story by Ray Levato
photos by Maia VanOrman
When we moved into our current home, there were some really interesting looking rocks in the backyard flower garden, courtesy of the previous owner. They looked like the top or back of a turtle shell. Sure enough, after some checking, I learned they are called turtle stones!
A geologist would find the following explanation oversimplified, but here’s my understanding of how they’re formed: turtle stones are basically concretions, or sedimentary mud deposits, that have hardened into rock. The “turtle shell” pattern of unusual-looking oval shapes, separated by angular cracks of crystallized minerals, was created by the seepage of water over time. In our area, turtle stones can be found along the shorelines of lakes and creeks. One theory is that these rocks are more resistant to weathering than the surrounding rock strata in which they are embedded, so over time, they “wash out” to become individual stones.
Turtle stones are found in various parts of the country, but because they were first discovered around Conesus Lake, they are known as Conesus turtle stones. According to a column by Mrs. Joseph Lang about Conesus Lake folklore, published in The Livonia Gazette in 1962, turtle rocks have also been discovered in places like Iceland and Siberia, “but even there they are called Conesus Stones.”
I asked Peter Jemison, manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, about the Legend of Bare Hill. He’s a member of the Heron clan of the Seneca Nation, and a direct descendant of Mary Jemison, a white captive adopted by the Senecas. Mary was born in 1743, but when she was about 15, she and a neighbor boy were spared, but orphaned, during a battle of the French and Indian War, according to letchworthparkhistory.com.
Peter says the Legend of Bare Hill dates back to the time of Mary Jemison, and points to a biography published in 1824 by Dr. James Seaver after interviewing her. Dr. Seaver, a minister, learned the Seneca language and became a translator.
Turtle Stones and the Legend of Bare Hill
Before the first European settlers came to what is now Conesus, it was the Land of the Senecas. The following story, from the Ganondagan State Historic Site, recounts the origins of the Seneca people and provides an interesting explanation for the turtle stones once common along the Canandaigua Lake shoreline.
The Seneca are known in their own language as “Onondowahgah,” or people of the Great Hill. Tradition relates that long ago, two men paddling home from a hunting trip found a small, brightly colored serpent floating on a leaf. They put this serpent in their canoe and took it home. The people were much amazed and the whole town fed the snake. The snake grew until it was no longer satisfied with insects or mice but craved rabbits, then deer, and even bear. When the people became exhausted from feeding it, the great snake broke out of its pen and began eating them. So huge was the snake and so ravenous its appetite, that soon it ate all the people of the town. Then it began hunting human beings, going from town to town, spreading terror and death. Finally, all were eaten except the people who lived on a great hill overlooking Canandaigua Lake. There, in a dream, a boy and girl were told to make a bow of white pine, a string from the girl’s hair, and an arrow of dogwood tipped with a pure-white arrowhead. These two, the last survivors, shot and killed the serpent. As the snake died, its body rolled down the hill into Canandaigua Lake, disgorging human skulls. To this day, no trees have grown where the serpent rolled down the hill. It is said that the round stones at the bottom of the lake are the skulls.
The boy and girl were the first People of the Great Hill, the founders of the Seneca Nation. “This is the period when the Seneca people were beginning to live on Bare Hill,” Peter says. “The first time it appeared in print was the book on her life. This is why the Senecas are known as the people of the snake.”
Peter also told me about Arthur Parker, whose father was one-half Seneca Indian. Arthur was born in 1881 on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, and served as the first director of what is now the Rochester Museum & Science Center. When he investigated the story of the turtle rocks, he concluded that it is an allegorical account of a real event that happened much earlier, in the 1400s. “Parker believes that the legend of the turtle rocks told the story of the ancestors of the Seneca people who fought off invaders from the land of Virginia,” explains Peter. “The boy and girl in the story were orphans from that battle.”
Turtle stones today
Turtle stones are also found prominently in the Arkansas River Valley. According to the Arkansas Geological Survey, turtle stones are in the category of pseudofossils in that many rocks of this type appear to be fossils when really they are not. Turtle stones have even been mistaken for dinosaur eggs!
If you are out driving in our region, you may come across Turtle Rock Road in Lakeville at the northern end of Conesus Lake. There is Turtle Rock Lane off of Rock Beach Road along Lake Ontario in Irondequoit. Turtle Rock Hollow is a nature retreat south of Honeoye Lake, and Turtle Rock Village is a mobile-home park on the western shore of Seneca Lake near the hamlet of Himrod.
When you head to the community of Conesus, population 2,409, you’ll notice signs that say, “Welcome to Conesus – Home of the Turtle Stones.” They were erected through the efforts of the American Legion. The locals are proud of their turtle stones, and even enjoyed displaying them at the Turtle Stone Festival that existed for a time in Conesus.
One day, Conesus Town Supervisor Brenda Donohue and a friend spotted a turtle stone when they were out walking near Hemlock Lake. “It was a 12-pounder!” she told me. The stone became the property of her friend “because she saw it first.” That’s okay – Donohue already has some that were left in her basement by former residents.
I wondered if visitors to her community ask, ‘What are turtle stones?”
“Oh sure, lots of people do,” she answered. “And they want to know what the stones look like.”
You can see them at the northern end of Hemlock Lake, at Hemlock Lake Park, where the stones – one in particular – are part of an historic monument dedicated in 1929 to the Sullivan-Clinton campaign that took place during the Revolutionary War. A check of western Finger Lakes garden centers failed to turn up any natural turtle stones. Your best bet of locating one for your garden means putting on your hiking shoes and trekking the shores of Conesus or Hemlock Lakes.
Ray Levato is a retired reporter/anchor for WHEC-TV Channel 10 in Rochester, NY.