Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Herpetology in Jonathan Carver’s “Travels” (1778, 1779), with an Early Account of a Dicephalic Snake

Carver, J. 1778. Travels through the Interior Parts of North America, in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. To which is added, Some Account of the Author, and a copious Index. First Edition. J. Walter, London. 543 pp.

Title page of Carver’s Travels, First edition. 1778.


Carver, J. 1779. Three years travels through the interior parts of North-America, for more than five thousand miles: containing an account of the Great Lakes, and all the lakes, islands, and rivers, cataracts, mountains, minerals, soil, and vegetable productions of the north-west regions of that vast continent : with a description of the birds, beasts, reptiles, insects, and fishes peculiar to the country, together with a concise history of the genius, manners, and customs of the Indians inhabiting the lands that lie adjacent to the heads and to the westward of the great river Mississippi, and an appendix, describing the uncultivated parts of America that are the most proper for forming settlements. Second Edition. J. Crukshank, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 282 pp.

Title page of Carver’s Travels, Second edition. 1779.

            Jonathan Carver (1710–1780) was one of the first Europeans to extensively explore regions of the Upper Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa) and write about his observations and discoveries. Ostensibly undertaken to discover a Northwest Passage through the continent, he traveled through the northern Mississippi Valley from 1766 to 1768 until his funds and supplies were exhausted. When he returned to New England from his years-long travels, he found that he was not acknowledged or rewarded for his discoveries, so he went to England in 1769 to seek recompense from the British Crown. Abandoning his wife and children in America, he never returned. While In England, he published his Travels, an account of his adventures and observations on Native communities, which was extremely popular and well-received. However, he never recovered from his debts, and eventually died in poverty after remarrying, but without divorcing his first wife.

            Jonathan Carver was a native of New England, a selectman in Montague, Massachusetts, and a veteran of the French and Indian War, eventually becoming a captain of militia. Under the auspices of Robert Rogers and James Tute, he joined an expedition in 1763 to look for the elusive Northwest Passage. His expedition left Boston in 1766, traveling to Fort Michilimackinac (now Mackinaw City, Michigan), then throughout the Upper Midwest through the winter of 1767–1768. During his travels, he kept extensive journals, which eventually became his famous Travels. Carver’s book was published in numerous languages, and there are apparently >40 editions currently available (the book is still in print). Titles, page numbers, and formats vary somewhat, but the text is the same. There is considerable debate as to whether Carver wrote everything in his Travels or had editorial assistance, and of the extent to which he “borrowed” observations (examined in detail by Kloss, 2018). His legacy further was marred by subsequent attempts by his heirs to lay fraudulent claim to substantial tracts of western land. Today, however, Carver is recognized as one of the most important early explorers of the western frontier, one whose travels generated strong interest in the New World and its indigenous peoples. Parker (1976) provides much more information on Carver, his journals, and subsequent controversies.

            Herpetology in Carver’s Travels is presented on pages 478–490 in the first edition and on pages 247–255 in the second edition. The wording in both editions is identical. Most of the accounts refer to snakes (Of Serpents): the Rattle Snake, the Wall or House Adder, the Long Black Snake, the Striped or Garter Snake, The Water Snake, the Hissing Snake, the Green Snake, the Thorn-Tail Snake, the Speckled Snake, the Ring Snake, and the Two-Headed Snake. No where in the text, except for the accounts of the Rattle Snake and snakes on islands in western Lake Erie, does Carver imply he actually saw these snakes. No locality data are given except for those on the aforementioned islands, which are not mentioned by precise name.

            As might be expected, the longest account refers to the rattlesnake, of which he states there are two kinds, a black species and a yellow species. They are said to be exactly the same except for color, and are now recognized as different color phases of the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). Carver provides a reasonably accurate description of this species and, unlike contemporaries, deems them “very beautiful,” with colors “extremely pleasing.” He repeats some errors of his time (e.g., that the number of rattles reflects the snake’s age; that venom varies in potency seasonally (e.g., Lawson, 1714); that rattlesnakes are charmed by music), but refutes others (e.g., that rattlesnakes are overly aggressive; that all bites are fatal; note that other authors had mentioned similar observations). He gives a description of the fang, fang sheath, and venom gland, and describes how a rattlesnake bites and the immediate symptoms of a bite. He noted that rattlesnakes do not lay eggs, but he thought the young sought the protection of the mother’s mouth as a place of security. Native Peoples used a variety of herbs (Rattlesnake Plantain, bark from the White Ash) to treat the bites. Europeans mixed rattlesnake galls with chalk for medicinal purposes and exported the concoction to Europe, and the flesh could be dried or made into a broth. In the narrative on the customs of Native Americans, Carver noted that in the Naudowessie (Dakota) language, rattlesnakes were called Omlishcaw (p. 256 in the first edition, p. 130 in the second edition). Carver also provides details of a “tall tale” told to him concerning a rattlesnake faithfully returning to its owner (pp. 43–45 in the first edition, pp. 22–23 in the second edition).

