Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

George Washington Sears was born in South Oxford, Massachusetts, in 1821, the oldest of ten children. At the age of eight, he was put to work in a cotton mill, frequently escaping to the woods with a young Narragansett Indian named Nessmuk (meaning wood duck or wood drake), who taught him how to hunt, fish, and set up camp.

At the age of twelve, Sears escaped to his grandmother’s house on Cape Cod and took up fishing and served as a sailor on the whaling ship Rajah in the Pacific for three years. When he returned to his family, he assumed his father’s trade of shoemaking. In 1848, his family moved to the Tioga County seat of Wellsboro.

Sears enjoyed traveling and made seven trips to Michigan, including a solitary trek across the state when the area was a virtual wilderness. In 1857, he married Mariette Butler and four years later-despite his age (thirty-nine) and his growing family-he enlisted in the Union Army’s Company E, 13th Pennsylvania Reserves, nicknamed the Bucktail Regiment. He was discharged after only three months because his asthma repeatedly sent him to the hospital.

His insatiable love of exploration resulted in a series of adventures. In 1866, he traveled to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the following year traveled up the Amazon River in Brazil, tracing the 1866 route of noted naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873). “When the strait jacket of civilization becomes too oppressive,” Sears commented, “I throw it off, betake my-self to savagery, and there loaf and refresh my soul.”

From July 1880 through August 1883, Sears spent time canoeing in the vast Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, and began submitting a series of “letters” describing his experiences to Forest and Stream magazine under the pen name Nessmuk, in honor of his boy­hood friend. Sears had a keen interest in lightweight canoes that could be easily carried and would allow the traveler to be more self-sufficient. He had a number of lightweight canoes built in a quest to find the perfect small canoe. The only extant example, the Sairy Camp (at the Adirondack Museum), is nine feet long, but weighs only ten and a half pounds.

After his Adirondacks sojourn, Sears returned to Wellsboro, where he wrote Woodcraft, published in 1884. One of the first books of its kind, it covered “the rod, rifle, canoe, camp, and in short the entire list of forest lore and backwoods knowledge.” Truly a classic, Wood­craft remained in print until 1963.

Toward the end of his life Sears had grown so frail that he was barely able to leave his. house. His family set up his tent in the yard, where he “camped” with his grandchildren. He died early on May 1, 1890. Messages of condolence came from across the country. His pseudonym Nessmuk was adopted by Boy Scout troops. The State Geographic Board named a nearby mountain in his honor and today boaters can paddle the waters of Nessmuk Lake, just south of Wellsboro.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of this pioneer naturalist and woodsman are his letters appealing for sportsmanship and observance of laws meant to help conserve dwindling wild game and fish. George Washington Sears was clearly ahead of his time, and still appeals to a wide audience. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) commemorated his legacy by installing this state historical marker on Wellsboro’s Courthouse Square, and a similar marker at Leonard Harrison State Park, on the rim of the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.”

 

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