Thursday, June 4, 2015

Last of the Covered Wagons: Meeting a Rattlesnake

My AncestryDNA test results have led to many interesting discoveries but one of the earliest connections I figured out was with a fifth cousin once removed. Her tree included many wonderful old photographs of her mother's Beard family, the line we share, and stories they wrote. Perhaps, the most treasured outcome of this cousin connection was the gift of friendship. My "new" cousin has shared many things about her life, including a book her uncle, Clarence Mern Beard, wrote about his family's trip west in a covered wagon at the turn of the century. Railroads already linked east and west so the trip was unusual in that the family was still traveling by covered wagon in the late 1890s. She has graciously allowed me to share portions of the book on my blog.

At the time of this section of the book the family of William Adam and Emma Elizabeth (Ellison) Beard are traveling through southern Colorado headed to Pueblo.

"A gray haze blotted out the mountains; and not a tree, cliff or even a sizeable hill stood to break the monotonous expanse of the desert like plain; and only the dim outline of a trail was there to indicate our wandering course.  Near midday, as we trundled wearily along in the sizzling heat, mother suddenly grasped the left line and gave a surge which turned the horses sharply out of the road.  Quite reflexively, father recovered control of the reins; but as he did so mother cried, “Snake!” We looked and there, lying coiled on the center ridge, only two steps ahead of the team, was a monster rattlesnake.  Disturbed by the commotion, he raised his head and as he swayed from side to side, we could hear the sickening buzz of his beaded tail.

Conestoga wagon on the trail in Colorado; image courtesy
of Wikipedia

There are few sounds on earth which can so effectively send chills up and down one’s spines as the rasping whine of this warning signal; and once heard, it cannot be mistaken.  The early Americans put this hostile challenge into words and used it as a slogan which they traced on their flag: “Don’t tread on me.”  Instinctively a horse will not step on one of these creatures but in our case, since we were so close upon the reptile, the horses would have shied apart in order to straddle the spot where he lay.

Now a rattlesnake can strike half of his length repeatedly, without coiling; and the horses’ prancing feet would have been and easy target for this deadly fangs.

The monster was by that time thoroughly aroused, and began to glide toward our team ready for a fight.  But father backed the wagon into the clear and drove in a wide arc around its position.  Then armed with my snake-killing ax, he advanced upon the angry beast. But mother screamed a warning to him and he glanced down at the insignificant weapon and nodded ascent when she cried, “Take the shot gun!”  The roar of that firing piece rolled out across the prairie seeking for some object, which might hurl back an echo, but we heard only one blast.  Yet it was a loud roar for father admitted later, “I got excited and gave him both barrels!”  The snake’s head was almost completely torn away; but we stretched his writhing coils out full length and he measured over eight feet!

Great Basin Rattlesnake; photograph courtesy of the National Park Service

The great snake’s musical appendage consisted of eleven rattles and a button.  We were told that each of these beads represented a year of the serpent’s growth.  Later, father cut off these rattles and tied this chain securely to one strand of a ten-inch loop of string.  He showed me how to rotate my hands with this cord stretched tightly over my thumbs, which had been liberally sprinkled with rosin.  This vibration made the rattles sing like the old serpent himself.  However I made the mistake of testing out this device near my unsuspecting mother and she angrily tossed it into the campfire. 

As we drove on, we had the feeling that we had just awakened from a nightmare.  When we speculated upon our possible predicament, had this reptile bitten one or both of our horses, we realized how dependent we were upon our faithful team.  When we stopped later, Raleigh patted old Nance affectionately and said, “We won’t let any bad snakes bite you, no Ma’am!” Father then explained that the pioneers placed great value upon their horses since they were literally stranded when deprived of their livestock.  For that reason they hanged horse thieves with brief trials and little ceremony.

To settle our nerves after this adventure, we paused for our midday camp in the midst of a sea of flaming red and yellow cactus blossoms."

Last of the Covered Wagons: Duck and Cover


  1. One of the things I appreciate about older writing is how descriptive it usually is. This sample is stellar in that regard. We have a clear idea of the weather, the environment, the danger the family was in, and the relief once the situation was resolved. Thanks to you and your cousin for sharing this.

    1. Clarence Mern Beard was certainly a fabulous writer. His book is gripping!

  2. What a lovely evocative story! Thanks so much to you and your cousin for sharing.

    1. Thank you! Meeting my cousin, Connie was one of the best parts of taking a DNA test. A copy of the book was a side benefit, but a very welcome one.

  3. What a terrific story! Thank you and your cousin for sharing it. I wanted to let you know that I have included it in my NoteWorthy Reads for this week: