Ancient Native American eel weirs slumber beneath the waters of the Susquehanna

Before the Egyptians built the Pyramids of Giza, Native Americans were possibly constructing giant stone structures on the Susquehanna. One of the largest—found near Danville, PA—is 1/4th of a mile in linear length. These mysterious masonry V-shaped weirs were used to catch the adult fish as they swam to and from the ocean.

‘Native Lands’ details eel harvesting on the Susquehanna River by Artist Carol Oldenburg, 2021.

What is an eel weir?

The Susquehanna River is a habitat for several migratory fish, such as shad, sturgeon, and eel. Native Americans capitalized on these yearly migrations by constructing large V-shaped weirs (or dams) from stacked river rocks. These simple but effective stone structures funnel fish to a narrow point where they are easily trapped or speared. Indigenous people would often connect multiple weirs to capture migratory fish on both their downstream and upstream journeys (as shown immediately below). The tips of the weirs could be opened or closed depending on the direction of the creature’s travel.

A series of eel weirs in Harrisburg near the airport at the Canal Lock Boat Launch.

Eels were a significant food source for American Indians along the Susquehanna as they are more calorie dense than other fish. During the height of migration season, hundreds of pounds of eels could be caught each day.

Modern eel weir on the Delaware River.

The captured eels would be smoked for use during the winter months and were likely an important source of protein for American Indians for thousands of years. Early colonists reported Onondagas, one of the original five nations of the Iroquois, roasting eels along the Susquehanna’s headwaters.

Unfortunately, populations of these fish have greatly diminished due to overfishing, pollution, and four large hydroelectric dams in the Lower Susquehanna River Valley.

How old are they?

Native Americans fished for eels long before Captain John Smith charted the Chesapeake. However, establishing specific dates for stone weirs is difficult. Many were likely used for decades (or even centuries) and sometimes dismantled and rebuilt in the same location. The best estimates come from radiocarbon dating wooden stakes or baskets used in the trap’s construct. However, these only date the most recent rebuild. If a fish trap was dismantled entirely, the likelihood that it left evidence is slim.

Archeologists beleive that several clusters of fish weirs in Pennsylvania predate the arrival of Europeans as they are near pre-contact or contact period Native American village sites.

A stone weir is visible in the Susquehanna River from the Council Cup lookout in Wapwallopen, PA. The boat provides a good point of reference for size. Image courtesy of Hank Rogers.

The oldest known site is in Maine at the Sebasticook Lake Fishweir Complex, where wood recovered from a capture basket has been radiocarbon dated to 3,000 BC. As a point of comparison, the Pyramids of Giza were built around 2,500 BC. Local expert and high school environmental science teacher, Van Wagner, believes the Danville site could easily be just as old.

Eel weir at Danville, PA.

How many are there?

According to This Week In Pennsylvania Archaeology, only ten fish weirs have been formally recorded with the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey files. While data from a 2019 Fish Wier Recording Survey conducted by the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology identified 750 fish weirs from more than ten states, including 141 in Pennsylvania. Following North Carolina, Pennsylvania has the second-highest concentration of weirs identified in this survey.


Where to find them

Danville, PA

Here are the GPS coordinates (40.962521, -76.630295) for the eel weir near Danville, PA.

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Wagner says the weir’s two walls rise 3 to 5 feet from the river’s bottom and if measured out linearly is a quarter of a mile in length.


Harrisburg, PA

Another weir can be seen from the I-83 bridge in Harrisburg, PA, when facing south. Here are the GPS coordinates (40.247530, -76.875648).


A second one in Harrisburg is near the airport at the Canal Lock Boat Launch. It has several weirs next to each other, crossing almost the entire river. Here are the GPS coordinates (40.174465, -76.729063). You will need to zoom in for the weirs to be visible.


Wapwallopen, PA

Another is visible from atop Council Cup lookout in Wapwallopen, PA. Here are the GPS coordinates (41.080018, -76.129677) for the Wapwallopen weir.


Do you know other eel weir locations that can be added to this list?

Watch

Check out Van Wagner’s YouTube video below documenting his experience with the giant eel weir. It is definitely worth a watch!


Resources

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Susquehanna River Fun Facts

Here are some fun facts about Lancaster CCounty’sgreatest body of water: the Susquehanna River. Number 1: The Susquehanna is the longest river on the East Coast of the United States. The river begins as an unassuming50-foot-widee creek at Ostego Lake near Cooperstown, New York. It eventually empties into the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland, having swelled in spots to wider than a mile. The river and its hundreds of tributaries drain 27,510 square miles, an, at the end of this 444-mile journey, it pumps 18 million gallons of water into Chesapeake per minute. Click the link to read all six!


Artifact: ”ndian Relics of the Lower Susquehanna Valley Preserved for the PPublic’brochure

From an authentic Civil War wood engraving. Original sketch by Albert Berghaus.

I was recently made aware of this rare vintage brochure from the 1950s entitled “”ndian Relics of the Lower Susquehanna Valley Preserved for the Public.””Published by the Pennsylvania Water & Power Co., Safe Harbor Water Power Corporation, it has some fascinating information and photographs. As a firm believer that “”nformation wants to be free,””I transcribed the ddocument’stext and scanned the images. Both are available when you click the link.


Armchair Explorer: LiDAR Scans of Little and Big Indian Rock

Last week, I voyaged out to the millennium-old petroglyphs of Little Indian Rock and Big Indian Rock below Safe Harbor Dam. One goal for this trip was to perform a series of LiDAR scans on the historic boulders. Since the only way to visit is via boat, I thought armchair explorers everywhere might enjoy the opportunity to survey the ancient carvings from the comfort of their living rooms. Click the link to view those scans.


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3 thoughts on “Ancient Native American eel weirs slumber beneath the waters of the Susquehanna

  1. There are several small eel weirs or ell dams between Highspire & Steelton. There are on the eastern side of the river. The main one is just north of the turnpike bridge towards Harrisburg. They look like small rapids when you approach them in a boat & from the shore on the Highspire & Steelton side.

  2. I think I spotted one of these in the Schuylkill that you can see from the 422 East bridge at the border of Cumru and Exeter townships. I will try to go back and get a photo when the weather and traffic co-operate.

  3. There are many dozens, if not hundreds, of Native American fish weirs in the Pacific Northwest, both in fresh water steams/rivers, and in tidal areas. We don’t have shad, but we do have salmon, steelhead, eels/lampreys, sturgeon, etc. Subsistence was very focused on littoral and riverine resources in the pre-Contact era (much later here – prior to 1800)…..

    I first came to Washington State looking for analogous info about fish-drying features for my dissertation, and then accidentally stayed – lol. There are a number of similarities, but I sure do miss ceramics….

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