Sneaky Serpents

In Florida’s Flatlands


Herbert G. Brown, who lived to be 100 years, 7 months, holding a Diamondback Rattler. Via Florida Memory.

“It is all very well for Northerners in a general way to talk about Southern snakes and their dangerous characteristics,” said an orange grower of Palatka to a “New York Times” reporter the other day, “but unless they are familiar with some particular locality, they do not know of what they are talking. There are spots in Georgia and the Carolinas where it would be impossible to find a snake of any kind in a radius of 50 or more miles. In scores of other regions there are a few perfectly harmless snakes, and in others only one poisonous species is found. But there is one stretch of country in our State where I’ll warrant the average man will find a dozen species of snakes, all poisonous, all well known to us, but which he cannot recognise or name. It is the real snake headquarters of all the States. I speak of the Florida Flatlands, as we call the great waste of prairie, swamp, and water which comprises the greater part of Southern Florida. In that wilderness dwell thousands upon thousands of really dangerous serpents. Many of our names will puzzle the scientists, but they designate the reptiles sufficiently well for us, and, as an old planter neighbour of mine puts it, “We uns ain’t havin’ enny too much time, I reckon, ter call er puff adder Latin names when he’s reachin’ for we uns with his eye full er mad!’

sneaky serpents. There is the thunder snake, blow adder (or puff adder), cotton-mouth moccasin, diamond-back rattler, prairie rattler, and spotted or ground rattler, pilot snake, milk sn


“In one big marsh where I hunt every autumn there are at least a score of different kinds of snakes. There is the thunder snake, blow adder (or puff adder), cotton-mouth moccasin, diamond-back rattler, prairie rattler, and spotted or ground rattler, pilot snake, milk snake, green-grass snake, whip snake, chicken snake, head snake, water moccasin, copperhead, flat-head adder, blue racer, prairie runner, king snake, corn snake, black snake, grass snake (many people don’t believe there is any such, but I’ve seen ‘em), and horn snake. This last is also doubted, but I know of three killed within a year in one patch of cane brake. The moccasins of different species are the most common tribe, and include what is probably the most deadly poisonous and wantonly vicious snake in the country – the cotton mouth. One of the greatest dangers connected with this variety is that they will lie close hid in a bunch of fern or under a big frond, and the passer-by may almost tread on them before he is aware of their presence. They strike like lightning and give no warning. As they dart forward, the head flattens and the jaws are opened until the upper is at a right angle with the lower, exposing the dull white throat lining which has given them the name. Like all the moccasins, they are very thick through the body, a snake five feet long being from seven to ten inches in girth at the largest part. Luckily, their fangs are very delicate and not so long as those of the rattlers, so that we hunters, wearing stout leather or rubber boots, never give them a thought. The only chance for a bite is in stooping to pick up a killed bird or to pluck a curious flower.

sneaky serpents. The only chance for a bite is in stooping to pick up a killed bird or to pluck a curious flower.


“Our rattlers are far larger around than those in the north and west. The largest, fiercest, and most deadly is the diamond-back. It is, very fortunately, quite infrequent, but one is equal to six of the little chaps. Generally the warning is ample to allow the traveller to prepare for or escape from the attack. The clear, loud, metallic rattle – a sound that always sends a chill to the vitals of even old hunters for an instant – can be heard several rods away. Specimens ten feet long have been killed in the Everglades, and weighing up to 20lbs. The low whites (and nothing is lower than the Florida low white, and the Georgia cracker not even being comparable) eat these big rattlers, and say the meat is white and sweet, and more delicate than chicken. When these diamond-backs strike, they lengthen out from a compact coil with an energy and force which often sends them at least six or eight feet. Some people insist that they never leap, but only stretch out, but I have seen them jump too often to believe any such trash. The little ground rattlers never grow to more than three feet in length, and their bite, though poisonous and apt to make a bad sore, is almost never fatal. Their social instincts make them most dangerous, for they love to crawl under a tent flap and sleep cuddled up by the hunters. They can’t be kept out either. Long ago the horse-hair lariat scheme was given up as a complete failure. It was for years said that no snake would cross one. But I’ve seen moccasins glide over one as easily as you please, just lifting the body enough at that one spot to clear the irritating hairs.

sneaky serpents. Their social instincts make them most dangerous, for they love to crawl under a tent flap and sleep cuddled up by the hunters.


