Q and A: What Type of Snake Was Prominent in the Old West?

11 Feb

Q: My story takes place in the Old West. What kind of snake might bite my cowboy and what was the treatment? Could he be in a coma for a while yet recover? Or should I think of something like a beaver?

A: There are approximately 120 species of snakes in the US, but only about 20 are poisonous. Every state has at least one venomous snake except Maine, Alaska, and Hawaii. All the bad guys are pit vipers except for the coral snake, which ranges throughout the Southeastern US. Pit vipers derive their name form the small heat-sensing “pit” near the eyes, which helps them locate prey. The deadliest of the pit vipers are the Diamondback rattlers, both Eastern and Western.

In the Old West, your character would most likely encounter a Western Diamondback or a Sidewinder, another species of rattler. Both can be deadly.


Western Diamondback



Today, with modern treatments (such as antivenin) and with more rapid transport of victims to the hospital, only 5 or 6 deaths occur out of the 7000 to 8000 snakes bites per year. In the Old West, the mortality was considerably higher. Ninety-eight percent of bites are to the extremities—legs, arms, and hands.

The signs and symptoms of snakebite are divided into local and systemic (total body) reactions. Snake venom is a complex fluid. It typically has several proteases (enzymes that breakdown proteins), which can lead to severe local tissue damage, as well as systemic neurological and blood toxins that cause the systemic symptoms.

Local effects might be fang marks, pain, swelling, redness, the appearance of bullae (blisters), lymphangitis (red streaks up the extremity), and painful knots in the arm pit or groin (due to swelling of the lymph nodes). The localized damage can be so severe that surgical debridement (removal of dead tissue) and even amputation might be necessary. Also, infection can occur in the injured tissues, which can also be serious and deadly, particularly true in the pre-antibiotic era of the nineteenth century.

Systemic symptoms include nausea, vomiting, numbness and tingling if the hands, face, and feet, weakness, a metallic taste in the mouth, shortness of breath, confusion, low blood pressure and finally shock, coma, and death. The victim’s blood might clot or hemolyze (breakdown) and either of these can lead to kidney damage and death.

Or the victim could survive. It might take several days for him to be up and around and a week or so before he regained all his strength. Survival was more likely when the envenomation was less, the victim was otherwise healthy, and he had a lucky star smiling on him.

Since you want your character to survive, I would suggest he suffer a bite to the leg or arm by a rattlesnake. A Western Diamondback if in a wooded or scrub-brush area and a Sidewinder if in the desert. He would develop the above systems, both local and systemic, and could be in a coma for a day or two, followed by a day or two of confusion and delirium. He would gradually “come around” but would be weak for several days.

There was little treatment available during the time period of your story. They would likely make a cross-cut of the puncture site and suck out the venom. Though this does little good it was a standard treatment until 30 years or so ago. They would probably put warm compresses on the bite area and watch over the victim with expectation and prayer.

A beaver would do none of this but would likely hurt like hell. Stick with the snake.


Posted by on February 11, 2011 in Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs, Q&A


9 responses to “Q and A: What Type of Snake Was Prominent in the Old West?

  1. Pat Marinelli

    February 12, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Interesting! I don’t write historical, but like enjoyed reading this.


  2. South Miss. Reader

    February 12, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    This is very interesting! Thanks! I wonder why (in real life) a regional hospital here circa 2006 would have failed to have antivenin in stock or obtain any when a patient came in with a snakebite. I think it was a rattler. Any ideas? Is this common practice these days?

    Again, thanks.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      February 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm

      I obviously don’t know that hospital’s particular situation but I suspect it’s due to money. It costs to keep drugs in stock and in the new medicine the bottom line usually trumps good medicine.


  3. Laura Mitchell

    February 12, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    This was very interesting and reminded me of why my idea of camping is a Holiday Inn and roughing it is no room service.


  4. Delvia

    February 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    It seems that in the areas of Nevada and California that Mojave Greens would also be of concern for people. This type of snake is known as a fighter, multiple bites and not a pleasant personality. However, rattlesnakes are deadly too.


    • Laura Mitchell

      February 13, 2011 at 1:54 pm

      That reminds me of something I was told when I was a Girl Scout: “Red and yellow (together) kills a fellow.” So, for city folks like me, is this useful information?


      • D.P. Lyle, MD

        February 14, 2011 at 8:03 am

        I was told that too. It has to do with distinguishing a poisonous coral snake from other similarly colored but harmless ones. It went something like: Red touches yellow will kill a fellow; red touches black is good for Jack.


  5. Judy C

    February 13, 2011 at 9:57 am

    My great grandmother was bitten by a rattlesnake in a pasture far from her farmhouse. She hobbled back home and her leg turned black. If I recall the family legend correctly, the doctors wanted to amputate her leg. She would have none of it, recovered and died an old woman. As a kid I was always told to slit the bite open and suck out the poison, making sure to spit it out.

    Judy Copek


  6. Eda Vasconez

    November 8, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    What an superb read!!! Thanks for posting this with us.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: