George Washington Sear "Nessmuk" A History of the Pioneer Conservationist

George Washington Sear "Nessmuk" A History of the Pioneer Conservationist

The love of writing goes way back in my family. Come meet my Great Great Uncle, George Washington Sears.  He is also known as "Nessmuk".  He lived in the 1800’s and shared his adventures in book form and in monthly articles for the magazine Forest and Stream. That magazine is still around today under the new name of Field and Stream. This is some information about the life and adventures of this outdoorsman.

Elder George Waashington Sears

Meet George Washington Sears.

George Washington Sears was born December 2, 1821 in South Oxford, Massachusetts. He was the oldest child of 10. Like many children of the time, he was sent to the factory to work at the age of eight. He detested being inside and made his escape as soon as he was able. He was an avid outdoorsman and a conservationist that learned to survive in the wild from a Narragansett Indian named Nessmuk. The original Nessmuk lived in the Adirondack Mountains.  The young George met the Indian and set about to learn all that Nessmuk had to teach him. Before he was five years old this friend took him to Nepmug and Junkamaug lakes and taught him all about woodcraft.  He learned about the wildlife, the native plants, hunting, fishing, and how to navigate in the streams and lakes of the area. Later as an adult the adopted his friend’s name as his own pen name. Nessmuk is an old Narragansett word meaning “wood-duck” or “wood-drake.

George began his adventuring ways at a very early age. As he liked being out of doors he joined a fishing crew at the age of 12 spending several years at sea. At the age of nineteen he joined a whaling crew which allowed him to  travel as far as the South Seas. He was whaling at the same time as  Herman Melville. They both were on the seas as teens and both gathered their own memories. They were not on the same ship.  Once he returned from his three-year stint on the whaler  he and his family settled in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania.whaling ship

In 1857 at the age of 35 he married  Marietta Butler, they had three children, Jennie Boucher, Charles Rockwood, and Margaret Alice. George still traveled but he always returned to Wellsboro.

When he gave up the sea, he was able to travel across America and it was during this period that he began to write in his journal the many experiences during his travels. He was very well traveled, he had been to Canada and all the way down to Brazil where he canoed one of the tributaries to the Amazon both in 1867 and 1870 . He wrote several poems while on those two trips to the Amazon. He always carried his knife, hatchet, fishing gear and rifle on his trips as an Outer.


Once his reputation as a guide and proficient conservationist he began to work with the hikers and campers. He called these people that loved to be in the wild  “Outers”. He included himself as one. The  Outers  would hire him to lead them into the mountains and show them the best fishing, hunting and camping methods. In the evenings he would write in his journal the new things that crossed his path, wrote poetry, as well as working on designs for better camping equipment.

During the mid 1800’s he was spending most of his time out in the mountains with the outers. Camping and learning more about the naturist lifestyle. The topography of the area is such that you would hike for a while carrying your canoe then you would row across the lakes to the next hiking area. There was a lot of carrying the canoe through the forest.  One of the things that Nessmuk is known for is that he believed in traveling light.

“Go light, the lighter the better” Nessmuk

With this in mind he designed a new lightweight canoe that would be easier for the men to carry. At that point in time canoes weighed about one hundred pounds. Sears was a small man. He was barely over five feet and only weighed about one hundred pounds himself. So he felt the need to develop a lightweight canoe for his trekking. From his own design he had a canoe built.The famous builder J. Henry Rushton was the builder based on Sears own design.  He named her the Sairy Gamp.Sairy Gamp

This picture shows the Sairy gamp along with a photo of some of the outers that went with him camping the Adirondack Mountains. This boat only weighed ten and a half pounds and he could carry it alone. He still enjoyed going out and observing nature and camping alone when not working with the outers.

With his reputation of being an expert on camping, canoeing, and surviving the wilderness he was asked to start writing a series of articles from the magazine Forest and Stream.  Today that magazine is known asField and Stream and is still just as popular as it was then.  In 1880 wrote about his experiences in the wilderness and gave helpful information to future hikers and campers. He was in his sixties by this time and he was willing to share his memories and his expertise to younger adventurers, future naturalists and campers. He wrote eighteen articles over three years while continuing to make trips into the mountains.

