Picturing PA highlights moments in Pennsylvania history through photographs in the extensive collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

In the early 19th century, pioneer adventurer Philip Tome recalled that it was common to see 30 or 40 timber rattlesnakes at a time near his home along the Susquehanna River. “The snakes were so numerous that we used to clear the yard and build fires to keep them away,” he recalled in his 1854 memoir, Pioneer Life; or, Thirty Years a Hunter. “On leaving the house we always put on a pair of woolen socks and leggings over our shoes to protect our legs.”

Tome trained his dogs to bite rattlesnakes and shake them to pieces. Anytime he and his brother were hunting, they made sure to kill the biggest and ugliest rattlesnakes they found. After a lifetime of travel in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, Tome declared that no other area was as “badly infested with them as Pennsylvania.”

Though Tome was known to exaggerate his stories, his attitude toward rattlers was typical of many Pennsylvanians in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Perry County, champion snake catcher Irvin “Daddy” George, pictured here in September 1921, “always considered it a duty to kill or capture every rattlesnake or copperhead . . . as it may save somebody from being bit.” George was known as the “St. Patrick” of Perry County and would tie captured snakes to his cart wheels as he traveled down the road.

Pennsylvania’s lumber industry dispatched huge swaths of forest in the early 1900s. Meadows and fields grew in their place and attracted small rodents and birds, which in turn supported an even
larger rattlesnake population. Rattlers were also drawn to roads, railbeds, and other warm and sunny places. Unfortunately, this brought rattlers dangerously close to many Pennsylvania communities.

With the timber rattlesnake population still high in the 1950s, hunters like Irvin George were local celebrities. They kept their communities safe and entertained their neighbors with their exploits. In 1955 the first annual rattlesnake roundup was organized in Tioga County, challenging hunters to see who could catch the most and the biggest rattlers with nothing but a big sack and a steady hand. Communities in Cameron, Wyoming, Perry, Potter and York counties started their own contests soon afterwards.

By the 1970s, overhunting reduced rattler numbers to a critically low level. In 1974 the Pennsylvania Fish Commission (later Fish & Boat Commission) was given official jurisdiction over all commonwealth reptiles and within two years began regulating snake hunts. Today, Pennsylvanians need permits to hunt, capture or kill rattlesnakes and are only allowed one annually. It is illegal to hunt or kill rattlers in many state forests and game lands or to damage rattler dens or basking areas.

Thanks to legal protections, reduced hunting, and a greater appreciation of the rattler’s role in a healthy forest ecosystem, the rattlesnake population increased, and the Fish & Boat Commission removed them from the state endangered species candidate list in 2016. In fact, Pennsylvania is home to one of the largest populations of timber rattlesnakes in North America today.

Materials pertaining to the history of the timber rattlesnake in Pennsylvania can be found in the collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-6.20, Records of the Department of Forests and Waters (includes the photo of Irwin George and his snakes), and RG-72, Records of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.


Tyler Stump is an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.