The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By P.W. McDermott
At least twice during the last 50 years sea serpents have been reported off the Lake Erie Islands. In 1931, two enterprising gentlemen exterminated the last one by exhibiting, for a modest fee, a python purported to be it. Now, it seems that sea serpents can survive the cynicism of journalists and even the anathema of science, but loss of amateur standing is fatal. So, until a coy kinsman, or a reasonable facsimile, appears to clear the family honor, the inland sea serpent fancier must keep a closed mind on the subject.
The truth is, though, that if there are sea serpents anywhere in the world – or out of it -there ought to be a few about the Islands. For until some time after the War of 1812, the “Isles aux Serpents” had such a reptilian reputation that anything slithery, of any dimension, might have been spawned there. The accounts here recorded do not make much of size, but such is the emphasis on quantity that the reaction of the incredulous is apt to be much the same.
Father Charlevoix, who passed along the north shore of Lake Erie in 1721, was not convinced. With size he had no doubts, as he had referred earlier in his Journal to American rattlesnakes, “as thick as a man’s leg, and sometimes thicker, and long in proportion . . .”1 When he reports conditions on the Islands, however, he slips in a “we are told” to escape responsibility: “On the fifth toward four o’clock in the afternoon we perceived the land on the south shore, and two little islands which lie very near it. They are called Rattlesnake Islands, and we are told they are so infested with these reptiles that the air is infected with them.”2
Jonathan Carver, on his way from Detroit to Niagara in 1768, elaborated upon the theme and added some quaint embroidery: “There are several islands near the west end . . . so infested with rattlesnakes that it is very dangerous to land. It is impossible that any place can produce a greater number of all kinds of these reptiles than this does, particularly of the water snake. The lake is covered near the banks of the islands with the large pond lily . . . and on each of these lay, when I passed over it, wreaths of water snakes basking in the sun, which amounted to myriads.
The most remarkable of the different species that infest this lake, is the hissing snake, which is the small speckled kind, and about eighteen inches long. When anything approaches, it flattens itself in a moment and its spots, which are of various dyes, become visibly brighter through rage; at the same time it blows from the mouth, with great force, a subtile wind, that is reported to be a nauseous smell; and if drawn in with the breath of the unwary traveler, will infallibly bring on a decline, that in a few months must prove fatal, there being no remedy yet discovered which can counteract its baneful influence.3
Forty-six years later, Samuel R. Brown voiced the average reader’s reaction to Carver’s account, in his Views of the Campaigns of the North-Western Army. Therein he gave a rapturous description of the Islands though he was forced to admit the presence of intruders in his Eden: “There are great numbers of rattlesnakes; so plenty indeed, that they would crawl into our tents and conceal themselves under our baggage. An officer of Shelby’s corps found one under his pillow, when he awoke in the morning.” But as for Carver: “The ‘myriads of water snakes’ which were basking on the leaves of the pond lily, at the time Carver passed the islands, are not to be seen at this day. Neither has anyone ever been able to discover his deleterious ‘hissing snake’.”4
Nevertheless, there is a credible basis to the Carver story. To quote authority, Conant’s Reptiles of Ohio has this in reference to water snakes in general: “Some specimens flatten themselves out when they are alarmed. The secretion from the musk glands is exuded profusely at the time of capture and since it is of a vile smelling odor it serves well as a weapon of defense.”5 The “Island water snake” (Natrix sipedon insularwn) found abundantly on most of the Islands, is also described as discharging a “foul smelling fluid from the musk glands.'” So, even though it be granted that the “hissing snake” was largely based upon the diminishing view of a very wary traveler, taken hastily over his shoulder, the “subtile wind,” at least, is thus verified. And, the numbers of the reptiles being what they were reported, with the breeze in the right direction, even Charlevoix’s infected air was possible. The “baneful influence” of the snake is something else again. It might be recalled, however, that, until well into the last century, traveler and settler alike, all along the south shore of the lake, were preyed upon by baneful influences. To blame the hissing snake for any of the various maladies then extant was unique, no doubt, but hardly more so than the other causes then advanced.
The French soldier, J. C. B., writing his reminiscences towards the end of the eighteenth century, had a vivid memory of one of the islands visited on a French expedition nearly a half-century before: “We went to the northwest, which is the most remote part of Lake Erie. Then we reached the north of this same lake and camped at Isle des Serpents a Sonnettes, which is located at the end of the Detroit River.
This island gets its name from the snakes infesting it, which we had to drive away, lest we be annoyed in our camp. Therefore we started shooting them. Several entered the hollow of an old fallen tree. With three others, I began to fire shots into the hollow. After several shots some of the snakes rolled out like a ball of twine, many living, and some dead, cut to shreds and dragged away by the living ones. We killed several others with sticks . . . We killed 130 of them, waging a murderous war on these reptiles, who would have reason to dread travelers for many a day.6
The expedition by no means exterminated the snakes, however. In 1765, the British merchant, John Porteous, recorded in his Journal: “We came about 16 Miles passing several Islands & put up on one of the Snake islands about 300 yds. in circumference, Shore mostly rocky, bearing cedar & some other small wood with plenty of Gooseberries & Snakes . . .”7 Two years later, he again passed the islands, describing them to his father in a letter more quaintly reproduced: “From Point P. westw. the Lake is filled with a number of very fine Islands, called generally by the french ye Snake Islands; and by the Eng. different names, respectively. Some of them, are very large & are all fertile in fruits, wood, & hay, &c. all swarming wt snakes . ..”8
The fame of this reptiles’ roost was not entirely left to the mere notes of passers-by. Even genius was drawn to it. In 1791, the young Vicomte de Chateaubriand came reveling through the forests to the inland seas. He gives the impression of having visited all the lakes, but whether he went beyond Niagara is difficult to determine, since, as a true representative of the Romantic school, he was long on imagination and very short on fact. In his description of snake life on the Islands, his opening sentences have the sound of Jonathan Carver. Beyond that, resemblance to anyone, or anything, ceases. Perhaps, in his Rousseauesque raptures over nature in the raw, he got mixed up with a Lake Erie sunset. Nevertheless, the description is Literature, and, with no attempt to further encourage Science and History in looking down their noses at Art, it is offered here purely as such:
Lake Erie is famous also for its serpents. In the western part of this lake, from Viper Islands to the shores of the continent, over a space of more than twenty miles are spread large water-lilies: in summer the leaves of these plants are covered with serpents entwined in one another. When the reptiles happen to move in the sunshine, you see them roll their rings of azure, purple, gold, and ebony; in these horrible knots, double and trebly formed, you can distinguish nothing but sparkling eyes, tongues with a triple dart, throats of fire, tails armed with stings or rattles, which whisk about in the air like whips. A continued hissing, similar to the rustling of dead leaves in a forest, issue from this impure Cocytus.9
After being ransomed from the Indians of northwestern Ohio in 1793, Oliver Spencer was taken aboard the sloop Felicity at Detroit. When near to her destination at Presque Isle, a raging storm drove the vessel back to the Islands:
We spent a part of Saturday afternoon in an excursion through the Middle Bass Island on which we killed several large rattlesnakes. I narrowly escaped being bitten by one at least three feet long over which I stepped as he crossed the path; and the captain, who had gone to a small pond a few hundred yards ahead of us to shoot ducks, returned in a short time running and out of breath, declaring that a monster, a snake more than a rod in length, the moment he fired at some ducks, issued from the long grass by the edge of the water, made directly toward him for more than twenty rods. On our return to the sloop we caught some fine bass, which more than compensated us for the loss of the captain’s ducks.10
The Felicity was to be blown back to the Islands twice more, and on the final trip the crew found a dead man on the beach. After such a total of eerie experiences, it is not improbable that the monster could have been dreamed up by a distraught captain, though it seems unlikely that a seasoned skipper could have had his imagination so heightened by just one Lake Erie storm, particularly during the tranquility of duck hunting. An open mind ought to open both ways, it would seem, unless we slavishly depend upon the high priests of anthropology for our evolutionary evidences.
Which brings us to the story told by the Indians to Colonel James Smith during his captivity in northern Ohio in the four years after 1755: ”
These islands lie in a line across the lake, and are just in sight of each other. Some of the Wyandots, or Ottawas, frequently make their winter hunt on these islands. Tho’ excepting wild fowl and fish, there is scarcely any game here but racoons which are amazing plenty, and exceedingly large and fat; as they feed upon the wild rice, which grows in abundance in wet places round the islands. It is said that each hunter, in one winter, will catch one thousand racoons.
