The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


March 19, 2011

River of many snakes

Ashtabula Township was infested with the reptiles until some daring young men, assisted by whiskey, dared enter the den

Had you lived in the area of the Ashtabula River Gulf 210 years ago, the arrival of spring would have brought the stirring of snakes, hundreds and hundreds of the slithering serpents that emerged from their rocky dens to the consternation of settlers.

The Rev. John Hall, who in 1856 wrote a history of Ashtabula Township, tells of the many species, both poisonous and benign, that inhabited the county back then. Hall is an educated, reliable witness to this history. He arrived in the area in 1811 and had access to first-generation pioneers who could fill in the blanks pertaining to what had occurred here in the 14-year span between Moses Cleaveland’s arrival and Hall’s entrance.

Hall states that the entire region of the county comprising the “lake townships” were “much infested with snakes, from the smallest species up to the largest kinds of black snakes  and rattlesnakes.” There were also many toads and frogs “for companions,” an odd statement, considering that snakes feed on the amphibians.

“When resuscitated by the warm air of spring, (the snakes) came out and spread themselves over the country. We often found them in the grass and grain in harvest time, and under logs which we drew from over them in clearing our new land.”

Tim Matson, curator of vertebrate zoology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and a county resident, said Hall was probably accurate in his assessment of the magnitude of the local reptile population.

“Years ago, before the place was totally disturbed, so much of the wildlife would have been much more common, including snakes,” Matson said.

Ashtabula County was not alone in its infestation. A history of Knox County makes note of the large number of snakes, wild animals and Native Americans that settlers had to dispose of in the process of possessing the land for their purposes. Harvey Rice’s “Pioneers of the Western Reserve” makes note of an area of rocky ledges near Warren,  Trumbull County, infested by thousands of black snakes and rattlesnakes.

“In fact, (the snakes) monopolized the territory of the hill and its vicinity, and nobody dared venture within the circle of their dread domains,” Rice wrote.

The issue was finally settled with an all-out assault by a band of “resolute men from Warren who armed themselves with clubs, spears, pitchforks and shotguns. Under the command of a Capt. Oviatt, they charged the “hissing territory.” When the carnage was counted, the men had slaughtered 486 snakes.

Encouraged by their success, and the lack of casualties, the men followed their prey into the rocky ledges and dens to complete their bloody task. (The entire story is online in the Googlebook edition of Rice’s book, starting on page 140.)

With many hardships to master, it is understandable why the pioneers would desire to be rid the snakes, which ranged from being a minor menace to one more threat to life.

In “Memorial to the Pioneer Women of the Western Reserve,” published in 1896, editor Gertrude Van Rensselear Wickham tells the story of a Emily Newton, who came to Ohio in 1816 with her parents. She married a Phillip Whitman and moved to a farm in Ashtabula Township thereafter.

One day, while putting her baby down to sleep, Emily was startled by a black snake approaching her in their home. Her husband being absent, Emily put her baby down, called her little son to hold a candle and, with a stick of wood and shovel, killed the snake.

It was 52 inches long.

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