The Legend of Penn’s Cave (Nittany Valley Press Excerpt)

This is the very first Pennsylvania legend published by folklorist Henry W. Shoemaker in 1902. It is the official legend featured at Penn’s Cave, where it is painted on a large sign at the entrance. This legend tells not of the Princess Nittany over whose burial mound (or over whose lover’s burial mound) Nittany Mountain arose in a single night, but of another Indian princess, who lived about 300 years later, and who was named after that original Princess Nittany. Both stories can be found in The Legends of the Nittany Valley.

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As related by Isaac Steele, an Aged Seneca Indian, in 1892: In the days when the West Branch Valley was a trackless wilderness of defiant pines and submissive hemlocks twenty-five years before the first pioneer had attempted lodgment beyond Sunbury, a young Pennsylvania Frenchman, from Lancaster County, named Malachi Boyer, alone and unaided, pierced the jungle to a point where Bellefonte is now located. The history of his travels has never been written, partly because he had no white companion to observe them, and partly because he himself was unable to write. His very identity would now be forgotten were it not for the traditions of the Indians, with whose lives he became strangely entangled.

A short, stockily built fellow was Malachi Boyer, with unusually prominent black eyes and black hair that hung in ribbon-like strands over his broad, low forehead. Fearless, yet conciliatory, he escaped a thousand times from Indian cunning and treachery, and as the months went by and he penetrated further into the forests he numbered many redskins among his cherished friends.

Why he explored these boundless wilds he could not explain, for it was not in the interest of science, as he scarcely knew of such a thing as geography, and it was not for trading, as he lived by the way. But on he forced his path, ever aloof from his own race, on the alert for the strange scenes that encompassed him day by day.

One beautiful month of April — there is no one who can tell the exact year — found Malachi Boyer camped on the shores of Spring Creek. Near the Mammoth Spring was an Indian camp, whose occupants maintained a quasi-intercourse with the pale-faced stranger. Sometimes old Chief O-ko cho would bring gifts of corn to Malachi, who in turn presented the chieftain with a hunting knife of truest steel. And in this way Malachi came to spend more and more of his time about the Indian camps, only keeping his distance at night and during religious ceremonies.

Old O-ko-cho’s chief pride was centered in his seven stalwart sons, Hum-kin, Ho-ko-lin, Too-chin, Os-tin, Chaw-kee-bin, A-ha-kin, Ko-lo-pa-kin and his Diana-like daughter, Nita-nee. The seven brothers resolved themselves into a guard of honor for their sister, who had many suitors, among whom was the young chief E-Faw, from the adjoining sub-tribe of the A-caw-ko-tahs. But Nita-nee gently, though firmly, repulsed her numerous suitors, until such time as her father would’ give her in marriage to one worthy of her regal blood.

Thus ran the course of Indian life when Malachi Boyer made his bed of hemlock boughs by the gurgling waters of Spring Creek. And it was the first sight of her, washing a deer-skin in the stream, that led him to prolong his stay and ingratiate himself with her father’s tribe.

Few were the words that passed between Malachi and Nita-nee, many the glances, and often did the handsome pair meet in the mossy ravines near the camp grounds. But this was all clandestine love, for friendly as Indian and white might be in social intercourse, never could a marriage be tolerated, until — there always is a turning point in romance — the black-haired wanderer and the beautiful Nita-nee resolved to spend their lives together, and one moonless night started for the more habitable East.

All night long they threaded their silent way, climbing down mountain ridges, gliding through the velvet-soiled hemlock glades, and wading, hand in hand, the splashing, resolute torrents. When morning came they breakfasted on dried meat and huckleberries, and bathed their faces in a mineral spring. Until — there is always a turning point in romance — seven tall, stealthy forms, like animated mountain pines, stepped from the gloom and surrounded the eloping couple. Malachi drew a hunting knife, identical with the one he had given to Chief O-ko-cho, and, seizing Nita-nee around the waist, stabbed right and left at his would-be captors.

The first stroke pierced Hum-kin’s heart, and, uncomplainingly, he sank down dying. The six remaining brothers, although receiving stab wounds, caught Malachi in their combined grasp and disarmed him; then one brother held sobbing Nita-nee, while the others dragged fighting Malachi across the mountain.

That was the last the lovers saw of one another. Below the mountain lay a broad valley, from the center of which rose a circular hillock, and’ it was to this mound the savage brothers led their victim. As they approached, a yawning cavern met their eyes, filled with greenish limestone water. There is a ledge at the mouth of the cave, about six feet higher than the water, above which the arched roof rises thirty feet, and it was from here they shoved Malachi Boyer into the tide below.

He sank for a moment, but when he rose to the surface, commenced to swim. He approached the ledge, but the brothers beat him back, so he turned and made for some dry land in the rear of the cavern. Two of the brothers ran from the entrance over the ridge to watch, where there is another small opening, but though Malachi tried his best, in the impenetrable darkness, he could not find this or any other avenue of escape. He swam back to the cave’s mouth, but the merciless Indians were still on guard. He climbed up again and again, but was repulsed, and once more retired to the dry cave. Every day for a week he renewed his efforts to escape, but the brothers were never absent. Hunger became unbearable, his strength gave way, but he vowed he would not let the redskins see him die, so, forcing himself into one of the furthermost labyrinths, Malachi Boyer breathed his last.

Two days afterward the brothers entered the cave and discovered the body. They touched not the coins in his pockets, but weighted him with stones and dropped him into the deepest part of the greenish Limestone water. And after these years those who have heard this legend declare that on the still summer nights an unaccountable echo rings through the cave, which sounds like “Nita-nee,” “Nita-nee.”