Groundhog Day and the Legend of Ponks Uteney

Before Americans began relying on a local groundhog to predict the weather, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania had a legend attached to it.

In 1772, Native Americans converted to Christianity under the tutelage of missionaries from the Church of the United Brethren (known as Moravians for their European roots) began migrating from the Susquehanna River and Wyoming Valleys in Pennsylvania to the Muskingum River Valley in modern Ohio.  The exodus, which lasted much of the year, passed through many places, including a small, abandoned Indian village on Mahoning Creek northeast of Pittsburgh known as “Ponks Uteney,” which the missionaries understood to mean “habitation of the sand fly.”  One missionary recalled, “not a moment’s rest was to be expected at this place, otherwise than by kindling fires throughout the camp, and sitting in the smoke.”[1]  The refugees from the east hurried through the area, despite a wealth of game.

Sand flies, or gnats, were legion on the frontier, but Ponks Uteney’s insect inhabitants had become legendary by 1772, which of course required an explanation.  The missionaries were told that in the 1740s an old Indian hermit and shaman lived there on a rock.  Being a magician, from time to time he would magically appear to travelers and hunters passing by and scare or murder them.  Fed up with the harassment and danger, a local Indian chief surprised the shaman and killed him.  From there, oral history turns to mythmaking.  Some storytellers had it that the chief then burned the shaman’s body to ash, which he threw into the air to dispel the shaman’s magical powers.  Caught by the breeze, the ashes turned into “Ponksak” (sand flies) so they could continue the shaman’s habit of pestering anyone passing through.

The migrants survived the Ponksak and eventually arrived at their new homes on the eastern branch of the Muskingum River, known today as the Tuscarawas.  While their new communities flourished, the American Revolution plunged the frontier into war, which many of the people who had braved the plague of sand flies would not survive.

[1]                John Heckewelder, A Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians, (Philadelphia: McCarty & Davis, 1820), 121.

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