Princess Nittany: The Valley’s Folk Hero

At the end of August 2015, The Nittany Valley Society had an opportunity to participate in the first annual LION (Living In One Neighborhood) Bash. The outdoor festival celebrated the town/gown diversity of our community and aimed to connect the resident and student populations, groups that are often estranged even while living side-by-side.

The NVS table introduced students and locals alike to the legend of Princess Nittany, our unique local mythology that has evolved over the last century. The passage below, adapted from ‘The Legends of the Nittany Valley,’ presents the version of Princess Nittany’s story as told by Penn State students in the 1916 LaVie, including images from the original yearbook version.

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The legend of Princess Nittany has been the most fruitful of all the legends penned by Henry W. Shoemaker. Penn State’s official website declares the story to be “invented by the author,” and “purely fictitious,” having “no basis whatever in fact.” But even if true, it doesn’t matter. It has inspired the creation of two major organizations — the Lion’s Paw Alumni Association and the Mount Nittany Conservancy — to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve it as Penn State’s proudest landmark. Thousands of students, alumni, townspeople, and visitors to the area climb Mount Nittany every year just to experience its magic. Indeed, our very identity as people of the “Nittany Valley” and as “Nittany Lions” springs from these legends that have helped to bind us in spirit.

Since first published by Henry W. Shoemaker in his book Juniata Memories in 1916, the legend of Princess Nittany has been retold in two additional versions. The first version is Shoemaker’s original recounting of the legend, as he claims to have heard it from an aged Indian named Jake Faddy. The second version, reproduced below, appeared shortly after. Although Penn State students may have heard the story independently of Shoemaker, the modern presumption is that when they came across Shoemaker’s account, they liked it so much they decided to adopt elements of the story for their own special legend. In any event, the second legend below appeared in the 1916 student yearbook, LaVie. This rendition of the legend omits some of the salient facts of Shoemaker’s story, such as the victory won by Princess Nittany’s tribe over the southern tribes, and is told in much more flowery and elegant language reflecting the literary tastes of the student body at that time.

The third version of the legend is of unknown authorship and date, but was adopted by the Mount Nittany Conservancy, Inc., to accompany the Conservancy’s sale of engraved deeds to a square inch of Mount Nittany. This legend, however, differs in several respects from both the Shoemaker and student versions, especially in that it has Mount Nittany arising over the burial mound of Princess Nittany’s beloved, an Indian Brave named Lion’s Paw, who was killed fighting the “wicked wind of the North.”

Nittany: The Legend of the Valley

Long, bright, ribbon of gold, blending, graying, into the deep blue of a twilight sky, set atop of a mountain line, rugged irregular; the breath of a night wind, soft, uncertain, rustling faintly across the broad expanse of tree tops ; a thread of shining white in the valley just below her, all this Nittany saw and was thankful. Many were the moons and long, since her warrior went out to battle. Many were the flocks of wild geese that had flown northward and southward above her, and still, he had not returned. Manitou, Manitou the Mighty, was cruel, and yet-the south wind grew bolder and kissed her brown cheek, withered now and old; the dying light in the west lingered on her face, kindled answering lights in her eyes—another day was gone.

Down in the valley, lived an old warrior and his squaw. Weak, feeble, scarcely able to grind the corn or gather the berries which were their food, they lived alone, the remnant of a people once great and powerful. Frequently it had happened that just when the maize they had planted with so much labor was ready to reap, the north wind had come, bending the oak trees in his strong fingers, and had wrested it from them so that in the long winter there was little to eat. And this Indian maid, since she was good and kind, had come down from her hilltop into the valley when all was dark, and had built a shield for them against the northwind, a barrier that even his strong fingers could not break. The old people saw this with wonder the thing that she had done, and called her Nittany, which means “wind breaker.”

Then a great sickness came upon her and she died, and the old warrior and his squaw mourned her, and all who had known her mourned her; called her pious, called her good. And they built a mound over the place where she lay that her resting place might be remembered. Then in the night came the Great Spirit with thunderings and lightnings ; the earth shook, great trees came crashing down and the people were sore afraid. After a time, the thunders grew duller and duller, the lightnings flashed less and less often, and peace, dark, silent, brooded over the valley. When the dawn came, the first pale light of morning, the people came forth and marveled; for in the place where they had builded the mound, now rose a great mountain. And they called it Nittany in honor of her who was called pious and good.

The snows of many winters had lain on the valley, many summers have come and gone. A new people had come up from the southward and taken possession of the land. Men with white faces had come from the eastward. There arose among this new people a great warrior chief named Woap-a-lanne, whom the men with white faces called Bald Eagle. He lived in this same broad valley, and he extended his hunting grounds far to the northward. Brave was he and led his warriors to victory, and many were the songs that the singers made in his honor of his bravery and his daring. Woap-a-lanne loved his brothers with the pale faces and made treaties with them and bartered with them under a great pine tree which still is standing. And when the time came that he should go to the Happy Hunting Grounds, even the white men mourned him and in his honor named mountains and valleys and even the creek that flowed thru his native valley with his name.

And again many snows and rains came. The people of Woap-a-lanne, they of the tribe of Lenni-Lenape grew fewer and fewer; the white brothers came and took their hunting grounds; and their mountains and valleys saw them no more. Then in this broad valley, there rose the Great Mother, not of men but of minds of men. To her came the young men from many miles, and she taught them the wisdom of times past, taught them the use of tools, taught them the art of working. With her teaching was the sweetness, the gentleness, the goodness of Nittany, and into their hearts she instilled the bravery, the courage of Woap-a-lanne. And her sons went out into the world and worked with the arts she had taught them and brought back to her, honor and glory. The world knew them; for in their minds was the gentleness of Nittany, in their hearts, was the strength of Woap-a-lanne.