his throat. This treatment was likely even worse than the snake bit as poisoning from the ingestion of as little as a half-ounce of turpentine can cause kidney failure.

newspaper clipping image

Bitten by a Rattlesnake, Saratogian newspaper, May 4, 1877.

In hopes of seeking treatment for this injury, the trio took to the water and headed eight miles south to Reuben Bradley’s newly opened Hundred Island House Hotel. Here they obtained a bottle of whiskey which Stephen Burton quickly drank, followed by large quantities of tea made from rattlesnake weed. The drinking of whiskey, brandy, or other liquor was once considered an essential first response to a rattlesnake bite, as it was thought that this would stimulate the body to fight off the effects of the venom. The folk medicine treatment using rattlesnake weed was also well known in rural America, using either a poultice to be put on the wound or tea made from the roots. A member of the aster family, this yellow, dandelion-like flower on a long, leafless stalk is a native woodland plant that can still be found along the shores of Lake George. To summon medical treatment a telegram was sent to Dr. James Ferguson in Glens Falls, who immediately dispatched his associate Dr. Edward W. Hill to the lake. When the physician arrived, he found Stephen’s arm black and swollen to a circumference of fifteen inches above the elbow. At that point, antidotes were given with the expectation that a recovery was still possible.

Rattlesnake weed

Rattlesnake Weed, Wildflowers of New York, Homer House, 1921

The antidote from a physician for a poisonous snakebite in those times was primitive and likely just as deadly as the bite itself. Dosing the area with ammonia and injecting it directly into the wound was thought to be an effective treatment, but by the 1890s this was replaced by another even more lethal substance, the poison strychnine. Though not fully understood at the time, the fatal damage from the bite came from the venom-killing tissue around the wound causing gangrene. While one treatment was immediately cutting into the wound and forcing out some of the venom, in reality, before an effective anti-venom was available, amputation was the only way to effectively treat the bite.

Two days after the incident, and barely conscious, Stephen Burton was loaded into the boat and carried home. Though reports over the days that followed hinted at improvement, Stephen Burton took a turn for the worse and died on May 7th, 1877, leaving behind his wife Ester and six children. He was buried in the Burton Plot at Bay Street Cemetery in Glens Falls. Burton was not the only hunter to have a fatal encounter with rattlesnakes at Larkins Den, as Larkins himself had been bitten and died there years earlier while hunting snakes.

For the Davis family from the town of Hague, hunting rattlesnakes was a tradition from generation to generation. Reuben C. Davis and his wife Sophia came to Lake George in the 1830s and purchased lot twenty-eight in the Tongue Mountain Tract. This 150-acre parcel was in rugged, rock-filled land that provided the family with little beyond their own needs. The location of the property and the need for income may have been what turned the family to hunting rattlesnakes. For Reuben and his son, also named Reuben but known as “Mint,” this work consisted of assisting neighbors in removing snakes from their property. Taking full advantage of these kills, the family extracted oil from the fat, venom from the fang sacks, and made trade goods from the skins. In a story about the Adirondack Region in the August 22, 1868, New York Evening Post the writer alluded to the Davis clan when mentioning the snakes around Lake George: “Near this place resides a grim mortal who actually gets his living by catching the reptiles and making rattlesnake oil from them. Thus does the lovely serpent of the wilderness contribute to the welfare of man.”

Unfortunately, the profit from snake oil and other products was not enough to bring wealth to the family. When Reuben died in 1857, his wife Sophia soon sold their property on Tongue Mountain to her daughter Aurilla Coats for one hundred dollars. In 1875, the widow Sophia passed away at the age of ninety-one while living in a log cabin on the property with her widowed daughter. The second generation of snake hunters, Sophia’s 70-year-old son Mint, his wife Mary, and their fourteen-year-old son Charles were living in a log home next door. The property stayed in the family until it was acquired by the state in 1927 and added to the Adirondack Forest Preserve holdings.

Reuben “Mint” Davis was admitted to the Warren County Poorhouse in 1879, with Charles going to live with the last of the line snake hunters, his thirty-two-year-old brother Ike. With the bounty in 1887 of 25 cents for every rattlesnake taken in Warren County, Ike Davis claimed $88.75 that year. The next year his taking of rattlesnakes was even greater as between May and September of 1888 Isaac Davis killed four hundred rattlesnakes on Lake George. At that time, he also announced that he would be displaying the nine largest, all over three feet in length, at the Warren County Fair. By 1900, Ike had passed away, ending the Davis clan rattlesnake era along the western shore of Lake George. 

In 1971 bounties on all animals in New York State were banned, bringing an end to the hunting of rattlesnakes along the shores of Lake George. Today these reptiles can still be seen, and with their status as a protected species, their place in the ecology of the region is secure for the future.

Sources for this article include the newspaper archives at nyshistoricnewspapers.org, as well as the online resources at healthline.com and timbitsblog.wordpress.com.

Photo at top: Timber rattlesnake illustration is from Poisonous Snakes of North America by Leonard Steineger, Smithsonian Institute, 1895. All photos provided by the author. 

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Dave Waite has had a lifelong interest in the Adirondacks and often spends time exploring the park and learning about its history. His stories about Adirondack and Upstate history have been published by several historical societies including those in St. Lawrence, Warren, and Saratoga counties. Dave recently published his first book, Thrilling Attractions and Weird Wonders, which brings together over thirty of his stories from Saratoga County and Upstate New York.

