Turtle Stones

These turtle stones line the edge of a planting bed. Some are smooth and resemble a human skull, while others have markings similar to a turtle shell.
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.


  • Maggie Gale Bryan says:

    I have a turtle stone. The story I just read was amazing. I would like to sale this stone but don’t know how. Any help would be appreciated.

    • Mark Stash says:

      Hi Maggie, thank you for your note. They are pretty incredible stones, aren’t they? I think the best way to sell a stone is to go online if you have that option. craigslist.com, etsy.com, ebay.com, facebook.com … those are my suggestions. Mark Stash, editor

  • Barbara Stadler says:

    Fabulous article! I especially love the Mary Jemison reference. As a native of Western New York, we are very familiar with her family’s story. My sister and I hunted for, and found, turtle rocks at Cazenovia Creek in East Aurora! My goodness, they are HEAVY! This was my first rock hunt and at 63 years old, I am hooked! Looking for a rock hunting club in Cleveland, Ohio, my home for the past 25 years.

  • Gregory cooper says:

    I have found 6 turtle stones in one spot while looking for shale for my fish tank. I can’t reveal my spot , but there are many more there I haven’t got . I will however be getting the rest this week. I have a perfect round one in my fish tank to enjoy about the size of a cantaloupe . I will give you a hint. If your local you will know there around the chosen spot. Happy hunting. My great grandfathers boat the onalinda same size as the Canandaigua lady is sunk on a rock bar at north end of Lake. He had a team of horses that pulled it on the ice. My great gramps would cut blocks of ice and sell them . He stored the ice in a barn full of saw dust to keep them from melting. He used ship in winter to transfer the ice blocks. One year as spring was approaching the ship fell through the ice and got hung up on rock bar . And he had no way of getting it out . It was to heavy filled with ice, so he lit it on fire and burnt it to water line then it sunk . Where today you can still see the belly beams. And the horses did not get hurt they were fine. He used this ship to hall ice to the city pier where he sold his blocks of ice. Because back then there were no refrigerators they were called ice boxes or ice chest. my family’s home stead was on sand beach drive. Homes still there. My family owned a lot of lake frontage back in the 30s it was all farm land at the time and he had live stock and barbwire going out into the lake and around property to keep live stock in. Then the great depression happened and he was forced to sell lake front lots around 50 lots. They were sold for around 30 to 50 dollars a lot and sometimes traded for coon dogs or other things to survive. My father still has all the original Deeds and receipts of each lot and they say how much or what he traded for. If grampa could only know how much they go for today he would flip over in his grave lol.

  • Gregory Cooper says:

    Was out looking for turtle shells over the weekend. And found a bunch of stuff from the Bolivian age 400 million years ago . I have found 6 species of life from then. I have been going back everyday since. I have about 500 lbs of it so far. I have found some skulls bones and some dinosaur teeth. I hit the jack pot. They are in a huge gully with stream. I have been going there my whole life and now just found them. All the rain we’ve had this year has washed them out of the clay and I don’t have to dig. There just there along the stream. I contacted corning and told them about the teeth and bones . It could be I found some new species that haven’t been discovered yet or some they have already. Either way its kind of exciting. And I possess a lot of things 400 million years old. So if you see some weird looking things looking for turtle stones you might wanna pick them up. I have a ton of coral from that age . Just type in pictures of the devonian age creatures and coral in ny state and there you can see what to look for. People are selling this stuff for big bucks. I will be selling some of mine if anyone is interested in owning creatures and coral 400 million years old. Ill also be donating some to the museum in Canandaigua. Happy hunting and if there is a specialist out there contact me and come take a look.

  • Robert says:

    I finally figured out what I found a few years ago in the badlands of Eastern Montana. I found a rock which looks just like these, only it must weigh over 500 lbs. A turtle is the first thing that came to mind because it is almost the exact same size and shape of a Galapagos Giant Tortoise. Does anyone know how uncommon (or common) it is to find one of this size?

  • Mackenzie parrotta says:

    My father carves large turtles out of limestone and uses the turtlestone as the shell! They are very cool!

  • Karin Chase says:

    I heard that there is a beach near Erie Pa where you can find them. We are going to Erie next week, but I could fine nothing online about what beach to go to. Does anyone have suggestions?

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