This post is based on an article that was previously published in Pennsylvania Heritage, Winter 2019.
Not so long ago, it was easy to find a timber rattlesnake in most parts of Pennsylvania. It was even easier to kill one.
In the early 19th century, pioneer adventurer Phillip Tome recalled that it was common to see thirty or forty snakes at a time near his home along Susquehanna River. “The snakes were so numerous that we used to clear the yard and build fires to keep them away,” he recalled in his 1854 memoir “on leaving the house we always put on a pair of woolen socks and leggings over our shoes to protect our legs.”
Tome trained his dogs to bite rattlesnakes in their middle and shake them to pieces. Anytime he and his brother were hunting, they made sure to kill the biggest and ugliest rattlesnakes they found. After a lifetime of travel in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, Tome declared that snakes were “very numerous east of the Allegheny mountains, but the state of New York was never as badly invested with them as Pennsylvania.”
Though Tome was known to exaggerate his stories, his attitude towards rattlers was typical of many Pennsylvanians in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Perry County, champion snake catcher Irvin “Daddy” George feared rattlesnakes as much as he was skilled at capturing them. “I always considered it a duty to kill or capture every rattlesnake or copperhead that I can as it may save somebody from being bit,” he said in a 1942 Altoona Tribune article. George was known as the “St. Patrick” of Perry County and would tie captured snakes to his cart wheels as he road down the road to and from his home. The snakebite scars covering his arms were testament to the thousands of rattlers he caught.
Many of George’s neighbors also kept an eye out for snakes and had a habit of running over any they met on the road. The practice was so common that George often had to warn his neighbors not to touch rattler fangs embedded in their tires- their venom was still deadly. “Dead rattlers are as dangerous as live ones,” he cautioned. If you were a rattlesnake anywhere in the state, odds were you’d end up captured or killed after your first encounter with a human being.
Pennsylvania is home to one of the largest populations of timber rattlesnakes anywhere in North America. Most live in the north central part of the state where rock dens are plentiful and lush forests provide the rattler’s favorite foods: voles, mice, chipmunks, and small birds. Timber rattlers can live thirty or more years and can grow to be over 4 feet long, they’re the largest venomous snakes in the state. Rattlers are yellow with black and brown bands and are easily identified by the distinctive rattle on the end of their tails that buzzes when they are disturbed and ready to strike.
Pennsylvania’s lumber industry cut down huge swaths of forest in the early 1900s. Soon, the timber rattler population increased when areas previously shaded by tall leafy trees became exposed to sunlight. Meadows, fields, and bushes grew in their place and attracted small rodents and birds, which in turn supported an even larger rattlesnake population. Rattlers were also drawn to roads, rail beds, and other warm and sunny places where they could soak up more heat than the cooler forest ground offered. Unfortunately, this brought rattlers dangerously close to many Pennsylvania communities.
Before long, news spread about the rise in the rattler population and the danger snakes posed. Though in reality timber rattlesnakes prefer to hide rather than fight, accurate knowledge was limited and rumors about snakes purposely seeking out and attacking people were considered fact. It was considered bad luck to run into a snake, and even worse luck not to kill it. Railroad track workers regularly reported that rattlers would hide under the rails and bite anyone who got too close.
With the rattlesnake population still high in the 1950s, rattlesnake hunters like Irvin George were local celebrities. They kept their communities safe and entertained their neighbors with their exploits. In 1955 the Morris Township Volunteer Fire Company in Tioga County organized the first annual rattlesnake roundup first annual rattlesnake roundup, challenging hunters to see who could catch the most and the biggest rattlers in the area with nothing but a big sack and a steady hand. Other communities in Cameron, Wyoming, Perry, Potter, and York counties started their own contests soon afterwards. Organized hunts were a good fundraising opportunity and helped reduce the numbers of dangerous snakes near town.
Hunting and indiscriminate killing decimated Pennsylvania’s rattlesnakes. Organized hunts encouraged Pennsylvanians to catch as many rattlers as possible, even those that lived far away from their homes. “The rules at the annual Morris Rattlesnake Hunt as far as we knew,” veteran hunter C.E. Brennan recalled, were “there are no rules.”
As the population diminished, snake hunting continued more as a source of entertainment than as a public safety service. When rattler numbers reached dangerously low levels in the 1970s, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stepped in to protect the state’s famous reptile. In 1974, the Commission was given official jurisdiction over all commonwealth reptiles and within two years began regulating all snake hunts. In 1984, it became illegal in Pennsylvania to use snakes captured in the state in sacking contests. Today, Pennsylvanians need permits to hunt, capture, or kill rattlesnakes and are only allowed one annually. It is illegal to hunt or kill rattlers in many state forests and game lands, or to damage rattler dens or basking areas.
After the new rules came into effect, attendance at snake hunts dropped over time. Today there are only a few hunts still operating in Pennsylvania, including Morris Township where snakes imported from other states have kept the event going strong.
Pennsylvania’s rattler population has stabilized in recent years thanks to legal protections, reduced hunting, and greater understandings of the role that venomous snakes play in a healthy forest ecosystem. Though they are still threatened by habitat loss and land development, the Fish and Boat Commission took timber rattlers off of the state endangered species candidate list in 2016. It’s not quite as easy to spot rattlers today as it was in Irvin George’s day, but they can still be found all across the state. If you’re ever hiking and run into a one, remember to keep a safe distance and consider yourself lucky to meet one of the most impressive species in Penn’s Woods!
If you’d like to learn more about the natural history of Pennsylvania, the State Archives has the records of the Department of Forests and Waters, Game Commission, Department of Environmental Resources, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Fish and Boat Commission.