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Catesby, Mark. Vol. II, Tab 41, The Rattle-Snake

Catesby, Mark. Vol. II, Tab 41, The Rattle-Snake

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Mark Catesby

The Rattle-Snake, Vol. II, Tab. 41

Etching with hand color

14" x 19" sheet

From Volume II, Part 8 of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands

London: 1737 - 1771

Currently known as the timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus*, Catesby described this subject as follows:


I have seen in Carolina eighteen or nineteen Sorts of Serpents; whereof four are of the Viper kind, the others of the Snake kind. It is well known, that the most distinguishing Characteristicks of the Viper is, that it brings forth its young alive; and of the Snake, that it lays Eggs, out of which its young are afterwards hatch'd. But besides this Difference, the Viper has long hollow Fangs or Toils, with an opening near the Point, thro' which they inject their Poison when they bite; its other Teeth are like those of Snakes: Besides which I have observed the following external Marks; the Viper hath the Neck small, the Head broad, the Cheeks extending wide, their Scales rough, the Body short and thick in most; is slow of Motion, can swell his Head and Neck when irritated; hath the Aspect terrible and ugly: Whereas Snakes have the head small, the Body long, the Scales smooth, are nimble and of an harmless Aspect. All Serpents, as well Vipers as Snakes, have forked Tongues, which serve to catch the Insects they feed on; when they are disturbed they thrust them out of their Mouth and shake them.


 The Rattle-Snake.

Of these Vipers the Rattle Snake is most formidable, being the largest and most terrible of all the rest: The largest I ever saw, was one about eight Feet in Length, weighing between eight and nine Pounds: This Monster was gliding into the House of Colonel Blake, of Carolina; and had certainly taken his Aboad there undiscovered, had not the Domestick Animals allarmed the Family with their repeated Outcries; the Hogs, Dogs and Poultry united in their Hatred to him, shewing the greatest Consternation, by erecting their Bristles and Feathers, and expressing their Wrath and Indignation, surrounded him, but carefully kept their Distance; while he, regardless of their Threats, glided slowly along.

It is not uncommon to have them come into Houses, a very extraordinary Instance of which happen'd to my self in the same Gentleman's House, in the Month of February 1723; the Servant in making the Bed in a Ground Room, (but a few Minutes after I left it) on turning down the Cloaths, discovered a Rattle-Snake, lying coiled between the Sheets, in the middle of the Bed.

They are the most inactive and slow moving Snake of all others, and are never the Aggressors, except in what they prey upon; for unless they are disturbed they will not bite, and when provoked, they give Warning by shaking their Rattles. These are commonly believed to be the most deadly venomous Serpent of any in there Parts of America, I believe they are so, as being generally the largest, and making a deeper Wound, and injecting a greater Quanity of Poison; tho' I know not why any of the three other kinds of Vipers may not be as venomous as a Rattle-Snake, if as big, the Structure of their deadly Fangs being formed alike in all. The most successful Remedy the Indians seem to have, is to suck the Wound, which in a slight Bite has sometimes a good Effect; tho' the recovered Person never fails of having annual Pains at the Time they were bit. They have likewise some Roots, which they pretend will effect the Cure, particularly a kind of Assarum, commonly called Heart-Snake-root, a kind of Chrysanthemum, called St. Anthony's Cross, and some others; but that which they rely on most, and which most of the Virginian and Carolina Indians carry dry in their Pockets, is a small tuberous Root, which they procure from the remote Parts of the Country; this they chew, and swallow the juice, applying some to the Wound. Having by travelling much with Indians, had frequent Opportunities of seeing the direful Effects of the Bites of these Snake, it always seemed and was apparent to me, that the good Effects usually attributed to these their Remedies, is owing more to the Force of Nature, or the Slightness of the Bite of a small Snake in a muscular Part, &c. The Person thus bit, I have known to survive without any Assistance for many Hours, but where a Rattle-Snake with full Force penetrates with his deadly Fangs, and pricks a Vein or Artery, inevitable Death ensues, and that, as I have often seen, in less than two Minutes. The Indians know their Destiny the Minute they are bit, and when they perceive it mortal, apply no Remedy, concluding all Efforts in vain. If the Bite happeneth in a fleshy Part, they immediately cut it out, to stop the Current of the Poison. I could heartily wish, that Oil of Olives immediately applied to the Wound, might have as good Success against the Venom of these Snakes, as it hath been found in England to have had against the Poison Of the common Adder.

The Colour of the head of this Rattle-Snake is brown, the Eye red, the Upper Part of the Body of a brownish yellow, transversely marked with irregular broad black Lifts. The Rattle is of a brown Colour, composed of several Horney membranous Cells, of an undulated pyramidal Figure, which are articulated one within the other, so that the Point of the first Cell reaches as far as the Basis or protuberant Ring of the third and so on, which Articulation being very loose, gives Liberty to the Parts of the Cells that are inclosed within the outward Rings, to strike against the Sides of them, and so to cause the rattling Noise, which is heard when the Snake shakes its Tail. I have given a Section of a Rattle, that this Structure might the better appear.

The Charming, as it's commonly called, or attractive Power this Snake is said to have of drawing to it Animals, and devouring them, is generally believed in America; as for my own part, I never saw the Action, but a great many from whom I have had it related, all agree in the manner of the Process; which is, that the Animals, particularly Birds and Squirrels (which principally are their Prey) no sooner spy the Snake than they skip from Spray to Spray, hovering and approaching gradually nearer their Enemy regardless of any other Danger; but with distracted Gestures and Outcries descend, tho' from the top of the loftiest Trees to the Mouth of the Snake, who openeth his Jaws, take them in, and in an Instant swallows them.

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.

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