Off The Beaten Path

Voices in the Susquehanna Rocks


While spending a significant portion of my life exploring the outdoors, I often imagine, and sometimes almost sense, the distant presence of the Indigenous people that once called this landscape home. I consider how different a particular forest, wetland or river might have looked to those who were so connected to the earth. I identify natural objects and geological features that might have been useful. I imagine the reliance and connectivity between wildlife and the first human inhabitants here. I close my eyes and envision the extinct species and pristine ecosystems that were destroyed by the rapid development of the landscape in the modern era.

It took many years before I learned about – and finally saw with my own eyes – the incredible written communications that still exist in some of these places I was exploring. This discovery helped lessen the sadness of not being able to see with my own eyes the history that was lost. Though difficult to believe, there are voices recorded on island rocks that still stand seemingly in defiance of the destructive, yet life giving, waters of the mighty Susquehanna River.

I must note that while I am a naturalist, I am not a geologist, archaeologist, or expert on the history of American Indian culture, by any means.  I am a student and observer of the natural world who is passionate about art that reflects it, as well as those who care for the earth, past and present.  This is what attracted me to the fascinating discovery that ancient carvings exist near my home, embodying much of what I value. When most of us hear the word petroglyph we think about the famous desert sandstone carvings that can be easily seen in parts of Utah and Colorado. However, there are pictorial carvings of the same nature right here in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that are just as impressive in their artistry, significance, and storytelling. There are two locations that are most prominent and offer the best opportunities for viewing.  Each set represents its own style and interpretation.  It is thought that they could potentially have been created by different groups of people at different times.  The Susquehannocks – the last to exist along the lower Susquehanna – were the most notable inhabitants of the area, due to the recorded history of their interactions with the European settlers. There are documented accounts by William Penn that suggest that when the Indigenous community was asked about the petroglyphs, they were said to predate anyone living by several generations, leading to an estimated age of 500 to 1,000 years old.    

The Maryland set, known as the Bald Friar petroglyphs, were originally created on a rock surface in the Susquehanna River between Harford and Cecil Counties, above the current location of the Conowingo Dam.  Due to the construction of the Conowingo Dam and subsequent flooding in the valley above the dam, the original location of the petroglyphs has long been submerged. Decades prior to the construction of the dam, structures for the shad fishery are believed to have destroyed even more of the petroglyphs in this area. Fortunately, the remaining petroglyphs were rescued before being lost forever in the depths of the Conowingo Reservoir.  

These Maryland stones were spread between a few locations in the region, including at libraries and historical societies. These lost stones were found over a period of many years, with help from Maryland Historical Trust archaeologist, Charlie Hall. The stones were then valued and moved to the state archaeology lab at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. In 2015, with help from Chesapeake Conservancy, Maryland Historical Trust and Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the stones were transferred to a location closer to their original home. As of today, the largest collection of Bald Friar petroglyphs can be viewed inside the Rock Run Mill at Susquehanna State Park, within sight of the river and just a few miles downstream from their original location.   

Bald Friar petroglyphs at Rock Run Mill, Susquehanna State Park

The Maryland Park Service opens the exhibit seasonally and hours may vary, so be sure to check to see if the mill is open before visiting.  This display allows visitors to see the series of figures, shapes, and symbols that were etched into large rocks that had to be blasted apart into smaller pieces so that they could be preserved.  Some of the symbols may have been spiritual in nature, or perhaps served as navigational tools. It is possible to interpret some of the symbols as fish, eels, snakes, or a swirling line of water that may have been a warning to travelers that would be fording the river.  Of course, we cannot know the true message or intent of those who left these gifts, but it is enjoyable to imagine what they might have been describing to those in tune with their language.    

The Pennsylvania set of petroglyphs, known as the Safe Harbor set, are located about 20 miles upstream. In contrast to the submerged and removed rocks near Conowingo Dam, some of these sets of rocks were preserved in their original location, since they are in a shallower section downstream of the Safe Harbor dam.  These magnificent rock surfaces showcase a density and variety of images that are nothing short of spectacular. This is perhaps the highest known concentration of petroglyphs in the Northeast.  The Safe Harbor symbolism is not as ambiguous as the Bald Friar petroglyphs, as they clearly illustrate the common fauna of the time that would have been familiar to those using the Susquehanna River and its surrounding environment.  These symbols show a variety of animal and human tracks, iconic species of the river such as eagles, wild turkeys, herons, turtles, fish, snakes, bears, eels, otters, and even what appears to be extirpated species such as cougars and wolves.  Other images that appear to be animal-like bipeds, horned humanoid figures, and possibly a thunderbird invoke more of a spiritual imagery rather than actual depictions of wildlife.  Some of the symbols even seem to have astronomical significance, pointing to constellations and positions of the sun at certain cycles.

The Safe Harbor collections can be accessed via boat or kayak at two different boulder locations, but due to vandalism (some modern etchings unfortunately exist on the same rocks) and potential destruction of  priceless pieces of history, the specific locations aren’t readily shared, and visitors are advised to follow a strict set of rules. A few of these rules pertain to signing in the log book, not wearing shoes while on the rocks, and only using a wet sponge to help contrast the concealed imprints that can be covered in sediment from the river. Guided tours provided by local outfitters and experts, such as from Susquehanna National Heritage Area, are the recommended means to view these fascinating works of art and history. These tours not only help you find the petroglyphs, but provide safe transport and knowledgeable guides.

Not far from the petroglyphs, in Airville, PA, is the Indian Steps Museum, a memorial and museum to the Native Americans who lived along the Susquehanna River. There are many exhibits, with artifacts that date back to 10,000 BC, including pottery, stone tools, and arrowheads.  Also located nearby in Wrightsville, PA is the Zimmerman Center for Heritage, which provides tours, programs, and information for those looking to discover and learn more about the region’s cultural and ecological history.

Any day on or along the Susquehanna River is a great day, but seeking out history and culture that you can see, and not just read about in textbooks, adds a whole new layer to the experience.  While the original people that once cared for this beautiful landscape are no longer here to tell us their story, their ancient messages can still be understood through the timeless pictures they etched in stone. I hope that they will be preserved and appreciated for many generations to come.        

Indian Steps Museum

Indian Steps Museum is a memorial to the Native Americans who lived along the Susquehanna River.

Zimmerman Center for Heritage

The Zimmerman center showcases river history through historical displays, exhibits and programs, hiking trails, and provides public access to and from the river for power, sail and paddlecraft boaters.

Susquehanna State Park (MD)

Susquehanna State Park offers a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities as well as points of historical significance. The park is home to some of the most popular mountain biking trails in Maryland and the river itself beacons fishermen and boaters alike.

Scott McDaniel

Scott McDaniel lives in Harford County, is a Maryland Master Naturalist, Eagle Scout, holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Electronic Media & Film, and is the executive director for the Susquehannock Wildlife Society.

February 24, 2020

Main image: Safe Harbor petroglyphs, all photos by Scott McDaniel
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