In the early days of Highland County there was one creature that posed the most serious threat to any settler that dare venture into the wilderness — the dreaded timber rattlesnake. This deadly snake used to be a common sight, but is now incredibly rare in Highland County.
Where did these rattlesnakes go, and why aren’t they in Highland County anymore?
In Highland County legend, rattlesnakes were everywhere. There’s no sure way to tell exactly what species of snake they meant by rattlesnake, but based on early descriptions, the species they most likely refer to is the timber rattlesnake. The crotalus horridus, which translates to “dreadful rattle” in Latin, can grow to be more six feet long. Just one timber rattlesnake bite can kill a grown man with ease if left untreated. They tend to roam the leaf litter of the forest floor or climb into the canopy, but they can be found in streams, on rocks, and even in caves.
These snakes are docile if left unprovoked, but if threatened, they will lash out with a deadly strike. It’s important to note that the pioneers likely did face timber rattlesnakes, but the black rat snake, a species that can grow to be more than 8 feet long often bears similar markings, making it easy to mistake them for timber rattlesnakes. They even coil and shake their tail on leaves to mimic a rattle in order to scare off predators.
Taking into consideration that the pioneers were familiar with the black rat snake, it’s easy to assume that the timber rattlesnakes of Highland County likely were rattlesnakes and not a look-alike species.
The sheer number of rattlesnakes that lived in Southern Ohio is best demonstrated by a story from a group of men in 1802. One of them, an old hunter named William Pope, stooped down for a drink from a cold stream. He spotted a huge, speckled rattlesnake basking on a rock. He quickly killed it, but before he could retreat to the rest of his party, another appeared, posed and ready to strike. He killed that one too, and soon several others slithered his way, apparently furious at his slaying of the others. He quickly became alarmed by the nightmarish sight of dozens of snakes surrounding him, and according to W. Klise’s “The County of Highland: A History,” “He literally cut a path through them to where he had left his company.”
When he escaped, he was so overcome by the “stench of snake musk” he became violently ill and passed out on the ground. When he recovered and told his friends of his experience, they went back to count the carcasses of the rattlesnakes once the others had returned to their hiding places in the rocks. The number of slain snakes totaled an astounding 84. The men called this stream Rattlesnake Creek because of this snake massacre, and the name stuck.
A group of rattlesnakes together is a scary sight, but it has its own name; a rhumba. Reports of snake dens in Fort Hill area caves describe hordes of rattlers and “every type of serpent imaginable” in a slithering cluster. Pioneers theorized this clump of snakes was a type of defense huddle against predators, but later studies suggest that this is a mating practice.
That wasn’t the only misconception about rattlesnakes. An article republished in an 1885 copy of the Highland Weekly News claimed that drinking large quantities of whiskey cured a rattlesnake bite, and another 1882 article insisted that rattlesnake oil cured aching joints.
Over the years, the rattlesnakes seemed to disappear from Highland County. They have become endangered in Ohio, and it is exceedingly rare to sight one. The
latest confirmed sighting in Highland County was at the mouth of a Fort Hill cave in 1960, although some unconfirmed sightings have been recorded in later years.
The reason most snakes have disappeared is likely because of human farming and hunting. In the early days, slash and burn agriculture practices destroyed habitat, and pioneers killed droves of snakes out of fear, leading to a near extinction of timber rattlesnakes in Ohio.
The truth is that timber rattlesnakes are misunderstood creatures. Their startling appearance is usually just a façade, and if they are left alone, they won’t harm anyone.
Today we can look back at the tales of pioneers and marvel at the struggles they overcame and the events they lived through. As Highland County author and early pioneer J. W. Klise said, “No history is complete without a snake story.”
Informationm for this story came from www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/reptiles/snakes/timber-rattlesnake/timber_rattlesnake1.php; https://books.google.com/books?id; =3DsVAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=rattlesnake&f=false; and https://ohioswildlife.wordpress.com/2014/11/29/the-timber-rattlesnake/.
Isabella Warner is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.