“Really the most beautiful snake in the whole State is the green grass snake. It is small and absolutely harmless, very timid, and so shy as to be seldom seen. It is aided in concealing its presence by the fact that it can change colour almost as readily as the chameleon. Their colour is a greenish brown, varying to palest green when under full sunlight in the grass. They love damp meadows and woods, and will live by a spring for years. The blue racer is well known, and from his habit of running alongside a team or a man has earned his name. His bite is a bad one, but never fatal. The darkies dread them, and consider it an omen of approaching death to be ‘raced’ between ‘sun-up’ and ‘sun-down.’ Of course, snakes are seldom seen except in the daytime, being great sun lovers, so the racer is a continual source of fear. Glass snakes are very pretty, being of a bright green (but darker than the grass snakes), and resemble perfectly a semi-transparent green glass. The ridiculous stories about the pieces of broken glass snakes coming together again as good as new are only told by ignorant or romantic people. When a glass snake is broken, he is dead, and, what is more, he stays dead. Hit sharply with a switch, one of these fragile creatures will fly into a score of pieces and die at once. Of course, the muscles will twitch and the tail wriggle a little, but this is true of all snakes for hours after they are dead or practically dead. The old superstition is, you know, that a snake never dies before sun-down.”

marsanneMarsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]


Making a Fortune in Oranges

A Resident Who Objects to Any Implied Reflections on Florida

Postcard Collection
Oranges in Florida. Via Florida Memory.

He Holds His State Fully Equal to the “Glorious Climate of California.”

Admitting There Are Some “Tired” People There, the Majority Are Very Industrious.

To the Editor of The Inter Ocean.

KE-U-KA, FLa., May 18. – I have no time to write for the press, and am only driven to it now by a letter which appeared in THE INTER OCEAN recently from a correspondent in California. The objectionable portion of his letter is the following comparison: “The advantage of California over Florida is, the people of the former State do not lose any of their life, activity, or energy as they do who take up their homes in Florida.” This information must be valuable, as it comes from a person who has sojourned three whole weeks in the land he applauds, and no time or word shows that he had for a moment enjoyed what the most celebrated medical men in the world have repeatedly asserted and declared the most delightful climate in the universe.

I would shrink from anything that might undervalue the El Dorado State, for it has many blessings for the human family whose lot has cast them on its genial shores, but with equal pleasure I rise up before THE INTER OCEAN audience and deny – emphatically deny – that a residence in Florida robs a soul of the life, spirit, activity, or energy he inherited.

THE WRITER OF THIS HUMBLE DEFENSE has worked up fifty-four winters and has just started in on his fifty-fifth summer. He was brought up in a printing-office and editorial-room, and never worked outdoors a day in his life except on fishing excursions before coming to this State, yet last summer he worked every week day in his grove. Two years and a half ago the writer called to bid the editor of THE INTER OCEAN good-by. You will remember you said, with a wee bit of sarcasm in the northeast corner of your eye, “Florida is a magnificent lazy man’s country.” The writer agreed with you, as it was an expression universally used in the North; but he has never worked so hard in his life, nor is he the only one who works. This settlement, which is located nineteen miles west of Palatka on the Florida Southern Railway, is made up of people from Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Connecticut; and they all work, men, women, and children, building houses, making fences, cutting timber, setting out groves, cultivating flower, fruit, and vegetable gardens. They work as many hours and many more days than in the North. As an evidence of the mildness of our winters, one could pick ripe tomatoes on my place any day from November to date. So you see that the climate is in favour of your working every day in the year.

vertical sun. Florida is a magnificent lazy man_s country.

NOR ARE THE PEOPLE OF FLORIDA, the natives and long residenters, lifeless, lazy, or inactive. Of course there are people born tired in Florida as well as in Illinois, but the per cent is no larger.

As an illustration of the spirit and energy of the people, look at the city of Palatka. The sun went down on the night of the 7th of November, as was his custom. The bright red orb lit up one of the handsomest cities in the South, if not in the Union. The morning sun of the 8th rose on its ashes. Her immense hotels, with reputations co-extensive with the world; her large mercantile establishments, filled with the necessities and luxuries of life; her banks, her post-office, and the magnificent orange trees that lines her business streets had vanished into thin air. The morning was a chilly one, and the tired and begrimed citizen, who had through the long night fought the fire fiend, stood face to face with misfortune. It was a short acquaintance, quickly shook, for ere the sun went down the music of the saw and hammer was heard in every direction, and on the 7th of May, five months from the day of disaster, the city was nearly rebuilt. Forty-one stores, the buildings two and three stories high, built of brick and finished with plate glass and costly fixtures, wrought from our native woods, stand on the burnt district.

