Nessmuk was a man of the wilderness

Tom LounsburyConservation & Wildlife Management, Hunting & Outdoor Lifestyle, Hunting Stories & Adventures

George Washington Sears was born in 1821 in Massachusetts and was the eldest of 10 children. While still a child, Sears had to work in a factory, and due to that experience, he enjoyed reading Charles Dickens novels, and grew to not care much for the urban experience. Somewhere along the line he was befriended by a Native American named Nessmuk who tutored him about the outdoors.

At age twelve, he went to work for commercial fishermen on Cape Cod, and in 1841 signed up for a three-year whaling voyage to the South Pacific.

When Sears returned from his whaling voyage, he moved with his family to Pennsylvania, where he lived the rest of his life. Being 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing only 103 pounds, Sears wasn’t a large man, and had developed “consumption” (a combination of tuberculosis and asthma). Due to this ailment, he would head for the wilderness at every opportunity knowing the atmosphere would assist in his healthy wellbeing. 

Sears would have plenty of adventures in the Adirondack wilderness, as well as in Ontario and even made a couple trips to the West Indies and Brazil. He became a very knowledgeable and diversified outdoorsman, and it is a blessing Sears began to write about his adventures and how to do matters.

In honor of his mentor, he wrote articles under the pen name “Nessmuk” for Forest and Stream magazine during the 1880’s, and in 1884 wrote his book “Woodcraft” that is still popular and remains in print today. I first discovered it in a library and soon had to have my own. Personable and entertaining to read, it offers keen advice and how-to information.

He was a stickler about his outdoor clothing and gear, and created some of his own, because what was commercially available didn’t suit his needs. An example is his specially designed double-bitted “pocket axe” that had a course edge for heavy duty work, and a fine edge for everything else. He also had a hunting knife custom made for his specs and he used a two-bladed pocketknife for typical cutting chores.

He believed in wearing mid-weight, “soft” woolen garments with shirts, pants, vest and jacket being in earth tone colors which would blend in with the forest. The hat had to be of soft felt and have a relatively low crown and broad brim to better deal with the elements.

He also used a wool Mackinaw “blanket-bag” which was a blanket folded over and the edges sewn together, and with the ends left open, which I believe was the forerunner of today’s sleeping bag. He also used a 6 x 8 feet waterproofed cotton sheet to use over the blanket-bag or as a shelter to stay dry. For extended stays in the wilderness, Nessmuk only carried an extra wool shirt, one set of “drawers” and one pair of socks. The extra clothes, blanket-bag and cotton sheet only weighed 8 pounds and weight was critical to Nessmuk when everything he needed for wilderness survival was carried on his back in a specially designed waterproof canvas knapsack. It was the forerunner of ultralight camping used today.

Nessmuk knew how to survive off the land and besides a variety of compact tackle for fishing, he counted on a .42 caliber “Billinghurst” muzzleloader for hunting, despite the fact metallic cartridge-using firearms were becoming readily available. In the wilderness, extra cartridges might not be all that available, and a muzzleloader suited Nessmuk’s utilitarian needs. 

A favorite chapter for me in “Woodcraft” is about when Nessmuk travelled to Michigan to visit a couple of longtime friends he’d been getting letters from and inviting him. Pete Williams, with his wife and two young sons, was hewing out a farm in the wilds near Saginaw and Joe Davis was operating a lumber sawmill near the other side of the state in the pine forest on the Muskegon River. 

His travel from Pennsylvania to Michigan began first by train and then by “propeller” boat and he disembarked on the “Lower Saginaw”. This was followed by a half day buckboard ride to reach the clearing of Pete Williams. Wildlife in the Saginaw wilderness was as plentiful as Pete Williams had written, but Nessmuk refrained from hunting and simply enjoyed a 10-day visit with the family.

Once again sensing his wanderlust besetting him, Nessmuk sought the advice of a local and well noted backwoodsman in the Saginaw area named Bill Hance. Hance had made round trips across the state and had helped and guided surveying parties. As a rule, most folks didn’t try to hike across the state because it was a formidable wilderness, but it was Nessmuk’s desire to do so to visit Joe Davis on the Muskegon River. According to Hance, it was about a 3-day hike if you kept up a good pace and followed an “Indian trail”. With a few days’ rations in his knapsack, Nessmuk bid the Williams family farewell and headed off into the dense forest.

The Indian trail Hance had directed him to quickly faded, then completely petered out, causing Nessmuk to do what he knew best, which was to follow his nose and his compass. He had a map, but in those days, maps were a bit vague, and this was certainly the case in the Michigan wilderness that Nessmuk described as being the wildest country he had ever ventured in. Nessmuk soon discovered due to detours around countless bogs and rough country, for every 15 miles he hiked, he only covered about 6 miles. Despite the first frosts of autumn already occurring, he was blessed with splendid weather for the entire trip which would take 10 days instead of 3.

Nessmuk encountered more deer than he had ever seen before, and at times he had more than he could count in view, and all acting unafraid of him. He also saw black bears every day, countless wild turkeys, grouse, quail and large flocks of passenger pigeons were everywhere. The woods also had a large bounty of nuts for all. Nessmuk carried 12 roundballs for his rifle and would fire only 3 shots on his journey to kill 3 “young” deer. He lamented at the waste because he would only cut off what he could carry, and eat before it spoiled. The rest of the carcass was set upon by wolves before he could get out of earshot.

Nessmuk eventually reached what he knew to be the Muskegon River, and due to the lumbering activity he discovered on its banks, he guessed the sawmill was most likely downstream. He constructed a raft and set out with the current. Before nightfall, he had a happy reunion with his friend Joe Davis. Upon reflection, he was quite satisfied with his hike across Michigan, but admits he wouldn’t want to try it again. Yep, folks, that is sure saying something when considering his skill!

Nessmuk would pass away at his home in Pennsylvania in 1890 (a mountain near there is named after him). His words of woodcraft wisdom he wrote down to share with all, remain quite viable today. Nessmuk was truly a man of the wilderness.

Tom Lounsbury