In Florida’s Flatlands
SNAKE HEADQUARTERS OF THE STATES.
“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!’
THE MOST DEADLY REPTILE
“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.
“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.
A BEAUTIFUL SNAKE
“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.”
- The Yorkshire Herald and the York Herald (York, North Yorkshire, England) 23 Sep 1895
Marsanne 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]gmail.com.