Rattlesnakes In Lancaster, Ohio?!?

Just saying the word “snake” can cause many people to shiver with fear. Ophidiophobia, or the fear of snakes, is a common phobia. Luckily for residents of Lancaster, the snakes encountered in the city are typically harmless and non-venomous. However, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, Lancaster’s earliest residents lived side by side with Eastern Massasauga.

Eastern Massasauga snake gliding on wood in forest.

An Eastern Massasauga snake glides on wood in the forest.

It’s difficult for some people to imagine what the area of Lancaster looked like prior to white settlers arriving in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The area would have looked much different than what it does today. It was a dense forest inhabited by Chief Tarhe and his Wyandot tribe, but the natives were not alone.

They lived next to wildlife that are common today such as deer, birds, and squirrels. However, they also lived next to ones that haven’t resided in Lancaster for many years. These included bears, mountain lions, and yes, rattlesnakes. In fact, rattlesnakes would be our neighbors for some time, even after the arrival of white settlers.

The rattlesnakes were most common in the area where Miller Park stands today. Before the ditching of the Hocking River, the area was swampland that frequently flooded. It provided the perfect environment for the Massasauga rattlesnake. The Massasauga, also known as the “swamp rattler” and “black snapper,” grows to between 18 inches to 30 inches in length.

Historically, it was found in many locations across the state of Ohio but it prefers swampy areas, bogs, and wet prairies. This included the area around present-day Miller Park. According to naturalist Charles Goslin, during the rainy seasons, residents of Lancaster would need to be careful as the rising waters carried the rattlers to nearby prairies. During the winter months, some of the snakes would make their way to Lancaster’s iconic landmark.

Mount Pleasant, or “Standing Stone” as the natives called it, was home to many rattlesnake dens. As the area became more populated and residents looked to take advantage of this natural beauty, efforts were made to rid the mountain of the serpents.

Massasauga snakes curled side by side.

Massasauga snakes curled side by side.

As more settlers arrived, the amount of snakes began to decrease. Farming and hunting eventually dwindled their numbers to nonexistent. Famed hunters such as Thomas Cherry, William Murphey, Abraham Applegate, and Samuel Graybill were legendary for the amount of game they would capture for sport and food. Cherry killed 50 deer and one bear in a single winter. Over the years, Murphey became a dealer in peltries and was known to have killed 63 wolves and a mountain lion. He also killed raccoons, foxes, and wild cats to the number of 600. The settlers tamed the wild frontier of Lancaster causing the disappearance of many species, including the Massasauga.

Today, the Eastern Massasauga is an endangered species in the state of Ohio and they are mainly found in the northeast part of the state. They are seldom seen and make little or no attempt to bite unless threatened. One place you will not find them is in the city of Lancaster. Today, it seems incredible to think that our early pioneers lived side-by-side with these now endangered rattlers.

If you enjoyed this story, read more from Michael Johnson by becoming a supporting member of the Fairfield County Heritage Association. He authors the Association’s quarterly publication which includes stories like this one.

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Michael R. Johnson, marketing director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association based in Lancaster, Ohio.

By Michael Johnson

Lancaster native Michael Johnson is the Marketing Director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association and serves as editor of the Heritage Quarterly – a magazine highlighting local history. Michael is a member of the Sherman Rotary and the Lancaster Fairfield Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee. His bachelor’s degree in history education was earned at Ohio University. Michael is married to Tara Johnson and has two children, Isaac and Mia.