Rattlesnake Match Holder Artifact Highlight #8

This amazing carving was donated in 1950. It is currently on display at the Gold Rush Museum.

Upstairs at the Gold Rush Museum

According to the donor it was carved in the 1860s by a miner and was used as a match holder. It is a skull with what looks like a rattlesnake, slithering out of the eye sockets.

The carving is representative of the many dangers that miners in the gold fields faced. When forty-niners rushed to California with visions of riches, they discovered a brutal reality of isolation, hard work, illness and death. Unsanitary conditions and poor food preservation brought on dysentery and diarrhea. Working on the river caused rheumatism, back aches and skin conditions. Wounds from work related accidents often became infected and sometimes caused death if left untreated. They also had to deal with wild animals like bears, mountain lions and rattlesnakes.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Rattlesnakes are a part of life in Placer County. Towns, streets, outlaws and even weeds were named after them.

Although the odds of being bitten by a rattlesnake are small, their venom can be deadly and the recovery long. The venom contains a toxin that causes tissue damage and the blood cells to clot and burst. Over the centuries many remedies have been used to treat snake bites. Most were not very effective, and some may have even caused the death of the victim.

The treatment, often portrayed in movies and novels and advocated in the Old West, involved cutting the area of the bite, sucking the poison and cauterizing the wound. This method was used throughout the world for centuries and had little benefit, unless applied quickly to a superficial bite. If the bites were deep this remedy was useless.

Early newspaper accounts frequently reported the names of individuals bitten and whether they lived or died. On April 26, 1879 Placer Herald cautioned its readers that “serpent poisons are not injurious when taken into the stomach, it is always safe to let a person suck the wound with his mouth, provided there is not abrasion of the lips.” Frequently the wound was cauterized with gunpowder. There were instances where it was mixed with egg and salt before being applied as a poultice. Placer Herald described the use of “rattlesnake weed,” which is “a sure cure for rattlesnake bites. The manner of application is to stew or chew the weed and swallow the juice.” (Placer Herald, November 5, 1859)

Rattlesnake Weed

Although many remedies were practiced, the use of alcohol was the only remedy sanctioned by the medical profession of the day. Whiskey was the alcohol of choice. It was thought to be an antidote for snakebite, actively seeking out the poison within the victim’s body and destroying it. On August 3, 1878 Placer Herald published a story of a teamster who was bitten by a three-foot long rattler. Immediately the man rushed to his wagon to get whiskey and “drank all that he possibly could of the strong spirits, and then taking some tobacco from his pocket, saturated it in whisky, making a poultice in which he wrapped the injured hand.” The man survived.

Since rattlesnakes prefer temperatures between eighty and ninety degrees, bites are usually reported in the summer months and often occur while gardening or recreating. In April 1879 Placer Herald advised: “woodmen and others should wear thick boots, as they seldom attempt to bite above the ankle, and their fangs cannot penetrate leather.”