Rattlesnake Legends

For various reasons, the rattlesnake is surrounded by a large lore of legend. Perhaps it is the reptilian taciturnity, combined with the apparently torpid demeanor, both attributes veiling a supposedly sinister inclination. For instance, there's the episode at Fort Mandan, wherein Jusseaume, the French trader Lewis and Clark hired as an interpreter—notwithstanding that his own reputation was not unlike a rattlesnake's1—who prescribed "a small portion of the rattle of the rattle-snake" to hasten Sacagawea's parturition. Lewis reported

Having the rattle of a snake by me, I gave it to him and he administered two rings of it to the woman broken in small pieces with the fingers and added to a small quantity of water . . . whether this medicine was truly the cause or not I shall not undertake to determine, but I was informed that she had not taken it more than ten minutes before she brought forth. Perhaps this remedy may be worthy of future experiments, but I must confess that I want faith as to it's efficacy.

Then there is the story belonging to the copious literature on rattlesnake taming. Among the several hundred questions Nicholas Biddle posed to William Clark during their meeting in April of 1810 was: "Qu: as to tame rattle snakes in Rocky mountains." His notes on Clark's answer read as follows:2

Among Snake Indians in one of the towns a Snake Indian supposed to have been killed having been wounded & scalped by the Minnetarees of F. de Prairie [Atsina Indians] arrived having recovered on field of battle & escaped to woods. He brought with him two large rattle snakes whose teeth he had extracted. They were tamed by him wrapped themselves round his body . . . bosom &c . . . . knew him . . . boys amused thems[elve]s with sticks . . . the name of the Snake Indians got by their being remarkable for taming snakes of which they have many in their country.

Indian lore is said to include many such tales, and similar legends abounded in Colonial days, including reports of tamed snakes coming when called—perhaps symbolically triumphing over the serpent in the Garden of Eden.3

During the winter at Fort Mandan the explorers learned from Canadian trader Hugh Heney of an Indian topical medicine. In his journal for February 28, 1805, Clark described it as

. . . a Root and top of a plant presented by Mr. Haney, for the Cure of mad Dogs Snakes &c, and to be found & used as follows vz [viz; videlicet]: . . . this root is found on high lands and asent of hills, the way of useing it is to Scarify the part when bitten to chu or pound an inch or more if the root is Small, and applying it to the bitten part renewing it twice a Day. the bitten person is not to chaw nor Swallow any of the Root for it might have contrary effect.

The plant Heney sent probably was the purple coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia, which is known to have been widely used by Plains Indians in treating various poisonous bites, including that of the rattlesnake.4 Commonly called by such names as black sampson, comb plant, and snakeroot, it is still listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia, and is among the most popular of all botanicals. Notwithstanding its durable and widespread reputation, perhaps based on the psychological potency of its obnoxious flavor, its effect on a rattlesnake bite is no better than Lewis's "Peruvian barks." Its range today extends from eastern Minnesota to western Montana, and from Saskatchewan to Texas. Lewis sent a specimen to Jefferson.5

1. Clark characterized him on October 27, 1804, as "Cunin artfull an insoncear"—cunning, artful, and insincere.

2. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854 (2nd ed., 2 vols., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 2:544.

3. Genesis 3:13-15.

4. Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1998), p. 205.

5. See the Twinleaf Journal of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Echinacea (e-kee-NAH-kee-a; often pronounced ek-i-NAY-she-a) is from the Greek word for hedgehog, a reference to the prominent receptacle scales at the center of the coneflower. The name of the species, angustifolia, is a Latin word meaning narrow leaf.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust