Wheeler/Rattlers in New England
“Don’t call your novel Rattlesnake Hill,” the members of my writers’ critique group cautioned, “because everyone will think it’s set in the West instead of New England.” Usually, they’ve given me good advice, but not that time. Rattlesnakes definitely inhabit New England, though their numbers have greatly diminished since the first English colonists arrived in the area.
Then, rattlesnakes were not only abundant, but terrifying to people who’d never seen such a large, long-fanged, and venomous species of snake before; hence the name Crotalus horridus given to eastern timber rattlesnakes. Still, the colonists learned to use these fearsome critters to their advantage. As payback to England for shipping convicts to the colonies, Benjamin Franklin jokingly suggested re-locating rattlesnakes to the mother country, “particularly in the Gardens of the Prime Ministers, the Lords of Trade and Members of Parliament.” Later, during the American Revolution, timber rattlesnakes became a symbol of resistance to the Crown, as exemplified in the Gadsden Flag, named for the South Carolina patriot, Christopher Gadsden. This flag features a rattlesnake about to strike against a yellow background, with the words “Don’t Tread On Me!” below.
Growing up in the West, I’d never heard of timber rattlesnakes; instead it was another species, the Western Diamond-back, that haunted my nightmares. I knew it from pictures, movies, and maybe from seeing it at the zoo. Thankfully, I never encountered this snake in the wild. My older sister did, however. At Girl Scout camp in the mountains above where we lived in Southern California, she spied one while walking alone. She ran back to alert the other campers and the scout leaders. The latter killed the snake and gave her its rattle on a braided necklace as a reward.
By the time I moved to New England, timber rattlesnakes had suffered a sharp decline. They are an endangered species in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire; threatened in Connecticut; and extinct in Maine and Rhode Island. In Massachusetts, they’re limited to the Blue Hills south of Boston, parts of the Connecticut River Valley, especially in the area of the Holyoke Range, and the Berkshires.
I just happened to land in one of those locales. New Marlborough, the Berkshire township where I live, consists of five villages, and as I learned from a town history, one village, Hartsville, had the dubious distinction of being known for its rattlesnake dens. In the 1750s, the “treasurer was ordered to pay two pence for every rattlesnake tail brought to him, and tradition says that on good days for rattlesnakes it afforded quite a lucrative business, as well as a pleasant [!] pastime provided always, however, that some portion of the slayer’s person did not come in too close contact with the other end of the snake.” Most of the Hartsville rattlers inhabit an area of rocky cliffs known as Dry Hill. And for many years, a rattlesnake captured in Hartsville, killed, and stuffed was the main attraction of the wildlife exhibit at the nature preserve of Bartholomew’s Cobble in Sheffield.
With my discovery of timber rattlesnakes in the Berkshires, various pieces in the novel I was writing came together. Dry Hill became Rattlesnake Hill in my fictional town of New Nottingham. Then, because I wanted someone to live on the wild, backside of the hill, among the timber rattlesnakes, I created the Barkers. This raffish family cashed in on rattlesnake tails in the early days, and also earned a reputation for hotheadedness that townspeople attributed to the rattlesnake venom in their blood. Other Crotalus horridus elements found their way, or perhaps I should say, slithered, into the book, including my sister’s rattle necklace, the stuffed rattler at the wildlife exhibit, and even the Gadsden flag.
But as for how I used them, you’ll have to read the novel to find out.