The Origin of the Pennsylvania Groundhog

“The Legends of the Nittany Valley,” published by Nittany Valley Press, presents a selection of folk stories first published by Henry Shoemaker in the Altoona Tribune more than a century ago.

Candlemas, an American Indian legend first published by Henry Shoemaker in Juniata Memories: Legends Collected in Central Pennsylvania, appeared in print in 1916 and is the origin story for what we today call Groundhog Day. It does not appear in “The Legends of the Nittany Valley,” but is good reading for Pennsylvanians.


A Legend from the Shade Gap

Ner Middleswarth, that splendid Connecticut Yankee who by long residence in Snyder County became the “Dutchest” of Pennsylvania Dutchmen, was very fond, in his latter years, of recounting old stories which he heard when he first penetrated into the wild country tributary to the Juniata, stories of Indians, borderers, outlaws, witches, and also quaint folklore and traditions. He often told his family he had made notes of some of his more remarkable experiences; that when he had the time he would write a book of reminiscences.

But the chance never came, his busy life extended to the end, and when he passed away, several years past his eightieth birthday, his story went to the grave unrecorded, except in the form of the above-mentioned fireside entertainments.

To listen to him was like sitting before a Pennsylvania edition of the Arabian Nights! The one-time speaker of the House of Representatives at Harrisburg was not so well acquainted with Job Chillaway as with another famous Indian of the Juniata Valley, Captain Logan. This is the Logan for whom the Logan Valley below Altoona was named, on account of his having lived for some time near Martin Bell’s old furnace.

Captain Logan was the oldest son of old Shikellemus, Colonel Conrad Weiser’s friend, and the vicegerent of the Iroquois Confederacy at Shamokin, now Sunbury. On his father’s death in 1 748 he was proposed for the vicegerency by Weiser, but was disqualified by the Council of Chiefs at Onondaga, because he had only one eye, a supreme defect to the Mingoes, who all but worshiped physical perfection. Without his official designation he strove to exert an influence over his race, but by 1 750 he withdrew to the Juniata Valley to spend the remainder of his life away from the intrigues and duplicity that had its center at Shamokin. During the Revolutionary War he rendered invaluable service to the Colonies, especially in dealing with the notorious Tory, Weston. A younger brother, James Logan, who was killed in 1780, was known as the greatest of Indian orators, and lived for several years at Logan’s Spring, near Reedsville. Captain Logan often revisited the scenes of his youth at Shamokin, and usually traveled on foot through Middle Creek Valley, as the best way to reach the forks of the Susquehanna. He always made it a point to break the journey by spending a night at the Middleswarth homestead near Beaver Springs. He was particularly interested in the Middleswarths, as the older generations in Connecticut had befriended some of the Pequots after their last great defeats, when they sought refuge in the northern forests in the Nutmeg State.

Some of these Indians later were converted by the Moravian missionaries, Buttner, Rauch and Mack. Captain Logan felt that the Middleswarths on their record could be trusted as true friends of the redmen, consequently he could break bread with them without fear or mental reservation.

He was therefore particularly happy when under their hospitable roof, and often recounted to the head of the family quaint incidents of the long vanished past. On one occasion the subject of “ground hog day,” the second of February, was alluded to, and the old Indian laughed, remarking that it was an Indian tradition, and that he would like to tell the complete story of how the ground hog came to be the patron saint of Candlemas. As is well known, this is distinctively an American superstition, but its limits do not even extend to all sections of this country. In Northern New York the bear is the animal which sees its shadow, almost similar to the old superstition of France and Spain. In Germany it is the badger which sees its shadow on the fated day in February. The old French tradition runs as follows: “Le jour de la Chandeleur si le soleil parait avant midi. Tours rentre dans la taniere pendent quarante jours.” Another version has it, “A la Purification, grand froid, neige abondante ou sinon Tours sort de sa taniere, fait quelque tours etrentre pour quarante jours.”