Carver’s observations on snakes on islands in the western part of Lake Erie. Second edition, page 84.

            In Carver’s account, rattlesnakes were considered so numerous on islands in western Lake Erie that it was considered dangerous to land (p. 167–168 in first edition, p. 84 in second edition; Fig. 3). As Langlois (1964) later recounted: “the Jesuit explorer, Bonnecampe, visited the region on October 5, 1749, [and] that he referred to them as "Les lies aux Serpentes" (The islands of snakes). A French soldier (J.C.B.), enroute from Presqu'ile, near the eastern end of Lake Erie, to Detroit, spent the night of July 21, 1754, on one of these islands, and recorded in his journal (1941) that his party killed 130 rattlesnakes before they dared to sleep.” Carver’s account is reprinted verbatim in the 1806 edition of Brooke’s General Gazetteer, First American Edition.

            After the rattlesnake account, there is no further mention or description of the Wall or House Adder, so it is impossible to determine to which snake Carver refers. All further accounts are very short, and some of the species are easily identified to genus, although not necessarily to species: Striped or Garter Snake (Thamnophis sp.), the Water Snake (Nerodia sp.), the Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis), and the Ring Snake (Diadophis punctatus). The description of the Long Black Snake seems to be a composite of several species, but definitely the Blue Racer (Coluber constrictor) in part. The Speckled Snake, likewise, seems to describe a composite of several species. Carver states that it is an “aqueous reptile,” so perhaps it refers to Pantherophis gloydi, a species found around marshes and on offshore islands in western Lake Erie. Carver describes the Thorn-Tail Snake as similar to those found elsewhere in North America, possessing a thorn-like dart on the end of its tail, with which “it is said to inflict a mortal wound.” No such species occurs in the area traveled by Carver, but similar traits have been attributed to Mud Snakes (Farancia abacura) in the southern United States.  Water Snakes (now Lake Erie Watersnakes, Nerodia sipedon insularum) were considered extremely numerous on islands in western Lake Erie (Fig. 3), and Carver noted behavior in the Hissing Snake that suggests he was reporting on Eastern Hognose Snakes (Heterodon platirhinos), although this species currently is rare in the islands (Langlois, 1964). Many of the myths associated with this species are repeated in the Hissing Snake paragraph (Fig. 3).

            The most significant herpetological report in Carver’s Travels is the notation of a two-headed snake from the Lake Champlain region. However, this snake had been previously mentioned by Bancroft (1769), complete with an illustration (Fig. 4). The snake was found in 1762 by Lieut. Moses Park and gifted to Lord Amherst1. There was no description of the snake in Carver’s account. The Reverend Manasseh Cutler was shown an illustration of this snake on a visit to Benjamin Franklin in 1787. A comparison of the Lake Champlain snake with a dicephalic snake found near Philadelphia suggested that Franklin’s Philadelphia snake was an Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula), and was similar to the illustration of the Lake Champlain snake2. This and the accompanying illustration in Bancroft suggest the latter was an Eastern Milksnake (L. triangulum) (Wallach, 2007). It is likely that the illustration shown to Reverend Cutler by Dr. Franklin came from Bancroft’s book. Thus, Carver’s notation of the snake was not original, but the popularity of his book likely stimulated interest in such oddities from the New World.

Two-headed snake from Lake Champlain. From Bancroft (1769). Illustration by Lieut. Moses Park.

            The final herpetology notes are short. They cover the Tortoise or Land Turtle, clearly a reference to Terrapene carolina, although it is said to be venomous, and Lizards &. Lizards are divided into the Swift Lizard, a reference to Plestiodon fasciatus with its dark dorsum, bright stripes, and bright blue tail, and the Slow Lizard. Swift Lizards were said to be poisonous, but not dangerous, preferring to run away quickly. Slow Lizards, also likely P. fasciatus, were said to be identical with Fast Lizards except that they were brown dorsally. Slow Lizards readily broke off their tails (i.e., tail autotomy). The herpetology section ends with a paragraph on Tree Toads (Gray Treefrog complex, Dryophytes versicolor/ chrysoscelis), a frog with “claws” (toepads) that resembled tree bark, and “infest the woods in such numbers, that their responsive notes at these times [morning and evening] make the air resound.”

