“So who are we looking for?” my father asked as I turned off Nichols Street and passed through the stone arch gate onto sacred grounds of Wellsboro Cemetery.
“Nessmuk,” I answered, drawing a blank look from both my parents. “Remember the historical marker up at the park?” The park was Leonard Harrison State Park and the historical marker was for local resident George Washington Sears, who was known to outdoors folk as Nessmuk. “Well, he’s buried here.”
I turned right and began to follow the narrow roadway through the field of stone. While not the first cemetery located in Wellsboro, the Wellsboro Cemetery is the only one remaining within the borders of the community.
The first cemetery, which held the remains of the early settlers, was located along Pearl Street. In 1840, the Wellsboro Cemetery was formed and in 1856. James Bryden was the first person to be buried in this plot of land. Those who originally were buried in the Pearl Street Cemetery – including Benjamin Morris, the founder of Wellsboro, and his wife, Mary Wells – would later be moved to the current cemetery location.
Following the roadway, I took the next right and in a couple seconds came to a stop beneath the first large tree I came to. Looking to my right, I could see the memorial I had come to visit in the shade of the tree.
Walking around the vehicle, I carefully stepped down the hillside to the grave. The sandstone memorial features a bronze plaque with the portrait of an elderly man with an owl beneath hi,. The grave was that of George Washington Sears, an outdoorsman and early conservationist. Many may not recognize the name George Washington Sears, however many recognize his pen name which is displayed prominently across the base of the stone – Nessmuk.
George Washington Sears was born December 2, 1821 in Oxford Plains, Massachusetts. He was the first of ten children to Learned and Hannah Sears. As a child, Sears spend countless hours roaming the forests and fields surrounding the homestead with a young Narragansett Indian named Nessmuk, which means “wood drake.” The young Narragansett taught Sears to hunt, fish, camp, and appreciate the outdoors. Sears would never forget the lessons taught to him as a child and in his later years would adopt his friend’s name as his own pen name.
Sears worked numerous jobs: he worked on a fishing vessel for three years and upon the end of his obligation, he joined his family in Wellsboro, where his father had opened a shoe shop. Before completely settling down in Wellsboro, Sears spent time working numerous jobs before finally settled down in Wellsboro, he took up the occupation of his father – a shoemaker, but the call of the wilderness still lingered.
In 1857, he married Mariette Butler and they had three children – Jennie, Charles and Margaret. Sears would serve in the Civil War, serving as a sergeant for the Forty-Second Pennsulvania Reserves. His term of service was short, having been discharged from duty before the unit ever saw action. Note: The exact reason he was discharged from service is not clear. Most places state it was due to his small size and health. However, there are a couple sources that state the reason of his discharge was due to injuring his foot.
In the following years, Sears would become involved in the conservation of the wilds of Pennsylvania and New York. Sears’ attention to the outdoors was a means of improving his health – in his prime. Sears was a little over five feet tall and weighed only one hundred and nine pounds.
His most outspoken criticism was about the lumbering practices the Pennsylvania’s lumber companies were using. The destruction of the pine forests and the ruin of fishing streams was an issue he wanted halted.
Sears was in his late fifties when he turned his attention to the Adirondacks and promoting canoeing and camping. Sears, who had a small frame, had a lightweight canoe build especially for him. He would promote the usage of this type of canoe rather than the heavier ones that were popular at the time.
His love for the outdoors would be shared with the world through his writings. His articles began appearing in the magazine Forest and Stream, which would later become Field and Stream. In 1884 Sears published Woodcraft and Camping, which has never gone out of print. He would also publish Forest Runes, a book of poetry, in 1887.
Sears would make two trips to Florida, in 1884 and again in 1887, in attempt to improve his health. Sears died in Wellsboro on May 1, 1890. He was originally buried on the family estate but his body would later be moved to the Wellsboro Cemetery. His grave would eventually be marked with a monument provided by Forest and Stream.
In Pennsylvania, Nessmuk is remembered to this day by two familiar blue historical markers – one on The Green in Wellsboro and the other near the entrance to Leonard Harrison State Park. Sears also has a mountain named after him in 1927 – Mount Nessmuk is located between Wellsboro and Ansonia, just north of Route 6. More recently, Lake Nessmuk, located along Route 187 south of Wellsboro, was named in his honor.
I finished paying my respects to the early conservationist and left the cemetery, heading westward to visit the Pine Creek Gorge – also known as Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon – to enjoy the wilds that had influenced the life of George Washington Sears.