Discovering Princess Nittany

By Chris Buchignani, May 2014

Who is Princess Nittany?

Put simply, she is the Nittany Valley’s answer to Hercules, King Arthur, and Luke Skywalker — she’s a legendary champion who embodies virtues such as strength, heroism, wisdom, and compassion, and whose story helps define and strengthen a people’s sense of themselves. Like the proud Pennsylvania mountain lion who represents both Penn State and State High, she symbolizes the enduring spirit of our place. She belongs to us.

In his 1916 book, Juniata Memories, Pennsylvania folklorist Henry W. Shoemaker first published the legend of a brave warrior princess named Nittany who led her people through famine and war and who, upon her death, was so honored that her burial mound grew up into a mighty mountain overnight.

Dating back at least to Shoemaker’s time, our community has a long history with its beloved heroine. Penn Staters have been retelling the story of Princess Nittany for nearly 100 years. The 1916 La Vie included a student-authored version of the legend incorporating a twist — its ending told of the college whose students were inspirited with “the goodness of Nittany.” Thus began a relationship that spans across time, transcending town and gown and blending the imaginary and the real.

When the fledgling Mount Nittany Conservancy faced the daunting challenge of raising $120,000 in 12 months to save the mountain in its natural form, improbable success came not through a plea for natural conservation, but from an appeal to honor the spirit of its legendary princess.

One of the area’s most immediately recognizable landmarks, the Hiester Street mural painted by Michael Pilato and Yuri Karabash, celebrates our local heritage by depicting people who have shaped the character of the community. Perhaps because she exists among us in spirit as surely as her fellow mural subjects existed in the flesh, Princess Nittany is shown seated at street level, peering out at passersby with pensive gaze. Recently, when Nina and George Woskob commissioned Pilato and Karabash to create another painting that tells the Nittany Valley’s story, they chose to feature Princess Nittany and key elements from the legend.

Similarly, when images from State College’s culture and history were added by way of a mural to Calder Way, a painting of Princess Nittany joined depictions of forgotten campus traditions, milestones such as the local demonstrations for woman suffrage, and early football games. However, neither the Hiester Street nor Calder Way painting was the first to pay tribute to our princess through community art.

Last year, The Nittany Valley Society published a collection of Shoemaker’s Indian legends pertaining directly to our region and the surrounding area titled The Legends of the Nittany Valley. In the book’s introduction, I wrote about the potential for mythology to facilitate dialog, enrich experience, and burnish collective identity, and I argued for these local legends as a means of expressing our sense for the subtle feeling of magic that pervades Happy Valley.

While conducting research for the book, a stroke of luck (or maybe spiritual inspiration from the princess herself) led us to an online article about another, much older mural featuring Princess Nittany only days before it disappeared from the Web. Had our timing been just a bit off, we would have missed it entirely. As it happened, we were able to learn about the Mount Nittany Mural located at the State College Area School District’s Fairmount Avenue Building, which today houses the Delta Program and once served as the local high school. The mural was created as part of a 1948 graduate thesis by Penn State student Reba Esh, whose advisor was Dr. Viktor Lowenfeld, organizer of the university’s art-education department. Her thesis involved organizing a collaborative “community mural” project modeled after the Depression era’s urban-revitalization efforts sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. The students and townsfolk involved in the mural’s production chose to tell “the story of the Nittany Valley” through the Legend of Princess Nittany.

Indeed, such myths have great power to communicate and captivate. Locally, they are not confined to the story of our warrior princess and her wondrous burial mound.

Confusion often arises between the Princess Nittany, after whom, as the legend tells it, the famous mountain is named, and another Princess Nittany (sometimes spelled Nita-Nee), who features prominently in the story of Malachi Boyer and Penn’s Cave (both stories appear in The Legends of the Nittany Valley). Within the chronology of local fiction, Princess Nita-Nee who was the object of Boyer’s affections lived long after Princess Nittany (and the mountain’s naming) and was called Nita-Nee because the courage and dignity of the original were such that the name “Nittany” had become one of great honor.

Thanks, in fact, to this new partnership we enjoy with Town&Gown, three recent Penn State film students — Amy Camacho, Kayla Gibbon, and Lisa Pierce — discovered the Nittany Valley Society and sent me information on their senior film, a documentary that explores the resonance of Nita-Nee’s legend. They have kindly granted us permission to share it here. I submit it as proof positive for the enduring appeal of a robust local mythology, not to mention the value of an established cultural conservancy that can amplify the efforts of those seeking to express and share their affection for our place.

(This short documentary takes place in State College, Pennsylvania and discusses the legend of Penn’s Cave; a tragic love story about Princess Nita-nee & her forbidden lover, Malachi Boyer. The legend, along with many other tales, was written by Pennsylvania folklorist, Henry Shoemaker. This documentary uses the legend, real or not, to show the importance of myths & legends not only in Pennsylvania’s culture, but the world’s. This film was an assignment for the COMM 437 Advanced Documentary class at Pennsylvania State University. Made by: Amy Camacho, Kayla Gibbon, & Lisa Peirce)

Just as debate continues over which, if any, historical figures inspired the legends of Arthur Pendragon or Robin Hood, the true roots of our local folklore remain in doubt. Scholarly critics and historians will tell us that although Native American tribes once thrived throughout the pastoral valley we now call home, neither brave Princess Nittany nor the star-crossed lover who was her namesake ever existed. Further, they will argue, both were first imagined not by our American Indian forebears, but rather by Shoemaker himself. Perhaps this is true. I have talked with more than one acquaintance of modern Leni Lenape descendants who argue otherwise. More importantly though, who cares?

As we go through the second decade of the twenty-first century, there can be no argument that Princess Nittany has taken on a life of her own. Irrespective of their origins, from yearbook authors writing nearly a century ago to community members of the 1940s and right on up through local artists and student filmmakers of today, visions of our heroic princess continue to inspire preservation and renewal of our shared story.