Native Americans – Delaware, Shawnee, Mingo, Iroquois – flourished in the early history of Centre County, planting the valleys in corn and squash, and hunting in the ridges. Their paths through the valleys and the water gaps were linked to paths extending to the Susquehanna and the Allegheny River systems. County place names suggest this early history. Some examples: the legend of Princess Nita-nee has provided the names for Nittany Valley and Nittany Mountain; Chief Bald Eagle’s principal camp was near Milesburg, resulting in the naming of Bald Eagle Creek, Bald Eagle Mountain, and Bald Eagle Valley; and Chief Logan is referenced by Logan Branch of Spring Creek and Logan Gap.
Original Land Warrants
The documented history of Centre County began with the original land warrants, legal documents conveying William Penn’s domain to private owners. Penn had repurchased from resident tribes, land given him by the King of England. Penn allowed a white settler to choose an open piece of land, obtain a warrant for it, have it surveyed and patented as previously unowned, and then record it in the land office for a few shillings an acre. This process, which reflected Penn’s faith in fairness and initiative, resulted in a jigsaw pattern of warrant boundaries. Many are still evident in fence lines, property lines, and roads, and represent the first layer of the modern cultural landscape of Centre County.
Centre County was part of the frontier that divided settled and unsettled land at the time of the American Revolution. Many local warrants date to this time. By limiting claims to 400 acres for any one person, the warrant process was intended to favor poor settlers. However, Penn and his descendants took prime land as “Manors,” consisting of 1/10th of any new land opened to warranting. Merchants, speculators, and military officers claimed multiple warrants under their own names and those of relatives and friends. Most settlers, predominantly Scotch-Irish and German, bought land already warranted or took out later, “junior,” warrants on tracts where they had squatted.
The First Settlers
Using rivers, creeks, and the paths that had been established by Native Americans, the earliest settlers moved east and west into the valleys. James Potter, the first to record his exploration of the area, followed the West Branch of the Susquehanna upriver from Sunbury to Bald Eagle Creek in 1764. At its junction with Spring Creek, Potter headed south into unfamiliar land. Reaching the approximate place where Bellefonte now stands, he continued along an Indian trail to the edge of Nittany Mountain and crossed through the mountain, perhaps at Black Hawk Gap west of Centre Hall. As he overlooked Penns Valley for the first time he is reported to have exclaimed to his traveling companion, “My Heavens, Thompson, I have discovered an empire.” Through an accumulation of warrants he acquired that empire, and built a fortified log home near Old Fort in 1774.
The first white settler emigrant to this area was Andrew Boggs, who settled in 1769 in present day Milesburg, near the junction of Spring and Bald Eagle Creeks. In 1775, Reverend Philip Vickers Fithian, a young Presbyterian minister from Princeton who was touring frontier settlements, wrote a vivid account of frontier life at the Boggs and Potter homes.