Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dangerous Snakes of New York

In putting together a picture of the environment in which Joseph Smith Jr lived his teenage years and early years of manhood, I have begun looking at the dangerous animals that existed then.

One source of information that was unexpected was the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which mentions dangerous reptiles (p.38), which I take to mean snakes. At the present time, as Kim-Giám Huỳnh of Quora pointed out, the three poisonous snakes of New York are:
  • the timber rattlesnake (crotalus horridus Linneaus, 1758); 
  • the massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus Rafinesque, 1818), erroneously called "pygmy rattler";
  • the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix, Baird & Girard 1853)
In order to track these back to how contemporaries would have envisioned them, I located a book by Spencer Baird about Snakes of New York (1858), which provided a convenient table of all then-noted snakes of New York (p.7). That book makes reference to the Catalog of North American Serpents, that Baird had published with Girard at the Smithsonian, as well as to  the more famous 5-volume North American Herpetology, published in Philadelphia starting in 1836, by John Edward Holbrook, with a second edition in 1842.

What then do these books tell us about the poisonous snakes?
  • The timber rattlesnake, which Holbrook classified as crotalus durissus Linneaus 1758, occurs in volume 2, (1st ed, 1838), pp.80-85 [= volume 3, (2nd ed, 1842), pp.8-15] (plate at NYPL). Holbrook noted that the timber rattlesnake then lived "in his native woods" (p.82) [= 2nd ed, p.11], and was attested as far north as Lake Champlain in Vermont (p.84) [= 2nd ed, p.14], feeding on "rabbits, squirrels, rats, etc." (p.82) [= 2nd ed, p.11]. Even though it can kill dogs, its greatest enemy is the hog (p.84) [= 2nd ed, p.13], which may mean the feral hogs of the white settlers (Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement, p.412).
  • The copperhead is classified by Holbrook as Trigonocephalus contortrix Holbrook 1838, in volume 2 (1st ed, 1838), pp.69-72  [= volume 3, (2nd ed, 1842), pp.39-42] (plate at NYPL); Holbrook include in its habitat the "western part of New England" as well as along the "borders of the Alleghany mountains" (p.71) [= (2nd ed, 1842). p.41].  
    • Baird and Giraud in their Catalog of North American Serpents (1853) coined the modern name agkistrodon contortrix, of which ancistrodon contortrix is a synonym that Baird used 1854.
    • Baird (1859) simply states that the range of the copperhead is the same as for the "northern rattlesnake" (p.13), which presumably means the timber rattlesnake. 
  • The massasauga rattlesnake is classified by Holbrook as crotalophorus tergeminus Gray 1825, in volume 3, (2nd ed, 1842), pp.29f (plate at NYPL); it is a new-comer to the 2nd edition. 
    • The species was first described by Thomas Say in the description of Long's Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, which took place 1819-1820 (Three Volume edition (1823), volume 2, pp.183f; Single Volume edition, 1823, pp.499f). 
    • The genus crotalophorus was suggested in John Edward Gray's A synopsis of the Genera of Reptiles and Amphibia, with a description of some new speciesAnnals of Philosophy, 1825, specifically p.205.
    • Holbrook in 1842 gives "the region of the country bordering on the Rocky Mountains, near the sources of the Missouri" (p.30) as its habitat; not New York.  
    • Holbrook volume 2, (2nd ed, 1842), pp.31f, recognizes an Ohio-specific variant (crotalophorus kirtlandi Holbrook 1842) (plate at NYPL), which he named after the naturalist Jared Potter Kirtland of Ohio who had provided the first description in his Report on the Zoology of Ohio (1838) [WorldCat] of the species, as well as reporting the Indian name "massasaugua" (of which the English dropped the last 'u').  
    • Baird (1858) expected crotalophorus kirtlandi to wander west from Northern Ohio (p.12), where it was colloquially known as the black massasauga, into New York State (p.7).
    • Baird (1858) (p.12) was not aware of any locale other than the white Cedar swamp near Byron, Genesee County, where the massauga rattlesnake was then found in the state of New York.
    • As of 2014, the massasauga rattlesnake is considered threatened in Ontario---suggesting that it made its way across the state, just as Baird had predicted.
Notice that the Turner History of the Pioneer Settlement of the Gorham-Phelps purchase has quite a bit to say on snakes as well.

  • Mrs Farnum from Pittstown recalled that the rattle snake stories were too numerous to mention, but felt there had been a snake that must have been a relative of the rattle snake, using a horn rather than a rattle to produce its sound (p.204). 
  • When William Henscher II recounted his experiences in settling Monroe, he noted the dens of the rattle snakes along the banks of the river below the falls (p.412). [Henscher II presumably means the High Falls on the Genesee River in Rochester, NY, where there is still a Rattle Snake Point].  Henscher II said that the rattlesnakes would come out of their winter quarters to bask on the banks of the rivers during the spring sun (p.412). Since they were still sluggish from their winter rest, they were easy to kill (thus reducing the problem for the settlers for the summer time). Henscher reports killing forty himself at one time, and gathering up a hunting party for a roundup, going up the river in canoes to take out 300 in a day at another time (p.412).

    1 comment:

    1. There is a copy-and-edit mistake here, Spencer Baird's 'Snakes of New York' dates from 1854.