Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Nittany Lion’s Namesake

Throughout Pennsylvania, one predator has captured the imagination of generations: the mountain lion. We are enamored by the thought of such an elusive and dangerous animal, whether serving as the mascot of a great university or being reported by the hundreds of hunters who claim to see one stalking the Pennsylvania woodlands each year. Today, mountain lions have been extirpated from most of the east coast and, while dangerous, only account for a miniscule percentage of animal attacks. Historically, these animals were seen as deadly nuisances, and in central Pennsylvania, faced localized extinction.

In its original habitat—that is, before European settlement and expansion—Puma concolor spread from the Canadian Yukon to the Straits of Magellan and populated every state in what today is the United States. Pennsylvania alone had a healthy population, with Indigenous people and early settlers regularly coming in contact with mountain lions. Similar to the more renowned plight of the American bison, the populations of mountain lions across the state would come under attack. With industrial expansion into the heart of Pennsylvania in the 1700s, mountain lion sightings and attacks became more common as habitat destruction pit settlers against native predators. 

Across Pennsylvania, mountain lion populations were generally handled in one way: extermination. Many local newspapers detailed these hunting exploits. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many municipalities explicitly targeted the hunting of mountain lions. Folklorist and historian Henry Shoemaker details the 1760 animal drive by famed hunter “Black Jack” Schwartz, known as the “Wild Hunter of the Juniata.” Encircling a thirty-mile area, a group of 200 men and boys drove animals of all kinds into a killing zone. According to Schwartz, their successful hunt resulted in the slaughter of 41 panthers, in addition to 109 wolves, 112 foxes, 114 “mountain cats,” 17 black bear, 2 elk, 198 deer, 111 buffalo, and upwards of 500 other small game. 

Locally, the Bellefonte Patriot in 1819 detailed a commonwealth-wide act to “encourage more effectually the destruction of Wolves and Panthers.” In the act, a hunter need only produce the head of a mountain lion before the justice of the peace, detail the location where it was killed, and sign an oath of affirmation to receive a reward. The reward in that time stood at $12 for a full-grown panther or $5 for a “puppy,” equivalent to a modern purchasing power of nearly $300 or $110 respectively. This reward proved extremely attractive to nearby homesteaders and new settlers looking for easy money, considering that the killing of mountain lions was something they were already doing around their farms and iron plantations. In that first year, the Bellefonte Patriot reported Centre County paying out $230 in wolf and panther scalps, 

In surrounding counties, stories abound of mountain lion encounters. In a brief history of Tyrone, written for the Altoona Tribune, Mrs. H.S. Fleck regaled readers with a time in early Tyrone when the cry of a panther could be heard from Stony Point and kept the children of that infant town “in terror.” She later notes that the last of these cats was killed by Abram Nevling and Jonathan Burley, likely sometime in the 1860s. In the Treaster Valley near Lewistown in the early 1870s, noted lumberman John Treaster reportedly killed an eleven-foot-long panther, with several others also harvested by local hunters around that same time. 

Today, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the last lions of Pennsylvania died out. Most experts generally agree that they were extirpated in Pennsylvania by the end of the nineteenth century, although claims abound of sightings afterward. Post-1900, noted sightings from locals typically come without definitive proof to corroborate their stories. Commonly reported are sizable paw prints, mountain lion calls, and prey assumed to be killed by an apex predator.

Most of these sightings have been debunked as cases of mistaken identity; however, other stories persist. Roy Yothers’ encounters in 1918 near the Old Allegheny Hunting Club on Swift Run in Centre County are especially notable. A year after finding large cat tracks in the snow, Yothers came across the panther behind Pine Glen Post Office and shot at it. He would claim to see the panther several more times while berry-picking along Swift Run, corroborating other local sightings at the time. 

Visitors can see the stuffed “Original Nittany Lion” in the Penn State All-Sports Museum. (Photo by Local Historia)

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Eastern cougar subspecies of mountain lion was officially declared extinct in 2011, having been extirpated from Pennsylvania long before that. What once was a healthy population within Pennsylvania could not coexist with the early industrialism of America’s iron boom. The stately Nittany Lion that once ruled Mount Nittany exists only as part of our history today, and remains a symbol of an animal that once roamed the woodlands of central Pennsylvania. T&G

Sources:

An Act. (1819, May 10). Bellefonte Patriot, p. 1. 

Jeff., H. (1917, October 4). Panthers and Wolves. Lewistown Sentinel

Mountain Lion. National Wildlife Federation. (n.d.). Retrieved January 1, 2023, from https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Mammals/Mountain-Lion 

Norman, C. (n.d.). Cougars are not in Pennsylvania. Penn State Extension. Retrieved January 1, 2023, from https://extension.psu.edu/cougars-are-not-in-pennsylvania#:~:text=This%20article%20addresses%20the%20history,that%20they%20are%20now%20extinct. 

Receipts and Expenditures of Centre County. (1820, March 25). Bellefonte Patriot, p. 4. Shoemaker, H. (1912, December 12). Romance of Felis Cougar. Altoona Tribune, p. 8.

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.