Historical Markers
Nessmuk Historical Marker
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Marker Location:
Courthouse Square, Pa. 660, Wellsboro

Dedication Date:
October 10, 1972

Behind the Marker

Head and shoulders, black and white portrait
George Washington Sears, circa 1877.
For modern hikers, campers, and lovers of the outdoors, the idea of entering the wilderness for its peace and then leaving it no worse for having been there is accepted practice. In the 1800s, however, this was most uncommon, as was Nessmuk, the innovative outdoorsman who gave the concept its simple eloquence. "We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it," he counseled in his groundbreaking Woodcraft, the first how-to book ever written on the subject. "We go to smooth it."
And Nessmuk went to smooth it as often as he could. If his short stature, slight frame, and chronic bad health represented the antithesis of the image of the robust outdoorsman, the woods and fields and rivers and streams called out to him constantly, nonetheless. "To myself," he admitted "I sometimes appear as a wild Indian or an old Berserker, masquerading under the guise of a nineteenth-century American. When the strait jacket of civilization becomes too oppressive, I throw it off, betake myself to savagery, and there loaf and refresh my soul."
Through his writings, Nessmuk preached a gospel of the wonders of the wild, but he was no throwback romantic. Indeed, he was among the first to warn of its potential destruction by man’s hands and the
wheels of progress. 
He was born George Washington Sears, in 1821, in southcentral Massachusetts. His father, a shoemaker, sent him off at the age of eight to work in a cotton mill, then trained him as a cobbler, but the boy’s most meaningful apprenticeship came under the tutelage of a local Narragansett Indian named Nessmuk, who opened his eyes to the natural world by teaching him the skills he would need to survive within it. Years later, when Sears began to write about that world, he took his mentor’s name, which meant "wood drake," as his byline, as well as "all his love for forest life."
Image of Pinchot road before paving_1909: Main street in Wellsboro, Tioga County
Wellsboro, PA, 1909.
By 1848, when Sears settled in northern Pennsylvania (in Wellsboro, to be near family, on the edge of what is now the Tioga State Forest), he had worked all over the country in all kinds of jobs. He had been a commercial fisherman on Cape Cod, gone to sea on a whaling ship out of New Bedford, and, 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."
Largely self-educated, Sears was a passionate reader, happy to recite long passages from Shakespeare and Byron. In Wellsboro, where he would live for the rest of his life, he opened a cobbler shop and retreated to the nearby woods and streams—carrying his Shakespeare and his Byron in his head along with him—as often and for as long as possible, even after his marriage in 1857 and the birth of his three children. 
In 1860, Sears, writing as Nessmuk, began selling his observations about nature and the outdoor life to Porter’s Spirit of the Times, a sporting newspaper published in New York. During the Civil War, he briefly joined marker"The Bucktails"  Pennsylvania regiment of backwoods’ sharpshooters, but a surgeon’s letter relieved him of duty before he had a chance to engage in battle. Returning to his shoe shop, he contributed poetry to several publications, including The Atlantic Monthly. In 1866, he and a brother went trapping for several months in Minnesota, and, the following year, he spent four months traveling the Amazon River in Brazil, to which he would return in 1870.
Pine Creek is visible at the bottom of the gorge. Also visible is the paved Pine Creek Rail-Trail running parallel to the creek.
Pine Creek Gorge, Tioga County, PA, as seen from the West Rim Trail, 2009
Back in Wellsboro in 1871, and, at fifty, committed finally to staying put, Sears hired on as an editor at the Tioga County Agitator, where he wrote a regular column. The wild, however, continued calling, and by 1872, he was again working for himself, making shoes for most of the year and taking long outings every summer.
A circa 1920 photograph of a forest in Tioga County, devastated by destructive logging practices.
A photo of the "Pennsylvania Desert," Tioga County, PA, circa 1920....
And then, in 1879, Nessmuk reappeared when a reader of the magazine Forest and Stream, the nation’s premier outdoor publication, wrote a letter to the editor praising his work and wondering what had become of him. Seeing the inquiry, Sears dusted off his old byline. He would contribute more than ninety articles to the magazine before his death.
Readers loved Nessmuk’s first-person accounts of his adventures, especially the multi-part tales of his three long canoe trips in 1880, 1881, and 1883 through the Adirondacks, each in a canoe significantly smaller and lighter than the average 75-pounder then in use. In loving detail, his writing took his readers with him as he recreated the terrain, the challenges and the living creatures—human and otherwise—he encountered along the way.
His unvarnished prose taught readers the best way to light a fire, pitch a tent, catch a frog, cut hemlock branches for bedding, cook a johnnycake, make “punkie dope” to keep the flies and mosquitoes away, and carry in only what was absolutely necessary. “Go light,” he advised, “the lighter the better.” More significantly, his respect for the wilderness led to his pioneering call for conservation of the nation’s natural resources. He was among the first to complain about the lack of enforceable game laws and the encroachment of American industry on its forests and fisheries, to the point of calling the run-off from mills and factories “poison.” 
Back in Wellsboro, between 1883 and 1884, he wrote Woodcraft, a marvelous compendium of practical advice and grounded musings. As a seasoned outdoorsman, Sears understood that nature could be harsh, and that the skilled woodsman needs to accept marker nature's realities. The book was an immediate success. He followed up with a series of popular articles in Forest and Stream called “The Log of the Bucktail,” recounting his thirty years of exploring the woods and waters around Wellsboro, and, in 1886, the magazine published, by subscription, a collection of his poetry, Forest Runes.
In declining health with malaria, tuberculosis, and asthma, Sears made one more significant canoe trip, along the eastern coast of Florida, in the winter of 1886, which he chronicled for Forest and Stream. His last major contribution to the magazine, published in 1889, was a long recollection of his Amazon excursion of a decade before.
Sears died in 1890. In his last months, he was so weak that his legs failed him, but his love of the outdoors never wavered. His family set up a tent so that he could continue to camp with his grandchildren.   
More than a century after his death, the Nessmuk name remains preserved around Wellsboro, attached to both a mountain and a lake. Woodcraft is still in print. And the tiny canoe—the 10-1/2-pound Sairy Gamp, named for a character in Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit—that Sears paddled through the Adirondacks on his third journey is now owned by the Smithsonian Institution and on permanent display at the Adirondack Museum in upstate New York.
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