He also shared so much of the valuable travel information that he learned. It was the information in his journal that would later become the Woodcraft and Camping book. That book was published in 1884. There is a free Ebook available in all formats online here.Woodcraft

There are drawings of his designs included in the book.  Some of his designs helped create new items such as the Nessmuk knife. nessmuk hunting knife

This design is still popular today and has been written about in many articles due to its ingenious design and excellent workability.

There is no actual existing Nessmuk knife that he had, it has been lost to history.  There is the drawing, measurements and dimensions from which many companies have used to create a replica.  Many companies now produce a Nessmuk style knife. He also writes about making tents and making the forest safe with reminders to  not point a rifle at any other man while carrying it into the woods. This book was the definitive guide to camping during his lifetime and has continued to be so even today.

There is a book called Forest Runes written by George Washington Sears that was published in 1887,while he was alive. The book is comprised of his poems and writings. These poems were inspirational to nature lovers and people that enjoy heartfelt poems and prose. The writing is beautiful, it is full of deep emotion conveying the loneliness and beauty in the great outdoors and the people he met along the way.  I am reading it now and it is so pleasant to read a first hand accounting of the man and his feelings. This is a poem that is included in Forest Runes.

“LITTLE CHARLEY is a prince,”
So we said in joyous pride,
As we loitered side by side,
Where the roses bloomed and died,
Half a dozen summers since.
He was rustling through the leaves,
Where the golden tassels swayed,
Half in pleasure, half afraid,
Hiding in the furrowed shade,
Where the August cricket grieves
. Silken tassels on the corn,
Silken curls about his head;
“Which is which?” we laughing said;
While the sun a glory shed
On the curls and tasseled corn.
Saxon eyes and face and hair,
Saxon blood in every vein,
Cheeks like roses after rain;
Never shall we see again
Childish loveliness so rare.
When the apple and the quince
All their summer fragrance shed,
How we miss our darling dead;
How we miss the curly head
Of our lovely little prince
. Little Charley was a prince—
But, somebody in the sky
Had more need of him than I,
So we laid him down to die
Half a dozen summers since.”

Leopold Publishing has reprinted Forest Runes because original books are selling in upwards of three hundred dollars. Of course you can get more modern reprints for less. One such book is the newly reprinted Forest Runes on Amazon. You know I love a free book or eBook so here is where you can get aPDF copy of Forest Runes.

A new book has also been reprinted containing the eighteen articles from Forest and Stream. That book is called The Adirondack Letters of George Washington Sears aka “Nessmuk”.  This book is also available on Amazon.Nessmuk book

From this book we see the first words from the Forest and Stream articles penned by George Washington Sears in 1880.

“She’s all my fancy painted her, she’s lovely, she is light. She waltzes on the waves by day and rests with me at night. But I had nothing to do with her painting. The man who built her did that. And I commence with the canoe because that is about the first thing you need on entering the Northern Wilderness.” George Washington Sears aka “Nessmuk”


George Washington Sears died on May 1, 1890 in Wellsboro,Pennsylvania. He was 68 years old. One of the reasons he spent so much time in the Adirondacks was because it was believed that the fresh mountain air held healing properties for people with Asthma and Emphysema.  He died from consumption which seems to have stemmed from the  emphysema or asthma.   He was buried and a tombstone was erected with his likeness and his signature. Tombstone

His children and family stayed in the same area for generations. His son Charles Rockwood lived to be 76 years old and like his father wrote poetry and was a woodcrafter. His mother, Marietta lived with him 30 years after Nessmuk death.  In fact, there are some relatives still there.

Thank you for letting me share this Great Great Uncle with you.  To me he is a true renaissance man.  This little foray into my family tree, just got me diving into the research mode. Instead of finishing this post, I have spent the last two hours adding to and editing profiles in the family tree over on


Published by Vicki Goodwin


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