THIS DOES NOT INCLUDE the warehouse built of iron and a hundred wooden houses erected beyond the fire limits. What does this read like, as though the people became lifeless, inactive, or lazy by a residence in Florida. To my mind it displays activity, energy, and pluck, when compared to wealth and population, superior to Chicago or any other city in the world.

Three years ago when the Florida Southern Railway started westward from Palatka, it was twenty-five miles to the first house, now all along the line can be found prosperous villages, handsome houses, and charming groves and gardens.

Florida is a wilderness country. There is no mistake about that. It is the reverse of Illinois. In 1856 the writer located in Central Illinois. He rode all day looking on and over a broad expanse of treeless prairie. “A land, unbroken save by undulations as graceful as the waves of a peaceful ocean,” said some one – think it must have been “Siva.” One can ride all day in Florida amid stately pines, magnificent oaks, and fragrant magnolias. Look where you will, ride where you may, you are surrounded by a forest “unbroken save by clear lakes and as occasional orange grove.” It is to some a delightful land.

making a fortune. One can ride all day in Florida amid stately pines, magnificent oaks, and fragrant magnolias.

THEY SEE BEAUTY IN THE TREES, romance in the lakes and rivers, and comfort and enjoyment under the vine and fig tree. To others it is an abomination. It is too woody, too wild, too weird, too sandy, too hot, too wet, and last, that should have been first, too far from mother. The first class has industry and patience, the latter can not adapt themselves to circumstances, and are usually born tired. When we hear of a man talking of coming to Florida, yet is fearful that the climate will cause him to lose his activity, the community will have a brief season of prayer. Shortly afterward we hear of him in some other State, and publishing senseless verbiage about men losing their activity by taking up their residence in Florida. It seems to be natural for some persons emigrating to a new country to set down while the wife is getting the first meal to write to the home paper of the beauties and advantages of the newly found paradise. In most cases this is done because the emigrant feels lonely, sometimes done because he has an interest in that section and expects to increase the size of his bank account. After a residence of two years and a half I would hesitate to advise any one to come to Florida for the purpose of

MAKING IT A PERMANENT HOME until he first visits this land and examines thoroughly its climate, soil, products, manners, and customs of the people and the possibilities of securing a livelihood. Those who are troubled with rheumatism, catarrh, hay-fever, neuralgia, diphtheria, and throat and lung diseases can afford to make the change. But the man who has a large family dependent on him should move slowly and hesitate to go into any new country until he is satisfied that it is for the best.

Florida is full of inducements for energetic men as well as for men of means, especially to the class who prefer four months spring and eight months summer to eight months winter and four months summer. Some portions of the State have never been trod by the foot of the white man, but it will be. Railroads are being built in every direction. The slashes, the prairies, the rolling pines, and the hammocks will soon be pierced by the iron horse, and every section of the State will become accessible to the tourist and emigrant. This county, Putnam, has doubled in population in three years and double in assessed values in two years. Taxes last year was $1.40 on $100.

THE PRINCIPAL PRODUCT IN THIS COUNTY is the orange. According to the last United States census Putnam Country raised one-seventh of all the oranges in the State, and notwithstanding the low price of the past winter, a grove in bearing is a fortune. A full-bearing grove will yield from 300 to 500 boxes. At a dollar a box he can make both ends meet, especially when he is not compelled to spend any money for overcoats, mitts, and firewood.

making a fortune. he is not compelled to spend any money for overcoats, mitts, and firewood

Spears’ grove gave forth last year $9,000 and over, and this year $10,000. It contains six acres, but it is a very old grove. Hart’s grove does much better; last season it went $18,000. This one is opposite Palatka and is visited by thousands annually. Bishopp owns sixty acres in bearing, Harris 100, and there are others equally fortunate. We don’t know what they do with their money.

It is not an easy thing to make a grove. The land has to be cleared, fenced, plowed, and the orange trees set. The cost for this selecting average land, is about $125 per acre. If budded trees are used they will bear some the second year, and the fifth year sometimes pays the whole expenses. To do this, however, thrifty trees must be secured and kept growing by judicious cultivation. Mr. Boyd, of this county, came to this State nine years ago. He walked all the way from his home in Kentucky.

