Blast From the Past: Year of the Snake


This weekend marks the beginning of the Year of the Snake in the Chinese calendar. There will be feasts, parades, fireworks and gifts of red envelopes passed out to celebrants during this important Chinese holiday.

Great significance is placed on the symbolism of the snake. Chinese lore tells us that a snake in the house is a sign that no one will ever starve there.  A “snake” is intelligent, graceful and contemplative…and is also one who reacts strongly when provoked!

The symbol of the snake has been used several times in American history as well. Benjamin Franklin, always quick to use humor, wrote in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751 that, in order to thank the British for shipping over all their criminals, the Colonies should send a repayment shipment of rattlesnakes.


“I would propose to have them carefully distributed in St. James’s Park, in the Spring-Gardens and other Places of Pleasure about London; in the Gardens of all the Nobility and Gentry throughout the Nation; but particularly in the Gardens of the Prime Ministers, the Lords of Trade and Members of Parliament; for to them we are most particularly obliged.”

Alexander Roslin, Benjamin Franklin, ca. 1780-1790, The New-York Historical Society, Purchase, The Louis Durr Fund, 1892.8
Library of Congress

Benjamin Franklin’s humor intensified when he created the first American political cartoon.  Entitled “Live or Die,” the woodcut was published in 1754 and depicted the eight colonies as segments of a cut-up snake. The curve of the snake represented the coastline, the head represented the New England region and the tail, South Carolina. It implied that the different segments could join together to fight during the French and Indian War, just as the snake does before sunset in the superstitious belief of that era.

During the Civil War, the snake popped its head up again a couple of times. Look at this map for the “Anaconda Plan.”

Library of Congress

It was a military strategy proposed by General Winfield Scott in which he calls for a blockade of Southern ports and the division of the South into two sections by advancing down the Mississippi River. Like a snake, he wanted to suffocate the victim!

John Rogers (1829–1904), Wounded Scout, a Friend in the Swamp, 1864. Bronze. The New-York Historical Society, Purchase, 1936.655

At the New-York Historical Society, there is a wonderful sculpture in the John Rogers: American Stories exhibition. It’s called “Wounded Scout, a Friend in the Swamp” and it tells the story of an escaped slave coming to the aid of a wounded Union soldier in a Southern swamp. If you look carefully on the lower right of the piece, you can see a copperhead snake rearing its head. This snake refers to the nickname for a group of northerners who opposed the Civil War and abolitionism.  Copperheads wanted to maintain the status quo and personal liberties, including the ownership of slaves. By creating this sculpture, Rogers publicly applauded the brave and heroic act of this African American man, in the face of diversity…the Copperhead.

I can think of a few other examples of how snakes have been used as symbols in American history…can you?


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