CATESBY, Mark (1683 – 1749) Vol.II, Tab. 43, The Water Viper

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Painted and etched by Mark Catesby (1638 - 1749)
Etching with hand color, paper dimensions: approximately 14 x 19 inches
From Volume II, Part 8 of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands
London: 1737 - 1771

Currently known as the eastern cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus and swamp doghobble, Leucothoe racemosa*, Catesby described these subjects as follows:


The Water Viper.

The back and head of this Serpent is brown, the Belly marked transversly with black and yellow alternately, as are the Sides of the Neck. The Neck small, the Head large, armed with the like destructive Weapons as the Rattle-Snake, which next to it is reckon'd the largest of any other Viper in these Parts; and contrary to most other Vipers are very nimble, and particularly dextrous in catching Fish. In Summer great Numbers of these Serpents are seen lying on the Branches of Trees hanging over Rivers, from which at the Approach of a Boat, they drop into the Water, and often into the Boat on the Men's Heads: They lie in this Manner to surprize either Birds or Fish, after these last they plunge, and pursue them with great Swiftness, and catch some of a large Size, which they carry on Shore and swallow whole: One of these Serpents I surprized swimming a Shore with a large Cat-Fish, of a different kind from that described Vol. II. p. 22, this having two sharp Bones, on each Side its Gills, which were so fixed in the Jaws of the Snake, that he could not disengage himself with all his Twists and Distortions, and in that Condition being in Danger of drowning, was necessitated to swim a-shore, where the Murderer was slain. This Serpent in Carolina commonly goes by the Name of the Water Rattle-Snake, not that it hath a Rattle, but many of them are very large, and coloured not much unlike the Rattle-Snake, and their Bite is said to be as mortal. They frequent Water, and are never seen at any great Distance from it. The Tail of this Viper is small toward the End, and terminates in a blunt horny Point, about half an inch long: This harmless little Thing hath given a dreadful Character to its Owner, attributing to him another Instrument of Destruction besides that he had before, imposing a belief on the Credulous, that he is the terrible Horn-Snake, armed with Death at both Ends, tho' in reality of equal Truth with that of the two-headed Amphisbaena; yet we are told, that this fatal Horn by a Jerk of the Tail, not only mortally wounds Men and other Animals, but if by Chance struck into a young Tree, whose Bark is more easily penetrable than in an old one, the Tree instantly withers, turns black and dies.

Frutex foliis serratis, floribus longioribus spicatis subviridibus, capsula pentagona.

These Shrubs are usually slender in the main Stem, spreading into many pliant Branches, to the Height of about ten Feet, with thin Leaves set alternately, having their Edges finely serrated: The Flowers are tubulous, small, of a greenish white, with a Pointel reaching a little above the Verge of the Cup; they are closely set horizontally on one Side of the slender Stalks; these Flowers are succeded by round Berries, which when ripe open, dividing into five Sections, enclosing many small Seeds. They grow in moist Places in Carolina and Virginia.

Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749)

Facts regarding Catesby’s early years are scant. It is known that he was born in the ancient market town of Sudbury, England to a father who was a legal practitioner and mayor of Sudbury and to a mother from an old Essex family.  It seems that he received an understanding of Latin and French and was familiar with the eminent naturalist Reverend John Ray. Following his father’s death, he was endowed with the means to pursue his interest in the natural history of North America.

Catesby arrived in Virginia in 1712 as the guest of his sister and her husband, Dr. William Cocke, an aid the Governor of the colony.  Soon he was acquainted with the well-connected William Byrd, a Fellow of the Royal Society whose diary contains passages discussing Catesby’s strong curiosity with all things relating to North America. 

This included plants native to the fields and woods of Virginia through which Catesby traveled, collecting examples of botanical specimens unfamiliar in England, which he illustrated and sent back to his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll and the apothecary and botanist, Samuel Dale.

Catesby’s first trip to the New World was extensive and included a visit to Jamaica. Although he felt that his approach to a larger understanding of its natural history was lacking in structure, his experience would inform his future expeditions. 

Following his return to London in 1719 Catesby resolved to return to the colonies and gather additional information for his illustrated Natural History... He gained the financial support of members of the local scientific community, many of who were members of the Royal Society keen to send a naturalist to Carolina who could provide an accurate account of its resources.  Among those who belonged to the Royal Society was William Sherard, who after examining Catesby’s drawings, was key in advancing the project. With further backing by Sir Hans Sloane, court physician and naturalist whose collection would form the basis for The British Museum, Catesby sailed to Carolina in 1722.

Catesby’s four years of travels following his second arrival in North America brought him throughout South Carolina, parts of Georgia, and the Bahamas. He was 

intent on visiting the same location at different times throughout the year in order to observe his subjects as they developed. In addition to gathering botanical specimens of potential horticultural importance, he also acquired birds and other creatures.  

Catesby’s patrons in London were eager to receive examples of the varieties of plants and animals he encountered but collecting, packaging, and sending them back to England served as a distraction to his intended Natural History...  Nevertheless, he continued to observe, paint, and write descriptions of the previously un-investigated wildlife he encountered on the shores and in the swamps, woods, and fields of the middle American colonies.

Catesby returned to England from his final voyage to America in 1726 and spent the next seventeen years preparing his Natural History... He envisioned his work containing colored plates reproducing his studies from nature in a substantial, folio-sized format, an achievement nearly unprecedented in earlier natural history publications. Catesby arranged for financing in the form of an interest-free loan from the Quaker Peter Collinson, a fellow of the Royal Society. Nevertheless, the cost of paying professionals to prepare his delineations on copper plates for printing was too great. To this end, with the assistance of Joseph Goupy (1689–1769), a French artist living in London, he taught himself to etch.  In addition to producing nearly all of the plates for his publication, Catesby closely supervised the coloring of the engravings, either painting the impressions himself or closely overseeing the work to insure its fidelity to his preparatory work. To further finance the project Catesby sold subscriptions, offering his book in sections of 20 plates to be published every four months.

The first volume of Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands, containing one hundred plates, was completed in 1731 and no doubt facilitated his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in February, 1733. The second volume, also containing one hundred plates, was finished in 1743 and was supplemented with twenty plates based on information sent to Catesby by John Bartram and others in in America appeared in 1746–1747. Of the approximately 180 - 200 copies of the first edition produced, roughly 80 copies remain complete and accounted for and there are an unknown number in private collections. A second edition was issued by George Edwards in 1754 and a third edition, published by Benjamin White, in 1771 who continued to print examples of the plates until at least 1816. As early as 1749 editions were produced for the European market with translations of the text in German, Latin, and Dutch. In these the plates for the first volume and appendix were re-etched by Johann Michael Seligmann and the plates for the second volume re-etched by Nicolaus Friedrich Eisenberger and Georg Lichtensteger.  

Catesby’s tenacity resulted in a sweeping and compelling study of American plants, animals, and marine life native to little documented lands in which he strove to assign scientific nomenclature to his subjects. Indeed, Linnaeus, in his 1758 Systema Naturae, made use of much information brought to light by Catesby using it as the foundation of his system of binomial nomenclature for American species.

Throughout the production of his Natural History…Catesby lived in London with his Elizabeth Rowland with whom he had four children and married in 1747, before his death in 1749.

 *From James L. Reveal’s Identification of the plants and animals illustrated by Mark Catesby for The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands in the appendix of The Curious Mr. Catesby, University of Georgia Press.