01 - Safe Harbor Petroglyphs



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On the lower Susquehanna, just below Safe Harbor Dam, the rocks whisper stories of the people of this land. Rock art of long ago generations still survives. Will it survive for the generations of the future?




By Paul A. Nevin




For hundreds, if not thousands of years before the Europeans came to this land, Native people carved images of humans, birds, animals and their tracks, as well as other designs into the rocks that lay in and along the Susquehanna River. The carvings, or ‘petroglyphs’, conveyed information -- perhaps describing a tribe’s boundaries or hunting grounds, or telling of the people who lived there or who had passed through, or signifying events or sacred places. Sometimes figures were carved directly over top of others, suggesting that many generations contributed to this legacy.

The messages must have been important. The carving, done on hard rock with stone tools, took too much effort to have been done on a whim. And to carve graffiti on the rocks would be to desecrate Mother Earth.

Perhaps 1,000 petroglyphs could once be found among several sites on the river between Columbia, Pa. and Port Deposit, Md. The new settlers in this land noticed them and over the years occasionally recorded and studied them, but also removed them for garden ornaments and broke them up for rock dams and fishing weirs.

Now gone or submerged behind modern dams, only one group of petroglyphs remains. In the area just below Safe Harbor Dam, among the many exposed rocks more than 300 carvings can still be seen --- if you know where to look.

A short distance from the Lancaster County shore are a group of Native American rock art sites now known as The Safe Harbor Petroglyphs. Carved designs from a time long ago cover the surface of seven large rocks which put together would make an area about one quarter of an acre in size.

Although Big Indian Rock and Little Indian Rock have been studied and written about occasionally for over 100 years, the total scope of the site has been largely ignored by archaeologists and preservation organizations and agencies alike. In fact, 5 of the 7 sites and over half of the carved designs have yet to be documented in scientific literature. Many of the carvings are not easily seen and the rocks are for the most part indistinguishable from the many others in this part of the river, making it easy to pass by without noticing the designs carved on their surface. The abundant rocks also hinder boating in the area which has added to the anonymity of the carvings. The carved rocks quietly lay in the river as an unnoticed treasure.

 It should be known however, that this is probably the most significant archeological site of it's type in Pennsylvania and quite possibly the entire northeastern United States.

Why Were The Carvings Made?

At Safe Harbor we have a unique window into the lives of people who lived here before the coming of the Europeans. We get a glimpse of how these people saw their world through the images they left here, carved in the stone.

Many native people refer to rocks as ‘the Grandfathers’. Rocks hold the stories of Mother Earth. There are rocks that tell us they were made from the fire deep within the earth. Sometimes we see in rocks the images of plants and animals of ancient times. On mountains we sometimes see rocks that tell us that these places were once under the sea. The rocks hold an enduring record. And people throughout time have made the monuments they wanted to endure from stone. The Stone heads on Easter Island, Stone Henge in England, the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx in Egypt. The Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico. Even Mount Rushmore.

And so the people of this area carved images of the things that were important to them in stone in certain special places. For some reason this part of the Susquehanna was one of those special places.

Who Made The Petroglyphs?

There is evidence in many places all along this part of the river of people living here for over 10,000 years. But for the most part we overlook it. In the fields, on the islands, and along the shores of the rivers and streams pieces from the lives of people who lived here long ago are often found by those with patience or good fortune to look in the right place at the right time.

We don’t know for sure which of these people made the carvings at Safe Harbor. It’s not known if the Susquehanna Rivers first European explorer John Smith saw the petroglyphs, but they almost certainly date to well before that time. Quite possibly the carvings were made about 1,000 years ago by a Native American group known by archaeologists as the Shenks Ferry Culture. No one knows the name these people called themselves or what they called the river. But we do know that they had a civilization. Archaeologists have excavated a number of their villages along the Lower Susquehanna River and in the surrounding countryside. They had agriculture, villages, government, medicine, and history. Mothers and fathers taught their children and took care of their elders.

When the first white settlers arrived in this area Native American people known as the Susquehannocks were living here. (Again we do not know what they called themselves. It’s common for native people to refer to themselves simply as ‘The People’. John Smith got the names Susquehanna and Susquehannock from what a tribe who lived along the Chesapeake Bay called the river and it’s inhabitants.) At least one historian has written that the Indians living in the area at that time did not know the meaning of the carvings. The settlers were concerned with their own survival and much of the Indian culture was overlooked. Through the years many people must of come across the carvings as much fishing was done in the area, and although the river was swift and rocky, rafts and later canal traffic made the river a well used resource.

How Have The Petroglyphs Been Studied?

The petroglyphs were first written about in the fall of 1863 when the existence of ancient carvings on rocks below Safe Harbor was brought to the attention of the Linean Society of Lancaster (forerunner of the North Museum). Over the next year sketches and plaster casts were made of the carvings, and the casts boxed up and sent to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Records indicate that a set of casts were also to be sent to the Smithsonian Institution, but there are no records of them ever being received, and if they were they have since been lost or discarded.

Brief descriptions of the carvings appeared in several books in the following years including Garrick Mallery’s “Picture-Writing of the American Indians” and Charles Hanna’s ‘The Wilderness Trail”, and apparently people occasionally visited the rocks as several names and dates from the late 1800’s are carved into them. Even at this time the value of the carvings was not appreciated as some of the names and dates are carved directly on top of the more ancient carvings. It was also probably around this time that the most elaborate of all the petroglyphs, a large dove with an olive branch in his mouth, was carved. During the late 1890’s David Herr Landis explored this area as well as the area of the river just below the Maryland line documenting the carvings in photographs. He assembled the photos into a book, of which only 5 copies were ever actually produced. His personal copy of the book is now part of the Hershey Museum’s collection. Also in the early 1900’s Justin Roddy made casts of some of the designs. These casts now on display in the North Museum in Lancaster are attributed to him, although there is some discussion as to whether they were made from casts done during the most extensive exploration of the petroglyphs.