When Ner Middleswarth’s family came to Pennsylvania they brought the bear story with them, and were not a little surprised to find that in their new house bruin had given way to the ground hog, or as they had called it in Litchfield County, the vvoodchuck. They asked their Dutch neighbors, who seemed to know nothing of how the woodchuck had taken the place of the bear and the badger. Some of the older Germans remarked that they were surprised to find the woodchuck the arbiter of the seasons, but they had adopted the local tradition along with the other pleasures or hardships of the frontier. One must go to the Indians to find the origin of the famous ground-hog story. But most of the Indians who passed up and down the valleys spoke very little English, and were inclined to be uncommunicative on any subject that might bring edification to their white successors. They were accused of knowing of mines of rare metals, and keeping the information from the whites. As a rule they were surly and taciturn, ever ready to ask favors, but wanted to give as little as possible in return. They could not grasp the philosophy of the white man’s central idea, that he was giving his civilization to a wild country, even if an entire race of human beings had to be blotted out in the process. All they saw was a lot of white-faced creatures, for the most part illiterate, wasteful and cruel, living in crude log cabins on the lands that had formerly belonged to the Indian race, and were theirs still by right. They had been cheated or driven by force off these lands, where they had grown crops as good as the white man’s, or where they had hunted and fished according to methods that would shame a latter-day “conservationist.” They were a wronged race, driven from post to pillar, all for a thing called “civilization,” which at bottom possessed no heart, no soul, no decency, no kindliness.

The only white men whom they could tolerate were the gentle Roman Catholic or Moravian missionaries, whom they regarded as dupes of the mercenary captains of “civilization.” But the few remaining Indians, roving aimlessly through the hills and valleys which they once controlled, were often short of food. They had to make friends with the settlers to get a bite to eat, or a night’s shelter, or a little work. They were a lot of unhappy ghosts of an order of things which may have been as near perfect as any scheme of life we have today.

The Pennsylvania Indians were not savages, but industrious, decent beings, fearing their God, and just to their fellows, until stripped of their homes, their livelihood, and frequently their women and children, they became crazed by their wrongs, and on the warpath, and by the midnight sortie, sought to annihilate their cowardly white conquerors. Their story is a sad one, yet the justice of it is beginning to dawn on all fair-minded and temperate Americans.

But it is too late. Gone are the noble redmen. They will never know that their cause has at least been recognized as right by some. Of all Indians Captain Logan cherished less rancor and bitterness, considering the extent of his bad treatment by the whites. Blinded in one eye by a white man, thereby forfeiting the vice-regency, then stripped of his lands, his brother’s family murdered by whites, even his humble cabins at Tyrone, and also at Chickalacamoose taken from him through faulty titles, he became in his old days a wanderer on the face of the earth. It was no wonder, therefore, that his heart warmed and his spirit expanded in such hospitable homes as that of the Middleswarth family close to the “Juniata Divide.” The old Indian declared that he could only think and talk of the past by the firelight, and at night. Candles were accounted a luxury in those days, so his wish was readily granted. Then, he said, he felt he was again by the patriarchal campfire on Shikellemus’s Run on the Miller farm near West Milton, where his old father, the great vicegerent of the Iroquois, would gather his children about him and tell the stories of the dim and distant past.

It was in the days when the world was new, thus the redmen always began their tales, when the Indian race was in close communion with the Great Spirit, and the secrets of the Infinite Workship were revealed to his chosen people, that the bear gave displeasure to the exact balance of things by his ravenous appetite. So great was his destruction of the lesser creatures, as he was then on a strictly carniverous diet, that it looked as if his race would devour all else except mankind. As like all creatures he was created for a wise purpose, it would have been wrong to exterminate him, consequently he must be checked in his folly. He must be taught discretion, taught to take his proper place in the scheme of nature.

