By Bart A. Stump Spring 2016
When thinking of Native American rock carvings known as petroglyphs, one typically envisions desert Southwest. But one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in the Northeast is located on the islands of the Susquehanna River just south of the Safe Harbor Dam between York and Lancaster counties. Found primarily on two aptly named islands called Big Indian Rock and Little Indian Rock, these cultural treasures, which are accessible only by water and depict animal tracks, animal and human figures, and mystical thunderbirds, are a thrill to explore by boat and are part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
There are two ways the islands may be reached. The easiest way for shallow-draft boats like canoes and kayaks is to launch in the adjacent Conestoga River at Safe Harbor Park, located on River Road in Conestoga. This slow-flowing tributary will bring you out below the Safe Harbor Dam. Downstream are numerous islands of various shapes and sizes. Historians believe the natives used these islands as fishing spots to catch migrating spawning shad that used to number in the millions. An easy downstream paddle of about a half mile will bring you to Big Indian Rock, a large gray domed island. The second option – more suitable for motorized boats – is to launch at the Pequea Creek Campground boat ramp at 86 Fox Hollow Road, Pequea. The upstream journey to Big Indian Rock is about 2 miles. Bring a fishing rod along if you like, but a Pennsylvania fishing license is required.
The island is elongated, mostly smooth, and devoid of large amounts of vegetation, and it slopes downward in the direction of the dam. The southern end of the island offers a suitable location out of the river’s steady current to land. Be sure to tie off your boat unless you’re planning on going for a swim to retrieve it. On top of the island you will find the remnants of an old goose hunting blind and a large plastic resealable bag containing a visitors’ log.
The petroglyphs located on Big Indian Rock and other nearby islands are thought to be as many as 1,000 years old, created by the Algonquian Indians who lived in the area. You will also observe later carvings including people’s names and a large dove that resembles Pennsylvania Dutch Fraktur (folk art).
Depending on the angle of the sun, visitors could be standing right in front of a carving and not know it. The best viewing times are near sunrise or sunset when the sun’s slanted rays create shadows along the edges of the carvings. To reveal the carvings, take along a sponge to stamp around the edges or a plastic gallon jug to pour water on them.
The most prominent petroglyphs on Big Indian Rock are a primitive human stick figure with angled horns coming out of both sides of its head, turkey tracks, other human-like figures, and a thunderbird.
Head further upstream and look for a smaller island with petroglyphs of walking birds and four-legged animals along the side of the rock, slightly above the waterline. This is Little Indian Rock, site of one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in the state.
Getting on the island can be a little tricky depending on river conditions. It’s worth the effort when you are rewarded with a large variety of bird, bear, deer, and elk tracks as well as human footprint petroglyphs. Some of the main focal points are the graceful curving form of the Manitou spirit, a god-like being, along with more animal, thunderbird, and human figures. Parallel wavy lines, perhaps representing snakes, are thought to be directional markers, possibly pointing to the position of sunrise on the Equinox. Another curvy serpent aligns itself with the location of sunset on the summer solstice and sunrise on the winter solstice.
One is left to wonder why these enigmatic images were etched into the rock. It is amazing to look at something carved so long ago and try to imagine what the artists were thinking. It is obvious that these carvings are deliberate and have a purpose, but what is that purpose? Are the carvings art? A map? A calendar? A teaching tool? Do they have religious significance? Or is the answer a combination of all these theories? For now, the petroglyphs remain a mystery, but the adventure and intrigue of discovering them will be a long-lasting memory.
When you go: Exercise caution if Safe Harbor Dam is releasing water, as conditions may become erratic. Stay alert for the flashing warning lights and sirens.
Do NOT walk on the petroglyphs or chalk/paint the carvings.
Bring a camera and a water jug or sponge to highlight the carvings.
The best viewing times are near sunrise or sunset.
Guided Tours: Paul Nevin – petroglyph expert – susquehannariver.net
Shank’s Mare Outfitters – guided tours and kayak rentals – shanksmare.com
Other places to view petroglyphs: With the construction of Safe Harbor Dam in the early 1930s, petroglyphs on Walnut Island and Cresswell Rock would have been lost due to rising water levels. Some of these petroglyphs were removed and are now on display.
Blue Rock Heritage Center, Washington Boro, Lancaster County – bluerockheritage.com
Conestoga Area Historical Society, Conestoga, Lancaster County – rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pacahs/index.htm
State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg – statemuseumpa.org
Things to see and do in the area:
Indian Steps Museum: Airville, York County – houses a large collection of Native American artifacts – indiansteps.org
Mason Dixon Trail – parallels the Susquehanna River on the Lancaster side – mason-dixontrail.org
Pequea Creek Campground – pequeacreekcampground.com
Turkey Hill Trail, Manor Township, Lancaster County – Susquehannock Indians lived in the vicinity of this trail years ago – lancasterconservancy.org/preserve/turkey-hill-trail
Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail – smithtrail.net
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission – fishing and boating regulations and license information – fish.state.pa.us
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission – information about the petroglyphs – portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/petroglyphs/3892
Safe Harbor Water Power Corp – information about the dam, fish lifts, and neighboring recreational areas – shwpc.com