In 1930 as plans were being made to construct Safe Harbor dam, the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (now the Pennsylvania Museum Commission) decided to explore the area and to document the carvings that would be covered up by the waters of the new dam. By this time some people in the area expressed doubt as to whether the carvings were authentic or merely the creations of pranksters. Over a two year period starting in the spring of 1930, Donald Cadzow and his team made more sketches and 188 plaster casts of the designs on Big Indian and Little Indian Rock, as well as uncovering and recording petroglyphs on walnut Island, a large island located between Turkey Hill and Safe Harbor, and Cresswell Rock, a large rock in the river on the northern side of Turkey Hill. As these two sites were to be submerged under Lake Clarke, it was decided to remove as many of the carvings as possible for ‘safe keeping’. In a great undertaking for the time compressed air lines were run out from the shore line and 68 sections of rock, one being more than 9 feet long and a foot wide, some weighing hundreds of pounds were cut from the bedrock using core drills and jack hammers. A few of these rocks are now on display at the State Museum in Harrisburg. A few more are also now on display Conestoga Historical Society Museum. The rest remain in storage at Fort Indiantown Gap. And what about the plaster casts? They cannot be located.

The Cadzow expedition was very impressive, probably the largest archeological expedition done in the East up until that time. Cadzow wrote in 1934 “Those (the petroglyphs) in the area between Safe Harbor and Washington Boro ...would have been destroyed if it had not been for the Pa. Historical Commission and the officials of the Safe Harbor Water Power Corporation. The generosity of the latter company in supplying men and equipment for the recording and removal of the petroglyphs in the area to be covered with water has no parallel in the history of anthropology in the history of this country.” In addition to the work with the petroglyphs several sites in Washington Boro and a site at Shenk’s Ferry were investigated. But the science of archeology was still in its infancy and the archaeology of Pennsylvania was still quite murky. None-the-less the report of the Cadzow expedition has remained as the seminal work on the Safe Harbor Petroglyphs.

Apparently archeologists must have felt that Cadzow had said it all because in the 50 years following his report virtually no archaeological work was done at Big Indian and Little Indian Rock. In fact the existence of the rocks seems to have faded from memory to the extent that by the 1970’s many archeologists, museums, and most of the general public came to believe that these rocks too were now under water.

Interest in the petroglyphs has resurfaced in the last 10 years. For many years archaeologists thought that petroglyphs were just a form of graffiti. Now archeologists are discovering that many Native American cultures were more sophisticated than previously thought. For example, at the Slackwater site in Lancaster County evidence was found that people archaeologists call the Shenks Ferry Culture studied the sky and marked sunrise and star positions almost 1,000 years ago. Interest in the carvings at Safe Harbor has also grown because archaeologists have become aware that the petroglyphs are not erased or under water (From the very beginning archeologists had noted that the carvings were badly eroded and vandalized. Maybe this is a product of the thought at the time, because their state of preservation is remarkable and significant). And the major research report about the petroglyphs written in the 1930’s lead many people to believe that all the carvings would be covered by water backed up behind dams on the river. This is simply not correct. Finally, because of work done elsewhere (as with Mayan glyphs in Mexico and Central America, and petroglyphs in the American Southwest) some archaeologists now feel that it might indeed be possible to interpret the symbols to some degree, or at least to use them to gain insight into Native American cultures --the symbols are not just graffiti made because the fish weren't biting. Being able to study the actual carvings as opposed to the drawings that had been made in the past may provide valuable information about the site, who made the carvings, and when.

In the past study has centered around identifying specific symbols and possibly relating the style of the art to a culture. The work now is to look at the site as a whole and to how it relates to other archaeological sites in this area.

All of us benefit greatly by knowing the story of our land, a story that goes back much further than 500 years. This cultural landmark illustrates that story in a way that no other place in Pennsylvania does. The greatest beauty of this group of sites is that you can see them in their original context, much as they were when the carvings were first made. The study, preservation, and presentation of these sites should have a place in Pennsylvania's future.

Efforts are now being made to document the petroglyphs, to raise public awareness of their existence, and to ensure that the petroglyphs are given proper care and protection so that they will survive as monuments to this areas rich cultural history for many generations to come.


For more information please contact Paul Nevin, 6298 River Drive, York, Pa. 17406

Phone (717) 252-4177, E-mail SusqueKal@aol.com


Friends of the Safe Harbor Petroglyphs


‘Friends of the Safe Harbor Petroglyphs’  was formed to work to preserve, protect,  and raise awareness of the Safe Harbor Petroglyphs. The group is directed by the Susquehanna Kalpulli, a local group interested in the Native American culture, and the Conejohela Chapter of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology.  The Conejohela Chapter has established a fund to help accomplish the group’s goals.
  • Currently we are looking for 'Caretakers' to help monitor visitor activity at the petroglyph sites. If you have a small motor boat, kayak, or canoe and would be interested in visiting the rocks one or more times during the summer months to check for vandalism and/or assist visitors.
  • We are also looking for help to map the river bottom in the area around the rocks. For this we need the help of someone having a boat equipped with a depth finder, bottom reading fish finder or similar equipment.

Other current projects include installing small identifying plaques on the rocks, continuing research, and developing interpretive materials.

If you can help with any of these projects or would like to make a  tax-deductible donation call Paul Nevin at (717) 252-4177 or E-mail to SusqueKal@aol.com

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