The Great Spirit was then experimenting with the various forms and means of life, so he tried putting the bears on a herbaceous diet, and in a short while their fierce claws lost their power to kill. That lessened their destructiveness, but they soon began to work havoc with fruits and gardens, to become foes of plant life. Then this herbaceous diet was modified so that they subsisted chiefly on plants, berries, and fruits, and to make up for the lack of their principal diet in winter, a long sleep or hibernation was decreed for them. This worked very well, for the bears were glutted with nuts, fruits, com, and berries by the time the autumn set in, and were ready to climb into some dark retreat to “sleep it off.”

So the bears, as the season advanced, congregated into sections of the country where caverns and sinks abounded, where they staggered about half asleep, quarreling for the possession of the darkest recesses. Their long sleep was said to be a dreamless one, they were literally dead until the early days of February. In Europe it was generally about the twelfth of February when they emerged from their retreats, while in Pennsylvania it was about ten days earlier. Then they became restless and sallied forth to wander about the winter landscape.

Being too clumsy-footed in the deep snows to capture any game, and unable to dig out any food from under the drifts, many of the poor creatures perished from hunger and exposure. Benumbed by cold, they could hardly reach their caves in safety, or when they got to them, they were so hungry that they cpuld npt fall to sleep, so the Great Spirit again had to go to the rescue of the bears. This time it was decreed that if the bear which emerged first from his cave, on a day, which later curiously enough corresponded with the Candlemas Day of Christian countries, and saw his shadow, he should return to his hiding place immediately and not wake his fellows, and all would sleep for forty more days. This was because in high mountains, where the bears made their homes, a clear day in early February usually signified continued cold and snows, an indefinite prolongation of winter. If on the other hand, it was foggy or cloudy, it presaged thaws and milder weather, an early spring. Early February was a climatic period, and its prognostications rarely went amiss. It is the month of those beautiful fleecy white clouds called “Indian clouds.” So the bear population were saved much trouble and suffering, and became animals of kindly and gentle nature in appreciation of the favor thus bestowed upon them.

It was considered a high honor to be the King bear, or Head bear, the one which felt the first impulse to awake, to crawl outside to inspect the weather prospects. In the autumn in chestnut season, in that most glorious period of Indian summer, when a pale mauve haze hangs over the mountain landscapes, and the air is sweet with the odor of drying leaves and wild fruit, when it is hard to tell where mountains end and sky begins, the bears met in the Shade Gap, and gradually it came to pass that they elected their leader, or the “Awakening Bear.” Usually the elections were of a harmonious character, more so, said Captain Logan, than some elections in the eastern counties when Dutch and Scotch-Irish battled for supremacy at the polls.

Generally the biggest and strongest bear was chosen for the honor, like in Captain Logan’s day, rich men and landowners monopolized the highest positions in the gift of the State. The bear that won by the count of noses was escorted to where the nuts and pumpkins were the thickest, and left to gorge himself unmolested. He must needs eat an extra store, as if he awoke and found winter still raging, he should have a comfortable feeling in his stomach, else he could not get to sleep again. Perhaps it might have been better to lay up a stock of provisions, but the bears preferred spring food in springtime, and nine times out of ten they found the extended period of winter, when it was easier to go to sleep again than to sit in a damp cave and live on mouldy nuts.

If the bear chosen as leader was such a big bear that his sway was not easily disputed, he was re-elected for years in succession until some younger bear outstripped him in size and influence. In those distant days there were bears of various colors in Pennsylvania, some shiny black, some foxy red, some brown, some yellow, and a few white. For some reason or other the black bears usually chose the leader from one of their number. It may have been an earlier phase of Ernest Kenan’s saying, “The black heads are always the rulers.” But among leaders of mankind, Caesar, Napoleon, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson and Grant were not black-haired men, but on the “red headed” order.