HE HAD CAUGHT THE ORANGE FEVER and came to seek his fortune. He says that if on his arrival whole counties were selling for a dollar a dozen he could not buy ten acres. But the spirit was born in him and he soon found work at 50 cents per day and board himself. As he had no other boarders the bill of fare was seldom changed; it consisted of Indial meal, salt, and water, the latter being cheapest; the two former were adulterated. By thus thinning his expenses he was enabled to pay for a small piece of land in two years. He then commenced to set out his young orange trees and seed, and now he has one of the finest young groves in the State. He has taken care of his grove and it will take care of him, as it places him in a position to enjoy the balance of his life in independence. Another friend picked up the seeds about the hotel that made the trees in his grove, and last year he shipped over 500,000 oranges. These two are not the only illustrations of life, activity, and industry in Florida. There are hundreds of them. All or nearly all of the wealthy orange-growers in the State came here poor, and had similar experiences to Mr. Boyd’s. There are other products besides the orange which promises to be profitable, Irish potatoes and all kinds of truck farming being in “big” pay. But it was not my intention to give the possibilities of Florida when I commenced to write this letter. TO do that would encroach too much upon your space, and am not satisfied that it would be agreeable to you and your readers.

making a fortune. HE HAD CAUGHT THE ORANGE FEVER and came to seek his fortune.

I have taken THE INTER OCEAN since its first issue. We receive it here the second day after its date, and it is more highly prized than when we got it red hot for breakfast.


marsanneMarsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]

Vertical Sun and Gilded Vallies

A gentleman spent several years in Florida

General Collection
Date palms and orange trees at the home of James E. Hendry in Fort Myers, Florida. Via Florida Memory.

A gentleman who spent several years in Florida, during the Indian troubles here, having collected his observations of the country in a manuscript, which has been obligingly lent to us, we extract from it some passages which we think the reader will find interesting:

“The southern extremity of Florida is over 1300 miles south of us, and the sun in the shortest day in the year has almost the same meridian altitude that it has here on the 1st of March, or the 10th of October. On the 20th of June its appearance in the heavens is nearly a vertical position, shines with a much more resplendent light that in more southern latitudes.

The climate there in the shortest days would be as cold as in this latitude in October; but for the following reasons:

First. They have no mountains or highlands in their vicinity.

Second. The protracted warm seasons have much an influence on the elements that during the short period of the sun’s declination to the south they do not become cold.

Third. Florida, being a peninsula, is nearly surrounded by water, and that too coming in from the Gulf Stream in a current tropical regions passing near the shore, keeps up a high temperature even during the winter months.

To these we may add the prevalence of southern winds, wafting air of high temperature from the vicinity of the equator.

From these causes the thermometer in the southernmost points is seldom seen below 60 degrees. As you move to the northward, the influence of the enumerated causes diminish and the gulf stream diverges from the shore, and yet on the northern confines of Florida most of the tropical fruits flourish, and many winters have passed without frost. At St. Augustine they seldom have more than two or three frosts in a year. Orange trees have never been seriously affected there except in the frost of 1835. Thus the climate of Florida is much modified by its proximity to the Gulf Stream is apparent from the fact that the south parts of Louisiana on a parallel of latitude with the northern portions of Florida are many degrees colder, and the Orange trees have been destroyed in New Orleans by winters that did not materially affect them in St. Augustine or on the same parallel on the St. Johns.

vertical sun. At St. Augustine they seldom have more than two or three frosts in a year.

The inland navigation of Florida lines of more than 4000 miles in the aggregate more than quadruples the inland navigation of New York, including our Canals. There is not a spot in the territory more than 30 miles from navigable waters. The highest ground is less than 200 feet-above the sea, and there is a chain of inland waters, cut off from the ocean by a succession of island, reaching most of the way round the whole of its coast, affording good steamboat navigation.

The soil of the country is peculiar; – you have doubtless heard much of the white sands of Florida. As you sail along the coast the shore and beach very much resemble a snow bank in the distance, and indeed, as you travel over the country much the same appearance is preserved; more than three-fourths of the soil is covered with white sand.

