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How did pioneers treat snake bites?

In the early days of American pioneers settling the western frontier, snake bites were a constant danger that could quickly turn deadly. Without access to anti-venom or emergency medical care, pioneers had to rely on folk remedies and superstition to try to treat snake bite injuries.

What types of venomous snakes did pioneers encounter?

The pioneers settling the American West primarily had to contend with three types of venomous snakes:

  • Rattlesnakes – Rattlesnakes were perhaps the most feared snakes encountered by pioneers. With potent hemotoxic venom, rattlesnake bites could lead to severe tissue damage, hemorrhaging, and death if untreated. There are over 30 species of rattlesnakes found across North America.
  • Copperheads – Copperheads deliver a cytotoxic venom that causes swelling, necrosis, and excruciating pain around the bite area. While not as frequently fatal as rattlesnakes, their bites still posed a major health risk.
  • Cottonmouths – Also known as water moccasins, cottonmouths inhabited the swamps and marshes of the southern United States. Their venom could cause severe swelling, bruising, blistering, and even permanent tissue damage if left untreated.

Beyond these three main pit vipers, pioneers occasionally encountered coral snakes and other exotic venomous species as they expanded westward and encountered new environments.

Why were snake bites so dangerous for pioneers?

There were several key reasons why snake bites posed such a grave threat to pioneers venturing west:

  • Potent venom – The hemotoxic and cytotoxic venoms of pit vipers like rattlesnakes and copperheads could quickly cause massive hemorrhaging, excruciating pain, necrosis, and death if left untreated.
  • No hospitals – Settlers were constantly pushing the frontier, establishing homesteads, farms, and settlements far from any doctors or medical facilities.
  • No anti-venom – Anti-venom would not be developed until the late 1800s and was not readily available even in towns and cities.
  • Delayed treatment – It could take hours or even days before an injured pioneer could make it to a town for treatment, allowing the venom to spread.
  • Infection – Without sterile bandages, antibiotics, and proper wound cleaning, snake bites could quickly become infected.

It was not uncommon for pioneer snakebite victims to die from the combined effects of venom, sepsis, and gangrene if treatment was delayed too long.

What folk remedies did pioneers use to treat snakebites?

Lacking access to doctors, hospitals, and anti-venom, pioneers relied on traditional folk remedies passed down to try to counteract snake venom and stave off infection when bitten. Some of the most common folk treatments for snake bites included:

  • Tourniquets – Tying a restrictive band or tourniquet around the bite area to try to restrict venom flow.
  • Cutting and sucking – Cutting the bite wound open and trying to suck out the venom.
  • Whiskey – Making the victim drink whiskey or other hard liquor to “disinfect” the wound and dull the pain.
  • Tobacco – Applying a tobacco poultice to the bite wound to try to draw out the venom.
  • Urine – Having the victim drink their own urine, or the urine of another, in the hopes of countering the venom.
  • Herbal teas – Teas made from indigenous herbs like plantain, yarrow, and elderberry to promote healing.
  • Salts – Rubbing potassium permanganate, Epsom salt, or table salt into the wound.

These crude remedies often did more harm than good by causing infection or restricting proper blood flow. But with no proven treatment options available, pioneers relied on these methods for lack of better alternatives.

What role did folk magic and superstition play in snakebite treatment?

In addition to folk remedies, pioneers often relied on folk magic rituals and superstitions to try to heal and counteract snakebites. Some common folk magic practices included:

  • Magic stones – Placing special stones, like turquoise, tourmaline, or hematite, on the bite to draw out venom.
  • Magic symbols – Drawing crosses, stars, or other symbols around the bite wound to promote healing.
  • Charms – Having the victim wear special charms thought to have protective powers, like silver rings or necklaces.
  • Incantations – Chanting prayers, charms, or spells over the victim thought to promote healing.
  • Animal sacrifice – Killing and burying an animal, like a chicken, near the bite as an offering to remove sickness.
  • Snake torture – Capturing and torturing the snake that bit the victim as a way of symbolically reversing the attack.

These superstitious practices gave pioneers a greater sense of control and hope against snakebites, even if the methods themselves had no physical effect on the injury.

How did Native American snakebite remedies influence pioneers?

Indigenous Native American tribes had developed a wide body of traditional medical knowledge for treating snakebites through generations of experience. As pioneers expanded into Native American territory, they became exposed to and influenced by these native snakebite treatments. Some of the most influential Native American snakebite remedies adopted by pioneers included:

  • Black stone – Applying smooth black stones to draw out venom from the bite.
  • Buckeye poultices – Grinding buckeye nuts into a paste to apply to the wound.
  • Yarrow tea – Drinking a tea made from the yarrow plant to counteract venom.
  • Tourniquets – Tying tightly above bite to restrict venom flow.
  • Herbal compresses – Hot compresses using indigenous herbs to improve circulation.
  • Snake cleansing – Having a medicine man cleanse and suck snake venom from the bite.

By adopting Native American treatments, pioneers expanded their limited options for addressing snakebites. The influence of Native American snakebite remedies persisted even as pioneers pushed further west across the frontier.

How did pioneers physically treat snakebite wounds?

In addition to folk remedies for countering venom, pioneers had to physically care for the snakebite wound itself to try to prevent infection and promote healing. Some common physical snakebite treatments included:

  • Wound cleaning – Washing the bite with water, whiskey, or other liquids to remove dirt and pus.
  • Cooling – Applying cool compresses to reduce swelling and inflammation.
  • Bandages – Wrapping crude cotton, linen, or hide bandages around the wound.
  • Elevation – Keeping the bitten limb elevated to reduce swelling.
  • Splinting – Splinting and immobilizing bitten limbs to prevent movement.
  • Topical salves – Applying topical balms and salves, often herbal, to wounds.
  • Wound drainage – Draining and wiping away pus and fluids to prevent infection.

These basic wound care practices helped improve survival chances by preventing complications like blood poisoning, gangrene, and amputation of damaged limbs.

What role did frontier doctors play in snakebite treatment?

As more frontier towns sprang up across the West, pioneers gained increasing access to frontier doctors – often self-trained physicians with little formal medical education. These frontier doctors introduced more advanced snakebite treatments including:

  • Bite incisions – Strategically cutting open the fang punctures to promote bleeding and drainage.
  • Ligature loosening – Slowly loosening tourniquets to restore circulation.
  • Wound debridement – Surgically removing damaged, infected tissue.
  • Amputation – Amputating severely damaged or infected limbs to save the patient’s life.
  • Arsenic treatments – Injecting arsenic solutions into bite wounds in an attempt to counteract venom.
  • Mercury treatments – Administering mercury in the belief it could draw venom out of the body.

Frontier doctors provided more advanced care than folk healers, improving snakebite survival rates. But many of their treatments were still rudimentary or even dangerous compared to today’s standards.


For American pioneers settling the West, snake bites represented a serious and life-threatening risk. Without access to modern medicine or hospitals, pioneers had no choice but to rely on folk remedies, superstition, and primitive wound care to treat bite victims. Some practices, like tourniquets and wound cleaning, were helpful. But many folk treatments did more harm than good. Pioneers adopted useful Native American snakebite remedies, and frontier doctors provided more advanced care. But snakebites remained a dangerous and frightening threat across the frontier.