It is the received opinion among the Indians that the snakes and racoons are transmutable; and that a great many of the snakes turn into racoons every fall, and the racoons into snakes every spring . . .
As the racoons here lodge in rocks, the trappers make their wooden traps at the mouth of the holes; and as they go daily to look at their traps, in the winter season, they commonly find them filled with racoons; but in the spring or when the frost is out of the ground they say, they find their traps filled with large rattlesnakes.11
Although Colonel Smith had a great respect for the Indians’ powers of observation, and, in fact, had had his own observations and book learning corrected several times by them, he doubted this theory, and told his captors so. He explains to the reader: “These islands are but seldom visited; because early in the spring and late fall it is dangerous sailing in their bark canoes; and in the summer they are so infested with various kinds of serpents (but chiefly the rattle snake) that it is dangerous to land.” Nevertheless, Smith’s judgment was made purely by remote control. Such scientific observations as had been made, had been made by the Indians, qualified students of natural history from the papoose cradle up. Our own cherished theory of the transmutation of apes into men had no such keen-eyed witnesses.
Who knows what awesome monstrosities nature might have turned out on the islands if it had not been for the pigs. It was the pigs that put a stop to the whole process. They exterminated the rattlesnakes, at least; and apparently frightened the water snakes out of all desire of becoming Super Serpents. Samuel R. Brown noted the presence of pigs on the Islands, and explained that they had been brought there by early settlers who had been driven out by the British in the early stages of the War of 1812.4 The “pedestrious” Estrick Evans, on Put-in-Bay Island in 1818, observed: “Wild fowl are numerous here, and in the woods are swine. The island is uninhabited.”12
Just in case there be any who doubt this perky superiority, a final piece of documentation is here presented. William Brown, a Leeds clothier, spent several years along the Lake Erie shore in the early 1840’s. He wrote: “The number of hogs roaming through the woods of Ohio have done one good; and that is, they have nearly eradicated the whole breed of rattlesnakes. If one is anywhere near, the hog is sure to kill and eat him, and his bite, as I am told, has no more effect upon the animal than a common scratch. About thirty years ago the country abounded with these snakes . . . but now they are rarely met with. One farmer who had lived on a clearing in the midst of the bush told me that he had only seen two of the rattlesnakes for the last seven years.”13
So, in addition to its other attributes, whether on rye or white, or with applesauce, the vacationers who are drawn to the Islands each year must add another item of gratitude to the pig for making their summer Edens possible. Those, however, who have a fondness for sea serpents, are apt to find a bitterness in their pork chops.
- Charlevoix, Pierre Francois Xavier de, – Journal of a Voyage to North America . Chicago, Caxton Club, 1923. Vol. 1, p. 228.
- —– Same. Vol. 2, p. 5.
- Carver, Jonathan – Travels . . . in the Years 1766, 1767 and 1768 . . . 3d ed. London, Printed for C. Dilly, 1783. p. 167-8.
- Brown, Samuel R. – Views of the Campaigns of the North-Western Army . . . Troy, N. Y., Printed by F. Adancourt, 1814. p. 130-1.
- 5. Conant, Roger – The Reptiles of Ohio . . . Notre Dame, , University Press, 1938. p. 85-8.
6, B., J. C. – Travels in New France. Harrisburg, Pa., Pennsylvania Historical Society, 1941. p. 35-6.
- 7. Porteous, John – Journal . . . Schenectady to Michilimackinac 1765 & In Ontario Historical Society, Papers and Records. vol 33, 1939, p. 89.
- Porteous, John – From Niagara to Mackinac in 1767 . . . In Algonquin Club Historical Bulletin. No. 2, p. 8.
- Chateaubriand, Francois Auguste Rene, vicomte de, – Travels in America and Italy. London, Henry Colbum, 1828. vol. 1,.p. 36-7.
- Spencer, Oliver M. – Indian Captivity . . . Chicago, R. R. Donnelley, 1917. p. 151-2.
- Smith, James – An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life of Col. James. • • Cincinnati, Robert Clarke, 1870. p. 81-2.
- Evans, Estrick. – A Pedestrious Tour . . . In Thwaites, R. G. – Early Western Travels vol. 8, page 240.
- Brown, William, of Leeds – America: A Four Years’ Residence . . . Leeds, Printed by Kemplay and Bolland, 1849. p. 34.
This article first appeared in Inland Seas in April 1947