“Rattlesnakes are brought into existence in the following manner:
“The female snake deposits twenty or thirty eggs in the ground, where the warm earth gives them life, and at the proper time the old one comes and receives them into her body, where they remain until she enters her den in October.
“In April and May they all come out together, when the young ones are usually from six to nine inches long and can shift for themselves. On one occasion about the last of April, William Browning, a brother-in-law, Mr. Enlow, and myself went to a rattlesnake den which was within a quarter of a mile of William Browning’s house.
“The evening was cool, and entering the den we commenced our search and soon found several large snakes, which were so chilly that they could make no resistance. We continued killing them until we could find no more on the ground, when we commenced turning up the flat stones, under which we discovered many little snakes, not more than six inches long.
“Where we found the small ones there were no old snakes near. When we could discover no more we counted the dead ones, which were eighty four in number. Having found three small ones by themselves, together with the fact that I have seen the eggs in the snakes’ bodies in July, in October discovered the young snakes in their bodies when they entered their dens, and in April found the young ones entirely by themselves, the conclusion above stated has been forced upon me.
“It must be remembered, however, that I have never seen the old snake deposit her eggs, nor have I ever seen her swallow her young; but I only drew my conclusions from the facts just set forth. Certain it is, however, that the young of the garter snake, which is a common and well known species, by no means dangerous, (of which I shall say but a few words as little notice is generally taken of them) when in danger run to the mother, which receives them into her mouth and swallows them, thus shielding them from harm.
“But to return to the rattlesnake: It has large teeth in the upper jaw and some have two long fangs, while others possess four. Those with four fangs have two on each side directly behind which stand two others so that when they strike at an enemy they make four cuts. These teeth are exceedingly sharp and strong with crooked points, and about an eighth of an inch from the sharp point a small hole is perceptible in each tooth as soon as it grows to any size. That little hole passes up the tooth and connects with a larger hollow in the hind part of the tooth, which cavity in a large snake is about the size of a common straw, beneath which at the base of the tooth lies a little bag containing the poison.
“As the snake strikes he elevates his upper jaw, drives his teeth in and then presses his jaw down. This pressure acting upon the base of the tooth forces the poison out of the bag through the tooth into the gashes made by the sharp points, and the wound is completed.
“Having shown how they make the wound it will not be amiss perhaps to mention some of the remedies used. If the bite be in a place that will admit of it cut out the part bitten; when the blood starts flowing out freely, by rubbing the wound downward the poison will run out with it. Another remedy is to gather the weed called bone set or St. Anthony’s cross, boil a handful of it in new milk, drink the milk and bind the weed on the wound. This I have never known to fail in effecting a cure in a few hours when applied promptly.
“Also drink from a pint to a quart of whiskey which will not intoxicate the patient but will neutralize the poison. It is likewise commonly reported that spirits of turpentine applied plentifully to the wound will draw out the poison and effect a cure. Lastly take common yellow clay, mix it in a mortar and apply it to the wound, supplying fresh clay as soon as that on the part gets warm, until the poison is drawn out, which will be in twelve hours.
“The best preventive (sp.), however, is to wear strong boots or coarse leggins, through which the snakes cannot sink their teeth into the flesh. As there are no other dangerous snakes in the hunting ground which I frequented and as I have never seen more than two or three copper heads during my life I will finish with the snakes after making a few more remarks. From the vast numbers of these reptiles which formerly abounded in this region, it is surprising that so few persons have been bitten by them, and I account for it from the fact that they nearly always give warning by rattling before they strike.
“They are now however greatly diminished in numbers as they are always destroyed when seen and it is, or has been, the practice of those visiting their dens, to go there late in April or early in May before they stir abroad, expressly to kill them. In this way and by the frequent burning of the forests after they leave and before they return to their dens vast numbers are annually destroyed. They are now (1859) comparatively rarely seen except in a few localities difficult of access or near their dens.”
Excerpt from “Forty-Four Years of the Life of a Hunter,” by Meshach Browning, publ. J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1859, Philadelphia
Meshach Browning (1781-1859) was an early backwoodsman, hunter and explorer of the watersheds of Maryland’s North Branch Potomac and Youghiogheny Rivers. He has been celebrated as the state’s most famous frontier hunter.