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Kansas Pioneer Encounters

One of the best research tools I’ve found for Kansas Pioneers has been Books of the Kansas Collection. Most of them are diaries written by pioneers. Some are stories passed along. All the ones I’ve come across have been very entertaining.
The following excerpts come from one woman’s account. You can tell from her musings she was a woman who knew how to find humor in even the worse of situations. I have a feeling, though, that with constant cannon fire and cholera, rattlesnakes were the least of this author’s fears.
This first selection comes from Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior by Sara T. L. Robinson. The author, as you can see, seems to have been a guest of a state prison. For those of you who do not know much about this era in Kansas history, it was during a time known as Bleeding Kansas. A time when pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions warred fiercly. If Mrs. Sara Robinson was a prisoner at Lecompton, Kansas’ first capital, a pro-slavery capital, then she most likely held the values of the anti-slavery camp dear to her heart. Bleeding Kansas deserves many, many blogs of its own.

Its pages were penned during a three months’ residence of the authoress in the United States Camp, at Lecompton, with her husband, one of the state prisoners.

This first was written in the month of June possibly in the year 1856.

7th. — Mr. H. was very ill with an attack of pleurisy. Doctor being absent, I felt anxious, yet did the best I could. A mustard plaster and some simples removed the difficulty of breathing, and he slept quietly. He said he never was as sick before, but I was thinking he imagined himself sicker than he was just before night, and as I was wondering where E. could be, she came in, pale and almost breathless, with just enough left of life to say, “O, that rattlesnake!” I laughed at her at first; but being convinced that seeing a snake of some kind was a reality to her, and not quite liking the idea of their making a home in our neighborhood, we started out with shovel and hatchet for a battle. The spot where she saw him was very easily found, as the pail she had in her hand, while coming up the path from the spring, she set down when she came upon him. She had heard a buzzing noise, like that made by a large grasshopper, for some minutes; but her attention was attracted by a small bird flying backward and forward across the path, and no great height above it, and did not, therefore, perceive the snake until she was within a foot of him. Hastily setting down the pail, as he lay there coiled ready to spring, she took another path to the house. We looked along both paths, above and below, and far out on the hill-side, but found nothing. His fright was undoubtedly equal to hers, not being particularly partial to the cold bath she gave him in getting down her pail so hastily.

10th. — Was awakened by a little tree-toad on my pillow this morning. He must have climbed up the low roof of the ell part, and in at the window. I found a mouse in the tub, and a swallow came into the kitchen flapping his wings wildly, and seeming much frightened, as we were at breakfast. I am wondering if all the “four-footed beasts and creeping things ” have appointed a place of rendezvous upon our premises; and suggest, laughingly, that “the rattlesnakes will come next.” Scarcely had we finished breakfast, before the cry from near the wood-pile was, “Here’s a snake!” It measured about eighteen inches in length, was ugly looking, and had four rattles.

June 12th

Many people were in, in the evening. The wind was blowing, and I heard a rustling near me. I looked, but saw nothing. An hour later, as I relinquished my seat, and went to make arrangements for extra beds, a gentleman very positively said, “I hear a rattlesnake.” Near where I had been sitting, the yellow-spotted reptile had crawled in between the last floor-board and the siding, and already his head had reached the window-casing. We had serious objections to his farther progress towards the chambers, or to his greater length of days. After a moment’s more envenomed rattling, all was still. Like the other, he had four rattles, and was undoubtedly looking for his lost mate. One of the gentlemen, Judge Conway, to whom the front room had been appropriated as a sleeping apartment, the mattresses being removed each morning, felt nervous about such companions for bed-fellows, and, to be prepared against the possible contingency of another similar visit, turned his boot-tops into one another upon retiring.

Although this one does not speak of an encounter, it is interesting as you will see.

18th. — The morning sun never shone more brightly than now. We found everything in the house damp, but had taken no cold. The cholera patient was doing well. The gentleman of the house assured me he slept well, but it was a mystery to me where he found a dry nook. Had a fine ride home in the early morning light, which gives to every object a double value. “Old Gray” nibbled at the “compass plant,” which always points northward in these prairies, occasionally cropping its bright yellow flowers with a satisfied air as he trotted along. The rattlesnake weed was also blooming in profusion. Nature is ever mindful of the needs of her children, and provides an antidote against the bane of rattlesnakes, and a sure guide over the wide prairie in the compass plant. When I reached home, found the doctor gone to attend upon a broken limb. A man, in rafting logs down the river, had met with this misfortune. The doctor has many calls professionally, and, though he assures them all that he is not now a practicing physician, he looks in upon many to advise them.

A note on the compass plant. First, the picture came from Oklahoma Biological Survey. Second, I have found several occasions where pioneers often believed off the wall tales, or remedies. Like how tying a raw chicken to your abdomen would draw rattlesnake venom from the body after having been bittern. So when I saw the little tidbit about the compass plant alway pointing north, I had to investigate further. And they were at least partly right. The flowers do point in a north-south direction. Most of the time.

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