A Trip Across the Wilds of the Lower Peninsula in the 1850s


March 01, 2018

Much of Michigan was an unmapped wilderness in the 1850s when George Washington Sears left Saginaw Bay for a solitary trek across the Lower Peninsula. He intended to visit a friend who was lumbering on the Muskegon River, nearly 90 miles to the west. Risking the onset of an early winter, Sears set out on the trip in late October. He planned on going it alone.

He had spent the last ten days visiting an old friend, Pete Williams, who was scratching out a living in the wilderness near Saginaw for his wife and two small children. He found the family “ague-stricken.” They were probably suffering from scurvy due to eating nothing but wild game meat for a long period of time. Little did Sears know as he left his friends that neither of the children would live to see springtime come to their little clearing in the woods.

Most people wouldn’t attempt a trip such as Sears had in mind, but a local hunter, trapper, and woods runner, Bill Hance, thought it might be “feasible.” He would show Sears an old Indian trail that might take him to the Muskegon River, if he could follow it.

George Washington Sears pictured with his Billinghurst muzzleloading, double barrel rifle.

George Sears was known for traveling light. His outfit was a knife, hatchet, compass, blanket bag, a tin dish, a little food, and his rifle. The rifle was a .42 caliber Billinghurst “turnbarrel” muzzleloader, an over-under style double barrel in which the top barrel was fired, then the barrels turned over to fire the second barrel. He carried only 12 lead balls for the rifle.

Soon after starting on his trek, the Indian trail petered out. In his book, Woodcraft and Camping, he later wrote, “it branched off to the right and left, grew dimmer and slimmer, degenerated to a deer path, petered out to a squirrel track, ran up a tree, and ended in a knothole.” In other words, he lost the trail.

With no trail to follow, he pulled out his compass and headed west into unbroken wilderness. Sears was a self-reliant woodsman and was capable of traveling on his own without a trail to follow. He explained that on the trip, “There were no, “hairbredth escapes, I was not tackled by bears, treed by wolves, or nearly killed by a hand-to-claw ‘racket’ with a panther.” There were some problems however. Lakes, streams, swamps, and marshes blocked his way and slowed his progress. He constantly had to detour, costing time and adding many miles to his trip.

The amount of wild game available in Michigan during the mid-nineteenth century was amazing. Sears wrote, “animal life was abundant, exuberant, even…I do not think there was an hour of daylight on the trip when squirrels were not too numerous to be counted, while (passenger) pigeons were a constant quantity from start to finish. Grouse in the thickets, and quail in the high oak openings, or small prairies, with droves of wild turkeys among the heavy timber, were met with almost hourly, and there was scarcely a day on which I could not have had a standing shot at a bear. But the most interesting point about the game was-to me, at least- the marvelous abundance of deer. They were everywhere.” On the sixth day of his trek he, “blundered on to such an aggregation of deer as a man sees but once in a lifetime…Among them were several very large bucks with superb antlers.”

George Sears proclaimed “the lonely tramp far from monotonous” as he camped out each cold night in a new spot and labored each day to make as many miles as possible. One day he came upon an abandoned Indian campsite. “Pausing a short time to look over the ruins, with the lonely feeling always induced by a decayed, rotting camp, I struck due west and made several miles before sundown.”

After ten days of traveling, Sears finally came out on the bank of the Muskegon River. Walking downstream he found a “log landing” area where logs had been piled awaiting a float downstream to a sawmill. The leftovers supplied him with the materials to construct a log raft. While drifting downriver on his new raft, he soon heard the sounds of a sawmill where, “a brown-bearded, red-shirted fellow came down to welcome me.” He had reached his destination, the Joe Davis lumber camp. “I came out with clothes pretty well worn and torn off my back and legs,” he wrote. “I am a little proud of the fact that, with so many temptations to slaughter, I only fired three shots on the route.” Each shot had taken a young deer for meat and he felt bad for the waste of what he couldn’t eat or carry with him.

After the solo trip across Michigan, Sears admonished, “Reader, if ever you are tempted to make a similar thoughtless, reckless, trip, – don’t do it.”

Amazingly, the things that George Washington Sears became most famous for didn’t begin to happen until he was over 60 years old. As an outspoken early conservationist and pioneer environmentalist, Sears loved, and lived, the outdoor lifestyle that he tried to advance, and yet protect. In later life he developed “consumption” (a combination of tuberculosis and asthma) and became quite frail. In an effort to improve his health, he began to seek the clear, invigorating air of the Adirondack lakes and forests of New York State. His experiences there built his reputation as an outdoor authority.

Writing under his pen name, Nessmuk, (in honor of a Narragansett Indian mentor of his youth), Sears became one of the most influential and widely read American outdoor writers of the 1800s. His most famous writings are accounts of three extended solo camping trips where he canoed and portaged hundreds of miles in the wilderness of the Adirondack Lakes region. Some of the trips took him months to complete. In, Nessmuk’s Adirondack Letters, Sears describes those experiences and gives advice in a wonderful old-style prose. Nessmuk published 18 articles in Forest and Stream Magazine in the 1880s. Those articles gained him the admiration of a wide audience of readers as well as bringing the magazine to the forefront. His writing encouraged readers to, “Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment.” His minimalist philosophy on camping and canoe travel led many to become what he called “outers” who left the city behind and began to enjoy vacations in the great outdoors in his beloved Adirondacks. Nessmuk also disliked “roughing it,” he encouraged his readers to “smooth it… I would say, don’t rough it, make it as smooth, as restful and pleasurable as you can.”

In 1884, Sears published the how-to book, Woodcraft and Camping, which is still in print and available today. In that book is found the account of his solo trek across Michigan. The book describes his methods of using shelters, fires, canoes, knives, axes, and natural materials for cooking, living, and surviving in the wilderness, all while being environmentally responsible and leaving a small footprint.

Being a small man, standing only 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighing just over 100 pounds, George needed a light weight canoe which he could portage between lakes by himself. J. H. Rushton of Canton, New York built his canoes for him using his instructions. Using cedar slats only 3/16 of an inch thick, he made the small canoes with no seats, thwarts, or bracing. They weighed from 17 ½ pounds down to the only 10 ½ pounds. Sears paddled solo, using a double bladed paddle, kayak style. After Forest and Stream publicity, Rushton made and sold many of the lightweight “Nessmuk” model canoes. Even today several knife makers offer a Nessmuk style sheath knife and blacksmiths still copy his small, double-bit camp axe that he described in his book.

George Washington Sears’ contributions to practical woodcraft, and his observations on conservation and the environment, are still viable today. He showed us that it is possible to enjoy traveling through wilderness without destroying it. More than 100 years after his passing, admirers still refer to minimalist camping or lightweight canoeing as “Nessmuking.”