Bald Friar Ford Petroglyphs

Native communities routinely utilized the area currently known as the Bald Friar Ford to wade in and cross through the Susquehanna River. The river itself is named after the Susquehannock peoples. Although it is hard to imagine now, since the flooding of the land and the construction of the Conowingo Dam beginning in 1927, this territory was utilized in such a manner due to its shallow waters. Local tribes also adorned numerous boulders sitting in the river at this point with massive petroglyphs. The same year of the Dam’s construction, preservationists removed the ancient petroglyphs from their original homes in order to prevent them from being covered by the rising waters. 

The Indigenous petroglyphs located at the Susquehanna River’s Bald Friar site in Cecil County represent the largest collection of rock art in the State of Maryland. These petroglyphs were carved in the boulders of various small islands that sat in the river between the northern Bald Friar Falls and southern Great Rock Falls. At its peak, the Susquehanna River stretched three-quarters of a mile across at this important location. The petroglyphs are estimated to be between 500 and 1,000 years old, and their distinct styles have been interpreted as snakes, fish, faces, suns, concentric circles, and odes to fertility.

In July 1652, having endured a decade of warfare with the English, Iroquis, and Maryland, Susquehannock tribal leaders signed a peace treaty that ceded vast territories to the colony. This land stretched from Talbot, Queen Anne’s, Kent, and Cecil Counties on the Eastern Shore to St. Mary’s, Calvert, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, and Harford Counties on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. By the end of the 17th century, European settlers had quickly come to rely on this juncture to cross the Susquehanna and, in 1695, the Bald Friar Ferry was established to transport passengers through the river. Notable figures, including Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Comte de Rochambeau, journeyed on this ferry during the American Revolution. 

In the 1920s, archaeologists attempted to preserve the petroglyphs before they became inundated by the Conowingo Dam. They used explosives to break apart some of the boulders upon which the images were carved with the plan of reassembling the pieces for study and display. Scholars, however, have disavowed this intervention and lamented the destruction and loss of Native American art that came from this misguided effort. Over the past decades, these fragments have traveled for exhibition throughout the state. Today, they have been returned to a location in closer proximity to their origin and are on public display in an exhibit in Harford County organized by the Susquehanna State Park in partnership with the Maryland Historical Trust.

Image: Bald Friar Ford Petroglyphs (Maryland Historical Trust)

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Designed by Brian Habib