At the time of the appearance of the first permanent white settlers in Pennsylvania these bears of various colors were still to be found. The black bears were vastly in the majority (there were two varieties of these, “hog” and “dog” bears). Next in numbers came the red bears (the last one was killed in Union County in 1912), then the brown bears (one was captured alive in Cameron County in 1914), then the yellow bears (one was killed in Susquehanna County about a century ago) , and lastly the white bears, which were always the rarest, the last one known having been taken in an animal drive in the present confines of Snyder County by “Black Jack” Schwartz in 1760. All came from the same original stock (Ursus Americanus), but formed distinct and separate families. At one period in the early history of the bear tribe in Pennsylvania, a black bear weighing a thousand pounds was elected leader for twenty-one years in succession. He was a surly old bear, a conceited old bear, but being of such tremendous bulk and of the popular color, he always triumphed in the animal contests. He wore his honors niggardly, begrudging the fact that he had to get awake and crawl out in the cold, yet he would not relinquish the privilege to any younger bear, would not think of such a thing.

Plots were raised by pugnacious young red or yellow bears to oust this swarthy despot, but they always faded away on election morn, when the big black bear eyed the electors during the count of noses. “Unanimous for the Big Black Bear,” was invariably the result. As years wore on “the big fellow” became so lazy that when he became awake he would do little more than poke his nose out of the cave. He hated to think of finding “winter over;” it meant long journeying to all the other bear caves in Shade Gap, to inform the various bear families that it was time to “be up and doing.” If there was any chance of his making a mistake in favor of a prolonged winter, he was calculated to do it.

This displeased many energetic young bears, who hated to have so much time taken out of their lives by the period of hibernation. But no bear was strong enough to oust the Big Black Bear, so he continued his undisputed sway. He was an exclusive, almost regal, old bear, occupying a cave high up on the mountain side all by himself. He had a black mate, and many generations of black offspring, but these he only mingled with during the outdoor life in spring, summer and autumn.

One winter morning when he felt the signs of awakening consciousness, which betokened that his onerous task was before him, he stretched and flopped himself about the damp stone floor of his cave, loath to get up and venture out into the February air. As he rolled about his cavern he felt something soft and furry. He caught it with one of his huge paws and drew it to him. It was a small and badly frightened ground-hog. The little creature squeaked and squirmed, begging that its life be spared. The big bear growled threateningly, and shook his huge head and gnashed his teeth, so that he looked as if he was going to annihilate the entire race of ground-hogs for this one’s presuming to enter his inner sanctum. But instead of devouring the little animal he put a proposition to him that he would spare his life if he would go outdoors and see if the winter was over.

The ground hog, very grateful, hopped outside. It was dark and foggy, the mountains across the valley could not be seen, water was running off the outer ledges of the cave. He hurried in and gave the news to the giant bear. The bear grunted. He was sorry that winter was over, and told the ground hog that his work was by no means finished. He must visit all the bear caves and pits in Shade Gap on both mountains, and inform the occupants that the winter was at an end. The ground hog, though he was frightened at the prospect of facing so many strange bears, obeyed, and crawling in the caverns, bit at the bears’ ears until they awakened, whispering to them their chief’s message.

When the bears had all assembled in the ravine at the Gap, they held a council of war. They were angered at the laziness of their leader, whom they had honored so many times. Yet, after long deliberation, they could not select another bear to take his place, so many wanted the honor. So one sagacious yellow bear, next in size to the unpopular black monster, suggested that they depose the big fellow at once and name the ground hog as their “weather prophet” for life. This was decided on by a growling, grunting majority, many of the black bears in the heat of passion voting with their lighter colored fellows.

The ground hog was found and informed of his new position, which he accepted with a neat little speech.

In the midst of the proceedings the big black bear appeared on the scene, pausing every now and then to scratch his sleep-seared eyes with his soft claws. Quick as a flash the other bears turned on him, and before he could utter a plea for mercy, he was so badly torn and clawed that he soon died. And ever since that time the ground hog has been faithful to his trust, and gives the signal of the continuance or the end of King Frost’s reign to all the bears, and to the members of his own little race.

Learn more about Henry W. Shoemaker, author of Juniata Memories: Legends Collected in Central Pennsylvania. Professor Simon J. Bronner of Penn State Harrisburg authored the definitive biography of Henry Shoemaker, Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Uses of Folklore and History.

Get Mount Nittany News in Your Inbox

We respect your inbox.