Located about 85 miles northeast of Pittsburgh
and 10 miles south of Route I-80
in Jefferson County
, Punxsutawney boasts a population of approximately 6700 (as of 1995; population peaked around 12,000 in the early 20th century.)
The name derives from the native word "ponksad" (sandfly), constructed to "ponksad-uteney" ("town of the sandflies"). According to native legend, a powerful shaman plagued the early Native Americans living there, and when he was captured and his body burned, the smoke turned to sandflies which continued to harass them. These natives were of the Lenni Lenape nation, and believed they were descended from the totem-ancestor Wojak (source of our word "woodchuck" - another name for the groundhog).
By the early 1700's, the Delaware Indian natives from points east were settling the area, under population pressure from European settlers and Iroquois rivals. Prior to then, it had been little more than a waypoint camp on the Shamokin trail, midway between the Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers. Historical documents illustrate how readily white settlers adopted native lingo: while travelling through the area in 1772, Reverend John Ettwein noted in his journal, "In the evening all joined me, but we could hold no services as the ponkies were excessively annoying... in the swamp through which we are now passing their name is legion. Hence the Indians called it Ponksutenick, the town of the Ponkies." Within 100 years, the Indians had migrated away again. The history of Punxsutawney from the early 1800's on is typical of the region's railroad, coal, and logging industries.
The Grandfather Woodchuck legend would undoubtedly have faded into obscurity, had not the German settlers imported their Candlemas (pagan Imbolc) tradition of predicting the passing of wintry weather by the atmospheric conditions of the holiday. Groundhogs being a favorite small game, a local hunting club adopted the beast as their Candlemas bellwether. Punxsutawney's fame was magnified tremendously by the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day. Tourism now brings in excess of 30,000 visitors to town for the festivities on Gobbler's Knob.
"Groundhog Day History"