11 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    “Today these reptiles can still be seen, and with their status as a protected species, their place in the ecology of the region is secure for the future.”

    Sorry, but I have to disagree.

    Having “protected” status does not eliminate the danger of losing these and many other reptile and amphibian species. They need safe and healthy habitat as well as absence of persecution. Some people still kill snakes when they see them – even as they are fleeing for cover. They are often killed when warming themselves on roads or simply crossing them.

    Misunderstood species are not often considered when development projects are undertaken and fencerows and rock piles are eliminated to maximize agricultural production. It takes more than protection from bounties or hunting. It takes education and commitment from individuals willing to share the land with less-than-fuzzy creatures. Give ’em a brake!

  2. David G Waite says:

    Thanks. I appreciate you taking time to comment.

    Dave Waite

  3. Peter ODell says:

    very interesting story. Did not know these snakes were so abundant as this as far north as Lake George.

  4. Rob says:

    A perfect reason I never venture in the woods without carrying concealed

  5. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “Having “protected” status does not eliminate the danger of losing these and many other reptile and amphibian species.”

    Tis so very true! Laws mean nothing to some folk! I am reminded of someone I know who used to live atop a hill above the Rondout Reservoir near the Sundown Wild Forest in the Catskills. There are rattlesnakes aplenty in that region. Bob did not like rattlesnakes, he had a thing or three against them, so that each time he saw one surface on his property he took it upon himself to put the poor creature out of its misery, either with a shovel, a stick, or any lethal object at hand which would serve its purpose. Meanwhile he loved coyotes! Some of us are selective in what we kill which I find odd as I have it not in me to kill even an ant. I love all living things and I truly believe everything on this Earth has its purpose.

    I’m not going religious here as much as I am revealing a mindset, religious or not, which dates back at least hundreds of years, a mindset which has been fusing in me for quite a stretch of years by now, and which continues to increase with age.

    “I often remembered the fountain of goodness, who gave being to all creatures, and whose love extends even to caring for the sparrows; and I believe, where the love of God is verily perfected, and the true spirit of government watchfully attended to, a tenderness toward all creatures made subject to us will be experienced; and a care felt, that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation, which the great Creator intends for them under our government.”
    From: ‘A Journal of the Life of….John Woolman’ June 2,1772 entry

    “Under our government” meaning we should be the protectors of all living things, which I didn’t have to read the above to know as we have the capacity to know right from wrong. Were it not for laws many more species of wild animals would have long ago been extinct, as there was a time in this country where they killed every ‘thing’ that moved…..just because they could, or had a misplaced fear. My dad was of the mind, “If you cannot replace it you shouldn’t destroy it.” I am with him on that!

    All’s it takes is one misguided soul to wipe out what took millennia to prosper. This is a given as all of us who have comprehension well knows. Bob lived atop that hill for over thirty years, and in that time I can only imagine how many rattlesnakes he killed, which was against the law but what are you gonna do! When he abandoned that acreage I couldn’t help but think, and there was a glimmering hope in me, that just maybe it was possible a new generation of rattlesnakes had a chance to prosper over that out of the way acreage……finally!

    • AG says:

      Sadly one of the best things for wildlife and forests is urbanization. Humans with an insatiable appetite to kill along with habitat loss is the biggest negative issues.
      I know people who moved out of urban areas into semi rural areas in the Lower Hudson Valley. They had a lot of black rat snakes in the area and they began killing them. Then they couldn’t understand why they had rodents eating things in their garden and an increase in mice going into their home.

  6. Worth Gretter says:

    It seems one of the links at the end of the article is incorrect:

    fultonsearch.com leads to a scam

    fultonhistory.com is a good link

  7. Ray Worth says:

    In the early 1960s my Scout troop was camped at the group area located on a loop at the northerly end of the road along the lake. Wanting to get an “aerial view” of the troop swimming I decided to climb up a left trending ledge of the rock with my Kodak Brownie using a parallel small crack as a handhold. Well after up maybe 50 feet I took my shots and turned around to descend. From this higher vantage point I could now look down on the crack/ledge that I had used on my ascent, and to my shock spied a basking rattlesnake on the ledge that minutes before hand served as my handhold. I descended by another route, learning an important lesson about looking carefully in snake habitat, and watching where you place your hands as well as your feet. We have a camp up near Keeseville, and frequently hike in Split Mountain. We know the rattlers are there, but hardly ever see them. They probably want less to engage with us, than we want to engage with them.

  8. Martin Lindsay says:

    30 or so years ago, early in May, I pulled into the parking lot of the boat launch at the foot of Northwest Bay Brook; it must have been only a day or two after the last of snow had melted. In one corner of the lot there was a complete skeleton of a rattler about 3 feet long, coiled, with 4 rattles in place. It’s hard to think that it could have died there in that pose, but what’s the explanation? Somebody put there as a joke? You’ve got me.

    • Boreas says:

      If he got caught away from shelter in a cold snap I could see that happening. Sometimes a poorly-chosen den can become inundated with water during a quick thaw, forcing snakes out into the cold. But this one must have been there for quite some time if he was just a skeleton. May have been run over and was able to get away only to curl up and die.

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