In 1841, a young Wellsboro man named George Washington Sears and a young New Yorker named Herman Melville shipped out of New Bedford, Massachusetts for whaling grounds in the South Pacific. Both returned home to writing careers: Sears as the famed woodsman, outdoor writer, early conservationist and poet known as “Nessmuk” who has since vanished into obscurity, and Melville as the author of the obscure novel Moby-Dick, a critical and commercial failure rediscovered as a great American novel in the Twentieth Century.
It’s time to rediscover Nessmuk.
George Washington Sears was a bearded, “shiftless,” diminutive, five-foot-three, 109-pound character, a legend in the bars of Wellsboro and on the lakes of New York State, who was a famous American outdoor writer for Forest and Stream magazine, author of the classic book Woodcraft who invented and popularized solo canoeing and light-footed camping, a poet compared to Whitman in his lifetime and called “the hook-and-bullet Thoreau” today, and an early conservationist who was trained in the ways of the woods and waters as a child by “an athletic young brave” of the Massachusetts Narragansett tribe named “Nessmuk.”
Sears was born in 1821 in south-central Massachusetts, the son of a shoemaker. He attended local schools, sparingly, and trained as a cobbler, but it was the young Indian Nessmuk who spoke to his soul, teaching the boy, starting at age five, his secrets of hunting, fishing, woodcraft and camping. Nessmuk would “carry me around Nepmug and Junkamaug Lakes, day after day, until I imbibed much of his woodcraft, all his love for forest life, and, alas, much of his good-natured shiftlessness.”
The boy’s wild excursions often ended with an “interview” with his “Par” behind the barn, in which an “apple tree sprout was always a leading factor. Gradually, they came to understand that I was incorrigible, or, as a maiden aunt of the old school put it, ‘given over;’ and, so that I did not run away from school, I was allowed to ‘run with them dirty Injuns’...But I did run away from school, and books of the dry sort to study the great book of nature.”
In addition to trying his hand at whaling, young Sears worked in a cotton mill, he wrote, “taught school in Ohio, bullwhacked across the Plains, mined silver in Colorado, edited a newspaper in Missouri, was a cowboy in Texas, a ‘webfoot’ in Oregon, and camped and hunted in the wilderness of Michigan.”
By the time he reached Wellsboro in 1848, Sears opened a cobbler’s shop but spent most of his time in the wilderness, even after he was married in 1857 and had three children. He briefly joined the Pennsylvania Bucktails regiment in the Civil War, but was relieved of duty for the ill health that chased him much of his life, then worked as an editor for The Tioga County Agitator, a Wellsboro newspaper. The self-educated cobbler, a lover of Shakespeare and Byron, published poetry in Atlantic Monthly.
But it was in the 1880s that Sears gained national fame, writing a popular column for Forest and Stream magazine, the premier outdoor magazine of the day, under the Nessmuk pseudonym, and referring to himself in the third person as “The Old Woodsman.” The Old Woodsman was the pride of Wellsboro, where he frequented the saloons and the locals affectionately tagged him with the nickname, “Bacchus,” the name of the Roman god of wine.
In his column Nessmuk “taught readers the best way to light a fire, pitch a tent, catch a frog, cut hemlock branches for bedding, cook a johnnycake...and carry in only what was absolutely necessary,” according to ExplorePAhistory.com. “Go light,” he advised, “the lighter the better.” Heart-broken by the clear-cutting of the great trees along the Pine Creek ten miles from Wellsboro, he was one of the first to sound a warning of the industrial blighting of the wilderness, what he called the “poison” of factory runoff, and pioneered the idea of entering the wilderness for peace and leaving it undisturbed. “We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it,” he wrote in Woodcraft, the first how-to book on what we know today as camping. “We go to smooth it.”
Especially beloved were his first-person accounts of his adventures on three long canoe trips in 1880, 1881, and 1883 through the Adirondacks (the treks that would inspire his great-great-great grandson, see the cover story), each in successively lighter canoes than the seventy-five-pounders then the standard. Nessmuk persuaded Henry Rushton, a master canoe builder in Canton, New York, to build him light canoes, including the legendary Sairy Gamp, now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
Named after a drunken character in Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit who “took no water,” the Sairy Gamp weighed just ten pounds and was nine feet long. “She’s all my fancy painted her, she’s lovely, she is light,” Nessmuk wrote. “She waltzes on the waves by day and rests with me at night.”
His book Woodcraft, reputed to be a source for the original Boy Scout Handbook, was an immediate success, and in 1886, the magazine published a collection of his poetry, Forest Runes. Nessmuk was “an American of the Americans and woodsman among woodsmen,” wrote an admiring reviewer at The Nation. “His poetry is...more genuine than Walt Whitman—that of a man who lives in the open air and speaks his mind.”
In the winter of 1886, in failing health with malaria, tuberculosis, and asthma, Sears made a last major trip for Forest and Stream, along the east coast of Florida. He died in 1890, and was buried in Wellsboro. He is remembered in town by a Nessmuk plaque on the town green, and an exhibit of his artifacts across the street at the Tioga County Historical Society, as well as nearby Nessmuk Lake, and Mount Nessmuk. Woodcraft is still in print, and the Sairy Gamp is on permanent loan to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, New York.