            Although an early account of the herpetology of the Great Lakes Region and, possibly, westward, are Carver’s observations of significant interest to modern researchers? Perhaps not. There is little doubt that Carver traveled extensively during his Travels, but considerable controversy exists among historians as to the originality of his observations and writings. According to Bourne (1906), “Scholars are in general agreement that much of the work in this volume is an abridgement or adaptation of historical writings of Charlevoix, Adair, and La Hontan. Entire chapters read as near verbatim text from one or more of these other authors.” Bourne (1906) amply documents extensive plagiarism in Carver’s Travels, although this practice was not uncommon at that time. For example, among Carver’s natural history accounts, much information on mammals is derived from Pierre Françoise Xavier de Charlevoix’s (1682–1761) Histoire et Description Generale de la Nouvelle France (1744), although that is not the case for his herpetological observations. I can find no outright instances of herpetological plagiarism, but descriptions in the Rattle Snake account (fang like a cat’s claw, green venom) are similar to the those from Kalm (1758), perhaps suggesting that Carver and his collaborators (see Kloss, 2018) were familiar with earlier accounts of rattlesnakes. The inclusion of the Lake Champlain two-headed snake, published originally by Bancroft (1769), tends to support the assumption that at least some of Carver’s observations were “borrowed” from other sources.

            Carver’s personal journal suggests important differences between his text and the published book, although many of the incidents described in the book appear to be true based on discoveries of his journals and letters (Kloss, 2018). Likewise, previous suggestions that Carver was barely literate seem inaccurate. Unfortunately, his herpetological accounts contain poorly described snakes, no locality data, and a substantial admixture of folklore that would have been commonly circulated at the time. As noted above, the most important contribution of Carver’s Travels to herpetology was the first widely disseminated report of a dicephalic snake in North America, and he did not find that!

Acknowledgments. – I thank Van Wallach for information on Carver’s dicephalic snake.


1. Jeffrey Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst (1717–1797), was a British Army officer and Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in the British Army. He advocated genocide against Native Americans, putting smallpox in blankets to distribute to First Nations peoples. Because of this, he is held in contempt by many Canadians and Americans today.

2. Benjamin Franklin’s interest in snakes extended beyond natural history, i.e., as an emblem for American independence. See Cook (1996).


Bancroft, E. 1769. An essay on the natural history of Guiana, in South America. T. Becket and P. A. De Hondt, London. 402 pp. [Lake Champlain snake account on p. 215; the illustration is a frontispiece to the book]

Bourne, E.G. 1906. The Travels of Jonathan Carver. American Historical Review 11(2):287-302.

Charlevoix, P. 1744. Histoire et Description Generale de la Nouvelle France, avec le Journal Historique d’un Voyage fait par ordre du Roi dans l’Amérique Septentrionnale. Tome Premier. Chez Rolin Fils, Paris. 543 pp. [Available at:]

Cook, K.S. 1996. Benjamin Franklin and the snake that would not die. British Library Journal 22:88–111.

Cutler, W. P., and J. P. Cutler. 1888. Life, journals and correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL.D. by his grandchildren. Vol. 1. Robert Clarke & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio. 524 pp. [Franklin’s two-headed snake account on pp. 268–269] [Available at:]

Kalm, P. 1758. An account of the Rattle-snake, and the cure of its bite, as used in North America. In A. von Haller (ed.), Medical, Chirurgical, and Anatomical Cases and Experiments, pp. 282–293. A. Linde, P. Davey and B. Law, and J. Staples, London. 293 pp.

Kloss, J. 2018. Jonathan Carver's "Travels Through The Interior Parts of North-America" (1778) - What's   Available Online? (Accessed 13 October 2022)

Langlois, T.H. 1964. Amphibians and reptiles of the Erie islands. Ohio Journal of Science 64:11–25.

Lawson, J. 1714. New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That   Country: Together with the Present State Thereof. And a Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel'd Thro' Several Nations of Indians. Giving a Particular Account of Their Customs, Manners, &c., London. [Reprinted 1936, Garrett and Massie Publishers, Richmond, Virginia, 259 pp]

Parker, J. 1976. The Journals of Jonathan Carver and Related Documents, 1766-1770. Minnesota Historical Society, Minneapolis. 244 pp.

Wallach, V. 2007. Axial bifurcation and duplication in snakes. Part I. A synopsis of authentic and anecdotal cases. Bulletin of the Maryland Herpetological Society 43:57–95.

For Further Information on Jonathan Carver’s Travels:

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Travels through the Interior Parts of North America, in the Years 1766, 1767 and 1768, by Jonathan Carver. Produced by Sonya Schermann and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Release Date: August 21, 2015 [eBook #49753]. Available at

Gould, Heidi. Carver, Jonathan (1710-1780). MNopedia. (Accessed 11 October 2022)

Gregory, J.G. 1896. Jonathan Carver. His travels in the Northwest in 1766–8. Parkman Club Publishers (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) No. 5:73–101. [Available through the Hathi Trust;]


Submitted by: C. Kenneth Dodd, Jr.

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