To northern eyes such a soil looks barren and dreary, – and if found on a northern coast, it would in fact be so; because on our coast the sand is mostly formed of sylex, and when mixed with other soil gives no enriching qualities. It will be remembered that the whole surface of Florida has been thrown up from the ocean, and all the sands of the ocean there are formed from the attrition of shells, and are therefore calcareous; when mixed with vegetable decomposition, or when decomposed they constitute a fertilizing substance, and will produce the most luxuriant growth.

The whole country is based on Lime Rock composed also of shells, which mostly preserve their original form. This rock lies in many places very deep, and in other cases near the surface; there is however above the rock a layer of clay, beneath the upper surface.

There is also a loamy soil in Florida found in many parts similar to our chestnut and red oak soil which produce in great abundance.

Another kind of soil is found along the banks of rivers, and at the wet hammocks, which is immensely productive; a soil equal to the Delta of Mississippi – This land lies on clay, then a layer of marl, on the surface of which is a deep vegetable deposit, such a soil is not scarce there; even in our climate it would produce immense crops. Take it altogether the soil of Florida is fully equal to Alabama and superior to Louisiana; but it is unfair to consider the soil of any country disconnected from its climate. Climate is everything with the vegetable as with the animal creation; and a sterile soil under the influence of a genial sun and a soft bland atmosphere will do more for the growth of plants than the most fertilising manure and the richest soil could do under the influence of an October breeze.

But it is not my purpose here to dwell upon the climate of Florida; with the blessing of Providence shed upon the land, a vertical sun to gild their vallies and to ripen their golden fruit with a generous soil and the gentle zephyrs of heaven floating over it, this same country has been, for the last 300 years the cost of rapacity, murder and conflagration, and the bloody footsteps of rapacious man have marked its highways and byeways, until there is scarce a hammock, grove or recess that has not witnessed horrors and cruelties at which humanity bleed.

vertical sun. the gentle zephyrs of heaven floating over it

In March 1822, Congress passed a law organizing East and West Florida into one territorial government. By this organic law a Governor, four Judges, four district attornies [sic] and four marshals were to be appointed by the President, a legislative council to be chosen by the people, which with the Governor, formed the law making power. Public lands were surveyed by the general government and Tallahassee an inland town, about midway between St. Augustine and Pensacola, was made, and still continues the Capital.

The district of Middle Florida soon became thickly populated; – the borders of the St. Johns, Apalachicola, and a country 60 miles west of the St. Johns, called Alachua, New Smyrna, and most of the southern points on the eastern coats were penetrated with settlements, so that in 1835 Florida contained 48000 souls and was increasing most rapidly.

But as the Seminoles possessed 5,000,000 of acres in the heart of East Florida, and along the Western Coast there was a reluctance to settle in their neighbourhood, and a large portion of East Florida remained a wilderness.

Numerous emigrants from the north were beginning the cultivation of the fruits, so that in the years 1835 and 1836 Florida exported more in amount of her own products than the State of New York. It was nothing strange to see $200 worth of sugar or $100 worth of cotton taken from an acre without more labor than is required to produce an acre of corn in the north. St. Augustine, from about 100 acres of Orange trees sold $100,000 worth of oranges; a single tree would produce to its owner $50. But in the winter of 1835 the unparalleled cold weather, which astonished and dismayed all in the north, extended its influence to this region, and on the 13th of February the thermometer sank to 8 degrees below zero. Such a frost was not within the memory of the oldest inhabitants; it cut down orange trees 100 years old, and left scarce a living fruit north of New Smyrna and Tampa Bay. But there was 300 miles south of these points that had not been injured even by this frost.

vertical sun. on the 13th of February the thermometer sank to 8 degrees below zero

The inhabitants at once replanted their groves, and at St. Augustine and on the St. Johns they already begin to export oranges.

But for the war which broke out in 1836, I cannot doubt that Florida would now be furnishing the Northern States with half the sugar they now consume, and in less than 5 years from this time, would have driven all the Sicily and West India oranges out of the market.

But alas! tales of horror and keen distress are yet to be told – War, bloody, brutal war, has ever since desolated the country, blasted its fair hopes, and spread mourning over the land. There are but three plantations in all East Florida that have not been ravaged and burned. There are no families out of St. Augustine and Jacksonville, that have not been forced to fly from the conflagration of their own dwellings or perish under the ruins. More than a thousand families have been driven from their homes and more than a hundred battles have been fought in the last 5 years.

marsanneMarsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]

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