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George Washington Sears
George Washington Sears, under the pen name of "Nessmuk," wrote many letters to Forest and Stream magazine in the 1880s. These popularized canoeing, the Adirondack lakes, self-guided canoe camping tours, the open, ultralight single canoe, and what we today call environmentalism. It was a happy union of technology and art, nature and life.
Before Sears, canoeing was mostly after the model of "Rob Roy" McGregor, in decked canoes, sometimes sailed, or in heavy guide canoes. In later years, the familiar canoe of today developed from the birch-bark model, but covered in canvas. After 1945, the aluminum canoe sold in the millions. In an alternate path, the old decked canoe reappeared in the form of the modern kayak, usually plastic now.
Sears also wrote a general book on camping, Woodcraft, 1884, which has generally remained in print since then. A book of poems, Forest Runes, appeared in 1887. It has not been republished, and copies are scarce.
The following biographical information is extracted from Brenan's book, pp 1-31.
Sears was born in Oxford Plains, Mass., Dec. 2, 1821, the oldest of 10 children. A young Narragansett Indian named Nessmuk ("wood drake") befriended him and taught him hunting, fishing, and camping. Later he took that as his pen name, and also as the name of a couple of his canoes.
In his youth he was a commercial fisherman and sailor, but fell ill, probably from tuberculosis. He wrote that he 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 then wilderness of Michigan. His family moved in 1848 to Wellsboro, Penn., his home for the rest of his life.
Sears became a shoemaker, though he enjoyed the woods much more. He married in 1857 and had three children. He served in the Civil War in 1861. In 1866 he traveled to Wisconsin, and then up the Amazon River in Brazil, following the route of Louis Agassiz the year before. He failed to interest investors in a scheme to improve the latex rubber industry.
At the age of 59, a little more than 5 feet tall, weighing less than 105 pounds, and weak with acute pulmonary tuberculosis, Sears decided to see if the Adirondack lakes and forests could improve his health. William Henry Harrison ("Adirondack") Murray, pastor of Park Street Church, Boston, had published a book in 1869, Adventures in the Wilderness, which praised the North Woods as a health resort for consumption sufferers. (Later, Saranac was to become the site of one of the most famous American sanitoria for tuberculosis care.)
Another factor motivating Sears, according to Brenan, was the writings of Verplanck Colvin, a New York surveyor who explored and enthusiastically reported on the Adirondack wilderness.
Since Sears was so small and weak, he could not carry the usual heavy guide canoe over the carries between the lakes of the Fulton Chain. His experiences hiring a guide showed that was most suitable for rich people. Thus he investigated ultralight canoes. He persuaded J. Henry Rushton of Canton, N.Y. (a small town northwest of the Adirondacks, near the St. Lawrence River) to build him a single canoe he could carry. It was delivered by railroad car and horse cart to the lake.
Although Nessmuk seems to have spent few nights actually under canvas, and more time around the "camps" (resort hotels) than the fishing holes, and when available he used steam boat decks rather than paddle, he did through his writings greatly popularize and demonstrate that it was possible to paddle your own canoe through the wilderness without destroying the environment or a working man's savings.
Forest and Stream magazine had been founded in New York City by Charles Hallock in 1873. It and Nessmuk had a mutual admiration society and both gained wide readership. The magazine was folded into Field and Stream in 1930.
Sears took two trips to Florida, in 1884 and 1887, for the sake of his failing health. His host was Captain S. D. Kendall, who wrote letters to Forest and Stream under the name of "Tarpon" (he lived in Tarpon Springs).
Sears died in Wellsboro, Penn., May 1, 1890. He received many honors, including having a mountain in northern Pennsylvania named after him.
- Photograph. By E. R. Shumway, courtesy of the late Mrs. Marie Sears Bodine. Plate 1 of Dan Brenan's book. [34KB]
- Table of data of the five canoes Rushton built for Nessmuk, from Brenan.
- Home page for Nathaniel H. Bishop, another canoeist