As the Delaware were steadily forced out of eastern Pennsylvania, they settled on the east bank of the Allegheny River, calling their village Kittanning, meaning “at the great stream.” In the 1750s, the French and their Native American allies used the village as a staging area for raids and a holding camp for English prisoners along what was then the northern frontier of European settlement. Under General John Forbes's orders, Colonel John Armstrong set out with three hundred militiamen from Fort Shirley in Huntingdon County to capture the settlement. Outnumbering the Native Americans and French by at least three to one and armed with the element of surprise, Armstrong launched a successful and bloody attack, and burned the entire village, consisting of about thirty cabins, to the ground. The battle restricted Native American movements south of the Kittanning Trail. The village remained the farthest outpost of European settlement for many years.
Judge George Ross (1778–1849) laid out the borough in 1803 as the county seat for Armstrong County. He used Philadelphia's town plan as a model, duplicating such street names as Water, McKean, Arch, and Jacob. As a trading post and stop on the Kittanning Trail, the town grew steadily during the early nineteenth century. In 1856, the first bridge across the Allegheny River at Kittanning was built at the end of Market Street on the same site as the present bridge of 1932. The river provided cheap transportation for goods, and a level bank to accommodate the Allegheny Valley Railroad after 1856. Later, coal-hauling railroads, including the Buffalo and Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh and Shawmut, served the county. Between 1928 and 1930, the Dravo Corporation built Lock and Dam No. 7 north of town, making seventy-two miles of the river navigable and lifting barges and towboats thirteen feet to the next river level.
A visitor to Kittanning today gravitates toward Market Street, which continues the path of the old Kittanning Trail as it slopes down from the courthouse to the river and the Citizen's Bridge. It is lined with late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century storefronts, such as the restored three-story, corbeled red brick Rosebud Mining Company Building (former Poundstone Building, c. 1900) at 301 Market Street and the tiny limestone-fronted Kittanning National Bank (c. 1890; 224 Market Street), with lions guarding its pediment. Next door, at 222 Market Street, the stylish former Arcade Department Store, now Merchants National Bank (1886), has a pressed-copper cornice and spandrels. River View Park, designed by Urban Design Associates in 1998, has opened the riverfront to recreational uses.
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