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Wednesday, 07 March 2007 00:00

Accounts of a horned serpent

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I have on more than one occasion written about Uktenas, the giant horned serpents modeled on timber rattlesnakes that appear in Cherokee mythology. In doing so, I have never suggested that they are anything but symbols for the nether world of darkness, decay, and death. Recently, however, two surprising nineteenth century reports of “actual” horned rattlesnakes have come to light.

 

Before we take a look at those reports, let’s first review the appearance of the mythical Uktenas as I described them in an essay that appeared in “Blue Ridge Nature Journal” (Charleston SC: Natural History Press, 2006):

“Uktenas were very large. According to anthropologist James Mooney’s 19th century informants, the creature — which had been born of envy and anger — was ‘as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, and a bright blazing crest like a diamond upon its forehead, and scales glittering like sparks of fire. It has rings or spots of color along its whole length and cannot be wounded except by shooting in the seventh spot from the head, because under this spot are its heart and life.’ Uktenas were often described as having large sets of antlers. Their most compelling physical feature, however, was a diamond-shaped crest (often depicted as a quartz crystal) on its forehead that emitted flashes of light like a blazing star. Those encountering the serpent — especially young children — were so bedazzled by this light they were lured, like a moth to a flame, toward certain death.”

There is, of course, a relatively small rattlesnake species (Crotalis cerastus) in the southwestern deserts of North America known as either sidewinders (because of their movement patterns) or horned rattlesnakes (because of short scaly protuberances situated just above their eyes). But the large-bodied timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) that frequents the ancestral homeland of the Cherokees here in the southern mountains has never, to my knowledge, been previously reported – except in its mythological variant – as having horns of any sort.

While I was doing some research at Hunter Library on the campus of Western Carolina University last week, Special Collections archivist George Frizzell, a friend, called my attention to an 1852 report of a rattlesnake from this region that displayed “two forked horns.” George had “stumbled onto” the report while conducting a broad-based computer-generated “American Periodical Series” research about the Eastern Band of Cherokees. I immediately ran a more specific search of the same database and uncovered an 1877 report. Subsequent print and Internet searches have not turned up any additional references to “horned” timber rattlers. But I would very much like to hear from anyone with factual or anecdotal information. Here are the two reports, along with some notes.

The first appeared without heading in the “New York Daily Times” for Oct. 15, 1852: “Mr. William H. Thomas, of Quilla [sic] Town, Haywood County, N.C., writes to the ‘Asheville News’ that a Cherokee Indian named Salola captured a snake on the Smoky Mountain, which he describes as of the usual size of diamond rattlesnakes found in the mountains of the county, and of a darker color. On its tail it has ten rattles, and on its head two forked horns about three-fourths of an inch long. The Indian said it seemed to be a king among the snakes of its species. Nothing of the kind has been seen heretofore by any of the oldest white inhabitants.”

William Holland Thomas was perhaps the most influential figure in the 19th century history of Western North Carolina. In addition to many other activities, Thomas served, in essence, as the de facto “white” chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokees during most of that century. He was an acquaintance (perhaps a friend) of Salola (which means “Squirrel”), who, according to Charles Lanman in his Letters from the Alleghany Mountains (1849), was “the blacksmith of his nation, and with some assistance supplies the whole of Qualla town with all their axes and plows ... A specimen of his workmanship in the way of a rifle may be seen at the Patent Office in Washington, where it was deposited by Mr. Thomas; and I believe Salola is the first Indian ever manufactured an entire gun.”

Headed as “A Horned Rattlesnake” the second report appeared first in the “Charlotte (NC) Observer” and was reprinted in the issue of “Scientific American” for Sept. 29, 1877: “An inhabitant of Burnt Chimney, Rutherford County, was in the city yesterday evening, exhibiting five rattlesnakes, one of which has genuine horns. The horns project perpendicularly from the snake’s head and are about an inch long. They are of a brownish color, and in shape and general appearance are exactly like those of a deer, with the difference that they are less crooked, and larger in proportion at the point at which they emerge from the head. The snake is about eight years of age, and in every other respect is perfect. The owner of the phenomenal snake says that it was caught on Black Mountain, in McDowell County, about a month ago. He and several others had heard of a famous rattlesnake den there, and went for the purpose of shooting them. When they found it several hundred snakes were visible, among them the one with horns. Before they began shooting they captured a half dozen or more by means of nooses, taking the horny headed one first.”

According to William S. Powell’s The North Carolina Gazetteer: A Dictionary of Tar Heel Places (1976), Forest City, N.C., was called Burnt Forest until the name was changed in 1887. The same source noted that there is a Black Mountain range (including Mt. Mitchell) and 10 or more individual peaks named Black Mountain in WNC. The Black Mountain den site referred to in this report may have been located at the head of Brier Creek in northeast Yancey County adjacent to the McDowell County line. Stephen G. Tilley and James E. Huheey noted in Reptiles & Amphibians of the Smokies (2001) that, “Timber rattlesnakes overwinter, often with copperheads and other snakes, in deep crevices or rocks, usually on south-facing slopes. Some of these den sites have probably been utilized for centuries or millennia.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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