Biographical Sketch: George Washington Sears (Nessmuk)
What follows is a basic biographical sketch of the 19th-century American outdoorsman. George Washington Sears, widely known through his extensive popular writings as “Nessmuk.”
An early and ardent conservationist and innovative backwoods rambler, Sears continues to exert an influence today on enthusiasts of lightweight bushcraft.
EARLY YEARS OF GEORGE WASHINGTON SEARS
Born in 1821 in Oxford Plains, Massachusetts, George Washington Sears pursued a lifelong passion for wilderness travel and adventure. As a boy, he temporarily fled the mill to which he’d been sent to work by his father and sought harbor with a local Indian community (either the Nipmuc or the Narragansett, depending on the source), among whom he discovered a woodcraft teacher and namesake both in a man named Nessmuk—which, as Jim Merritt noted in a 1998 profile of Sears in Field and Stream, means “wood drake” in the Algonquin language.
George Washington Sears was peripatetic and adventurous as a young man. In addition to cobbling—the profession of his father—he worked in Cape Cod as a commercial fisherman and ultimately sailed out on a three-year whaling voyage. By his own account he traveled widely and wore many hats in the following years, from teaching in Ohio to mining in the Rockies. He eventually settled in 1848 with his family in what would become his home base for the rest of his life: Wellsboro, Pennsylvania.
NESSMUK IN THE ADIRONDACKS
Even as head of a settled household—and beset, as he was for much of his life, with asthma and other illnesses—George Washington Sears’s wanderings didn’t cease. He served in the Civil War and explored the Amazon River. Poor health eventually drew him to the Adirondacks; a mountain range lauded for its fortifying and invigorating fresh air.
In those lake-spangled mountains of upstate New York he took a trio of momentous canoe trips—momentous because of the technological and philosophical developments they inspired.
Naturally slight and wracked with illness, Sears—in the territory of 60 years old at this point—could not heft the bulky watercraft and excessive supplies typical of the era, and so directed the manufacture of a series of increasingly airy, easily portaged canoes by the builder J. Henry Rushton. The ultimate boat, the Sairy Gamp, weighed a mere 10.5 pounds; ribbed with elm, the featherweight canoe took Sears 266 miles on the last of his three Adirondacks boat treks.
THE WRITINGS OF GEORGE WASHINGTON SEARS
Those canoe voyages—and Sears’s musings on the advantages of traveling light in the backcountry—inspired many of the articles he published in Forest and Stream (eventually folded into Field and Stream), which gave “Nessmuk” a regular venue for his writing and an increasingly substantial readership.
George Washington Sears, an avid reader, had initiated his own career as a writer beginning in the 1860s, appearing in various periodicals such as The Atlantic Monthly, but it was with Forest and Stream that he became most associated. He also published a primer, in 1884, on camping and outdoor skills called Woodcraft, a work still in print today.
Sears was eloquent in his criticism of overloaded, gear-heavy camping and hunting expeditions, celebrating the primal joy—and small footprint—of lean-and-mean trekking. “Go light; the lighter the better,” he wrote, “so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment.” Toting a survival knife, the most basic of food, and a few other essentials, he didn’t require much to roam the wilds.
THE NESSMUK LEGACY
After years of physical decline, George Washington Sears died in 1890. His ultimate burial and associated monument were partially funded by some of his loyal readers.
His memory lives on—not simply in place names (such as Mount Nessmuk and Lake Sears in Pennsylvania) and the writings of his still in print, but through the increasingly popular ultra-light backpacking and canoeing trends partly informed by his philosophy. Additionally, Sears’s objections to wasteful overexploitation of natural resources and the development of wilderness resonate just as strongly today as in his time.
Furthermore, beyond his double-bit belt axe, a style of sturdy, curved knife—similar to one illustrated in George Washington Sears’s Woodcraft—is commonly called the Nessmuk knife, a fine example of which is sold through the Pathfinder School. This Nessmuk knife, which comes equipped with a leather sheath, is a versatile tool as useful for chopping onions in the home kitchen as for fraying tinder in the woods.
From a survival knife memorializing him to the minimalist canoeists and backpackers inspired by his ethos, George Washington Sears, “Nessmuk,” remains a legend—one any outdoorsperson should know.
*Merritt, Jim. “Wild Man Nessmuk.” Field and Stream Feb. 1998.
*Biography of George Washington “Nessmuk” Sears (Dan DeIuliis)