The Turnbo Manuscripts

by Silas Claiborne Turnbo

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By S. C. Turnbo

It is nothing uncommon when a snake story is written and is put in print the author of the account is known as a snake liar or snake fiend. If a man knows an unusually big snake tale and keeps it out of the printing office it does not appear so bad to some people, but if he sends it to the editor and he puts it into the paper instead of the waste basket, he is counted a liar as well as the author of the tale. Without further foolish comments we will now get to our story. There is no question in my mind but that once in time unusually large serpents inhabited the Ozark region and I am going to relate an account of an enormous rattlesnake that was discovered and killed near White River, the story of which may sound to some more like imagination than reality, especially to those inclined to be skeptical. But nevertheless, according to worthy testimony, It is true. I have never doubted its authenticity from the time I remember hearing it told for it was common talk among the earliest settlers at the time of its occurrence. The following is the account of it which I have heard repeated often in my childhood days.

A large black oak tree stands at the roadside on top of the bluff opposite the mouth of Bear Creek which empties into White River. This tree has been notched and blazed around with an axe. Near this tree on the west side of the road is where a schoolhouse once stood. The foundation stones of this house mark the place where the building stood and the black oak tree marks the spot where the Missouri state line crosses the road. Near 100 yards west of the road is a high bluff where the line passes down and after crossing White River it enters Bear Creek a few yards above its mouth. From the top of the bluff an observer has an excellent view of the west side of the river. Farms are in sight from below Bear Creek up nearly to the mouth of Bee Creek. The famous hills and hollows in the valleys of Bear and Bee Creeks show so distinctly that they have a fine appearance and form the usual landscape as found along White River. The elevation of the bluff is so high that the river seems so far below and as the bright rays of the sun strikes the surface of the stream the water fairly glistens. Bear Creek can be traced some distance from the river by the numerous sycamore trees and other timber which line the banks. As mentioned elsewhere Girard Leiper Brown was the first settler at the mouth of Bear Creek locating here in 1816. After Mr. Brown was killed on the Arkansas River his brother-in-law Lenard Coker was the next man who lived here; he lived on the south bank of Bear Creek a quarter of a mile above its mouth. Coker lived here many years and died on this land. I am told that the division line between the state of Missouri and Arkansas was surveyed twice. The first line was run in the winter season while snow was on the ground. It proved unsatisfactory and a new line was established nearly one half a mile south of the original one. It was while this second line was being surveyed in the month of August that the big rattler was found and killed on the bluff before mentioned. Many years have come and gone and nearly every one acquainted with the circumstance have departed this life. But there are, no doubt, some living who remember hearing the settlers speak of the incident frequently. The story was common talk when I was a little lad of a boy and I was greatly interested in hearing it told for I was afraid of big snakes. Beside my own recollections I have gather an account of it from various other sources and have interviewed two men who said that they were well acquainted with the slaying of the big reptile, one of which saw it soon after it was dead. This man "thresher" Bill Yocum is dead now, but was living with Len Coker at the time of the incident. The other man is Mr. A. Brown, who has been postmaster at Peel, Arkansas, for many years. I also received further information from John B. Wood, a former resident on White River and who died at Tulsa, Indian Territory. His father was in the employ of the surveyors and he heard his father tell the story repeatedly. Mr. Wood said that he also heard the surveyors give the same account. The surveyors’ names I am told was Clark and Shields. These men owned a small black dog which was a great favorite among the surveyor party. Owing to the great number of crooks and bends in the river the men composing the party of surveyors were much vexed and irritated by being compelled to cross the stream so often. They had crossed it twice in quick succession only a few days before. One of these places was at the Panther Bottom and was just east of where the line between Ozark and Taney Counties crosses and they crossed it again just west of this line. Their only means of crossing was by building a raft of logs. True the stream was low and the water was warm yet the men did not feel disposed to wade or swim across for there was plenty of malaria in existence on White River then. The party had enough of wet dewy grass and weeds to pull through of mornings without wading the river. It took time and trouble to make these rafts and they were heavy and ill convenient to manage in crossing on and the temper of the men would run up to a high stage when they had the river to cross. While they were "running" the line east of the bluff referred to above one of the party was sent in the advance and when he reached the top of the bluff and found that the river had to be crossed again he went back and informed his friends how it was and soon afterwards when they discovered the big rattler they were angry enough to tackle a herd of lions. On the previous day they had crossed the river to the left bank and stopped near the residence of Wm. M. Brown where they roomed at the spring, then went on with their work and as the party were surveying through the wild woods to the top of the bluff and when about ¼ mile east of the black oak tree mentioned the little dog began barking furiously 100 yards north of where the men were at work. One of the men was sent to see what the dog had found and on advancing up near he was almost stupefied with astonishment to find that the dog was baying an enormous diamond rattlesnake. The terrible looking serpent was in an angry humor and would have struck the dog but it kept out of striking distance of the monster. After partially recovering from his fright the terror stricken man yelled in a frantic way until the whole party dropped their work and was soon on the scene of snakedom. The surveyors as well as their hired help were greatly amazed at encountering such a large sized reptile and having plenty of guns with them they soon shot it to death. Three of Wm. M. Brown’s sons, Martin, Andrew and Daniel, were close by when the snake was shot and hearing the report of the guns they supposed that the surveyors had fell in among a bunch of wild beasts and rushed up to find out what kind they had encountered and was nearly paralized with astonishment at seeing the great serpent in the throes of death. The time of the occurrence was said to be in 1842 or 3, consequently the country was sparsely settled, yet the news sped like wild fire and a number of men collected on the spot on the following day to view the remains of the big serpent. Its length was said to be ten feet and the middle part of its body was more than 30 inches in circumference. Its head was as large as a big dog’s head and measured five inches between the eyes. Len Coker and "thresher" Bill Yocum heard the news in a few hours after the snake was dead and they forded the river and visited the spot where the monster reptile lay to view it. Coker received permission to remove its hide which was done after much careful labor and then he cut the serpent open and exposed to view a wild turkey that was fully half grown which the reptile had caught and swallowed just before it was discovered and killed. Mr. Coker said he had heard the snake sing (rattle) on the bluff from his home on several occasions, but never could account for the strange noise till that day for he had never dreamed of its being a rattlesnake.

Coker carried the hide home and stuffed it with wheat bran which required several bushels. The bran had been brought from a far away mill. Coker mounted the stuffed hide on the porch side of his house where many people came to see it. The reptile was killed just over the line in Taney County, Missouri.

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