Odd Wisconsin Archive
Thomas G. Anderson (1779-1875) was a fur-trader in northwestern Wisconsin in the opening years of the 19th century. He spent the winter of 1811-1812 sixty miles from his nearest neighbor, and when the spring thaw came about March 20th, he headed south to Prairie du Chien. From there he turned up the Wisconsin River for Green Bay with his flotilla of canoes loaded with 330 buffalo robes and 10 packs of beaver and other pelts, worth several thousand dollars.
"It being early in the season," he recalled many years later, "and hard work for the men to stem the strong current of the Wisconsin River, I permitted them to go on leisurely, stopping along the sand banks to collect turtles' eggs, which were excellent eating, and to kill rattlesnakes, some of which were very beautiful to behold -- at a respectful distance -� being about four feet long, with skin of a bright golden color, interspersed with ebony black heart-shaped spots.
"But the eating of turtle's eggs was, after a few days, brought to a sudden termination. These eggs are somewhat less in size than a pigeon's. My cook brought me, as usual, a dozen for breakfast. On opening the first one, I observed something coiled in it, like a black hair; but how a hair could get inside of an egg, I could not make out. So I summoned the men to examine the phenomenon.
"They at once called out, 'a snake.' I was not aware till then that turtles' and rattlesnakes' eggs were quite similar, and that they both made their deposits in the sand, for the warmth of the sun to hatch; nor did I know how many young snakes I may have eaten. We had collected of the mixed kinds, and eaten at least a peck a day, for the last five days, and I now regretted the discovery, for they were very good. But our stomachs revolted against them for further indulgence."
This anecdote is part of his memoir of the War of 1812, during which he took a leading role for the British at the Battle of Prairie du Chien. The most important part of the manuscript is among the many documents at Turning Points in Wisconsin History; a printed version of his entire memoir is included in Wisconsin Historical Collections.
An astute reader pointed out that rattlesnakes, in fact, do not lay eggs, but rather give birth to live snakes. "This is true for both of Wisconsin's species which would include the Timber Rattlesnake and the Easter Massasaugua Rattlesnake. The members of the expedition most likely consumed eggs from the following species which are all true egg laying snakes; Blue Racer, Bullsnake, Western Fox Snake, Common Water Snake or Black Rat Snake. These are among Wisconsin's largest snake species and range from the Mississippi River up through the fur trading routes along the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers." As always, we welcome your comments; none of us is as smart as all of us.
Neither the eggs nor the Battle of Prairie du Chien did Anderson much harm. He lived to the ripe old age of 96, spanning the century from the American Revolution through the Civil War.
:: Posted in Animals on August 21, 2008