This Local Historia column appears in the April 2021 issue of Town&Gown.
“My God, Thompson, I have discovered an empire!”
From his perch at the peak of McBride’s Gap on Mount Nittany, Captain James Potter marveled at the pristine valley that stretched before his company. The company had been traveling for days searching for suitable locations for a British fort. As their leader, Potter seemed never to be satisfied … until now.
Our story of Captain Potter’s famed expedition begins years earlier in 1756. The British Colony of Pennsylvania was center stage in a massive conflict, the French and Indian War. Having been sparked by events near Pittsburgh, the war brought much conflict to Pennsylvania. The Appalachian Mountains, the frontier of our vast country in the mid-1700s, were embroiled in a complex web of alliances between Native American tribes and European nations, leading to horrific tales of violence in the backcountry.
In this theater, young British provincial officer James Potter saw his first action. Potter saw many engagements across the forests of Pennsylvania, and during his travels began cultivating ideas of a postwar settlement in the Pennsylvania wilderness. In Kittanning, a major Native American city and crossroads, Potter became firm in his conviction.
In 1758, the Treaty of Easton opened the door for Captain Potter to fulfill his vision. The treaty was a major step toward quelling violence between British settlers expanding westward and the Natives who lived on the land. In the agreement, a demarcation line would separate the Native American and British lands at the Allegheny Mountains, for the purpose of bringing peace to the Pennsylvania backcountry.
The British, looking to ensure their new treaty would be upheld, began planning the construction of a series of forts in western Pennsylvania. This was the opportunity the young, newly minted captain, James Potter, was hoping for. In 1759, Potter was ordered to assemble a group of companions to explore the land along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
Under the navigation of their Native American guide, the company began their expedition. When they set off from Fort Augusta in present-day Sunbury, Potter and his second-in-command, William Thompson, made the decision to travel light to take advantage of Pennsylvania’s shallow streams that carve through the dense wilderness. They journeyed along the Susquehanna for miles, where they would stop and make camp, always wary of their surroundings.
Despite peace brought by the 1758 treaty, there was some debate among the men as to where the border actually was. There were rumors of Native Americans attacking settlers just north of the Susquehanna, and claims of British violence against tribal villages near Pittsburgh. This tenuous agreement did not fill the men with confidence, and they made every precaution for potential conflict.
Upon reaching Lock Haven, or “Great Island” as it had been called by their Native American guide, the company broke away from the Susquehanna. Into the wilds they paddled, their light canoes navigating the shallow, tight waterways with ease. From there, they relied solely on their guide, as maps did not detail the region. Their journey took them down Bald Eagle Creek to present-day Milesburg, to Spring Creek, then to the mouth of Buffalo Run, the current site of Tussey Mountain Outfitters in Bellefonte. Although these locations seemed suitable to complete their mission, Potter urged the men to press on.
At Buffalo Run, the company left the canoes at their makeshift camp and conducted the next part of their journey on foot. Potter’s guide knew of an old Native American path that led to a place where the company could get a vantage of their surroundings: McBride’s Gap on Mount Nittany.
The same trails Penn Staters ascend for a beautiful landscape of campus, Potter and his men climbed for discovery. Captain Potter’s declaration of triumph to his partner Thompson are the words of a man achieving his dreams. This valley he now looked upon, Penn’s Valley, was perfect: vast and with soil so fertile it would someday be chosen as the location for many settlers, and perhaps most impactfully, the Pennsylvania Farm School.
Just below McBride’s Gap, Potter would detail the first location for a fort in the region around a spring. Built in 1777 and located in Centre Hall, Old Fort was the first major step in making Potter’s empire a reality. Captain Potter would be immortalized years later through the naming of Potter Township, Centre County’s oldest township. Today, it serves as a prominent reminder of the history and adventure of James Potter and his companions.
Local Historia is a passion for local history, community, and preservation. Its mission is to connect you with local history through engaging content and walking tours. Local Historia is owned by public historians Matt Maris and Dustin Elder, who co-author this column. For more, visit localhistoria.com.
Sources: Commemorative Biographical Record of Central Pennsylvania: Including the Counties of Centre, Clearfield, Jefferson and Clarion: Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens, Etc. J.H. Beers, 1898; Linn, John Blair. History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania. Don Mills, 1883; Mitchell, J. Thomas. Index to History of Centre and Clinton Counties. Centre County Library and Historical Museum, 1962.