Plains Folk

The St. Patrick of South Dakota


Albert M. Jackley hated rattlesnakes, and devoted much of his adult life to their eradication. I’m looking at a photograph of Jackley now, standing on a rocky knoll, wearing leather boots and leggings, a hooked stick in his hand, rattlers covering the ground in front of him. The story of his career as the St. Patrick of South Dakota is told in the current issue of South Dakota History, in a fine article by the historian Harl Dalstrom.


Born in Iowa in 1880, Jackley rattled around several western states on a career in real estate and law before settling in Pierre in the mid-1920s. Evidently he was influenced by an experience in New Mexico, where two children of his acquaintance died from snakebite. While living in Pierre he spent quite a bit of recreational time in the badlands, hunting fossils and rattlesnakes.


In 1932 the state department of agriculture retained Jackley to work on a rattlesnake elimination program, although he didn’t get paid until 1937. He also responded to local persons and communities seeking his assistance with rattlesnake problems and sold live rattlers to institutions. Meanwhile, he used his considerable publicity skills to alert the press to the dangers of rattlesnake dens.


In 1937 the legislature finally funded a rattlesnake program, and Jackley was appointed to execute it. He did most of his work in the field in spring, when snakes were emerging from their dens, and in fall, when they returned to them. Badger holes, dog towns, and rocky south slopes were likely places. In 1941 Jackley said he had located nearly 500 rattlesnake dens.


Clubs, traps, and poison gas were weapons of choice. Jackley in his radio addresses also encouraged motorists to run over rattlesnakes at every opportunity. He loved traveling around the state, locating snake dens, advising people how to deal with them, pulling live snakes out of the back of his car to show to people who gathered around. He continued this work until he died of a heart attack in 1950.


I haven’t found evidence of a similar rattlesnake abatement program in North Dakota; Mr. Jackley may have been a singular figure in snakelore. Many a county history in North Dakota, I do know, contains a story of a great rattlesnake den that eventually had to be eliminated, generally involving dynamite, which made the episode all the more fun.


Western North Dakota histories and newspapers contain lots of snake stories—such as that of Fred Schewem, who in 1907 brought in thirty-five prairie rattlers, three to four feet long, from along Spring Creek in McKenzie County. There is, too, the occasional story of snakebite tragedy, such as that of the little daughter of the Stevenson family of Mandan in 1904. Whiskey, sucking the wound, and a split chicken applied to it all were of no avail in saving the child’s life.


The common belief that rattlesnakes are absent, or at least uncommon, east of the Missouri River generally holds up in historical records. In 1900 the Williston Graphic reported that one Clarence Ross had killed the first rattlesnake ever seen in Williston.


The exception was Emmons County, where rattlesnakes were found in the bluffs near the river, although not much east of that. The Bismarck Tribune in 1891 reported that “Mr. Gayton’s Boys” had killed sixteen snakes. This may have been near what became known as Rattlesnake Knoll. Local residents liked to go to Rattlesnake Knoll and kill snakes to collect the rattles. Several dynamiting attempts in the 1890s seemed not to diminish the number. On some future expedition to Emmons County, I hope someone will be able to point this landmark out for me.


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