Sunday, May 18, 2014

Nessmuk Visits Indian Point, Raquette Lake

Nessmuk photoWhenever and wherever the original Thacher cabin was built on Indian Point is my research holy grail.  Delving into the details of the few literary mentions of the cabin might yield clues.

The famous wilderness writer George Washington Sears, pen name Nessmuk, wrote of meeting my great great grandfather George Hornell Thacher at his cabin on Indian Point.

“There are enthusiastic anglers, however, whose specialty is trolling for lake trout. A gentleman by the name of Thatcher (sic), who has a fine residence on Raquette Lake – which he calls a camp – makes this his leading sport, and keeps a log of his fishing, putting nothing on record of less than ten pounds weight.”

This visit by Nessmuk was published in his 1884 book titled Woodcraft; however, it makes no mention of when the encounter actually occurred. 

In his youth, Sears had been befriended by a young Narragansett Indian named Nessmuk (“wood drake”) who taught him hunting, fishing, and camping.  Later he took the Indian name for his pen name and its English translation for the name of his first canoe.   His book Woodcraft remains in print today as one of the most widely read guides for the bushcraft and wilderness survival community.

According to the editor Dan Brenan in The Adirondack Letters of George Washington Sears, “At the age of 59, a little more than 5 feet tall, weighing less than 105 pounds, and weak with acute pulmonary tuberculosis, Sears decided to see if the Adirondack lakes and forests could improve his health. Since Sears was so small and weak, he could not carry the usual heavy guide boat over the carries between the lakes of the Fulton Chain. He persuaded J. Henry Rushton to build him solo canoes that he could carry.”

Nessmuk published accounts of his three trips through the lakes and streams of the Adirondacks  in a series of letters to Forest and Stream magazine: “Cruise of the Wood Drake” (1881), “Cruise of the Susan Nipper” (1882), and “Cruise of the Sairy Gamp” (1883).

So when did this renowned writer meet my great-great-grandfather at his “fine residence” on Raquette Lake? Three clues appear to reveal a possible date.

Nessmuk’s habit appears to have been to write not about what transpired on the day he put pen to paper, but about his adventures in the preceding days.  This combined with the fact that often only the date of publication in Forest and Stream is known for most letters, makes it a challenge to date the actual occurrences of which he writes.

In a letter published on August 9, 1883, he describes his travels through the Fulton Chain prior to his arrival at Raquette Lake.  That letter does identify that it was written at Raquette Lake on July 27, 1883.  Assuming that Nessmuck would choose a day of idle and not a day of arduous paddling to compose his letters, it is likely that his letter of July 27th was written on the day he later described in this letter published on August 16th:

“A finer brighter morning never dawned on the clear waters of Raquette Lake than the one on which I paddled out from the fragrant, balsam-breathing camp of honest Joe Whitney for a new-made private camp on a point near Ed Bennett’s where I laid off while an enthusiastic young photographer took the Sairy in different positions, with and without her crew.  I stopped by Ed Bennett’s Under the Hemlocks and then paddled slowly over to the Raquette House, kept by Ike Kenwell, and well kept, too.”

In a letter written while at Paul Smith’s and published August 23, 1883, Nessmuk tells of his visits to various private camps on Raquette Lake:

“Just for one day the rain held up, and a brighter morning never dawned on Raquette Lake than the one on which I paddled out for a cruise across the lake.  The water was like a mirror, the air was perfect.  It was a day to be marked with a white pebble.  I had several invitations to visit private camps, and I availed myself of them pretty largely.  I found several of these camps most delightful; gotten up with the utmost care and in excellent sylvan taste.”

Notice the repetition of the text in bold within both letters.  I believe Nessmuk is describing the same day in two different letters.  Given that the Raquette House was on Tioga Point, directly across from the original Thacher Camp on Indian Point, I am fairly confident that the two men made their acquaintance on July 27, 1883.

The Sairy Gamp that carried Nessmuk to this rendezvous with my ancestor was described by Forest and Stream fisheries editor Fred Mather in his book My Angling Friends:

Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 4.49.17 PM“I beheld the Sairy Gamp, so named, he said, “because she never took water.”  This latter creation of the Nessmukian brain and hand was, as I remember it, about 81/2 ft. long and weighted between 10 and 11 lbs. … This boat formed part of the exhibit of Forest and Stream at the World’s Fair [the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago].”

It is now on display at the Adirondack Museum.



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Tom Thacher

Tom is the great great grandson of the very first “summer folk” on Blue Mountain Lake. The Thacher family built the first private summer home on Thacher Island in 1867.

Tom has spent every summer of his life on Indian Point of Raquette Lake on lands purchased by his family in 1876. In researching the origins of his family’s century old, one-room cabin, Tom is discovering over 200 years of Adirondack History seen through the lens of one plot of land.

Extended versions of this article and other stories and photos can be found at Fifty Acres of Beach and Wood which chronicles tales of iconic characters of Adirondack history whose footprints have graced the shores of Indian Point.

Tom is currently fundraising to publish a book of his research. The proceeds from the book will support the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts. You can make a contribution to the book fund here:

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