With Christmas not too far away, folks may be struggling to decide what to buy for the outdoor person on their list. I respectfully suggest an important piece of outdoors equipment with strong ties to the history of Tioga County and Wellsboro, the Nessmuk knife.
As many readers know, George W. Sears was an early, outdoor writer with the pen name Nessmuk. A resident of Wellsboro, Nessmuk became famous for his articles in “Forest & Stream” magazine and his 1884 book, “Woodcraft.”
He was an early advocate of what would today be considered ultra-light camping. Nessmuk personally designed his equipment, which he then had custom made. He swore by a double-blade hatchet, with a steep-angled blade for splitting wood and crushing bones, and a thin blade for trimming and carving.
He also designed a distinctive knife that became known as the Nessmuk knife. As a Tioga County hunter, I knew I had to own such a knife, to display local pride in a design that has survived for 140 years with little change.
Before creating this knife, Nessmuk tried the various models available on the market. He was looking for a general purpose camp knife capable of skinning, butchering and carving. It is safe to say that Nessmuk was underwhelmed with the knives on offer.
In his book “Woodcraft,” Nessmuk writes, “The ‘bowies’ and ‘hunting knives’ usually kept on sale, are thick, clumsy affairs, with a sort of ridge along the middle of the blade, murderous looking, but of little use; rather fitted to adorn a dime novel or the belt of ‘Billy the Kid,’ than the outfit of the hunter.”
For his design, Nessmuk created a drop-point blade with a distinctive forward hump on the top of the blade. Rather than starting with thick steel and grinding bevels to create a sharp edge, Nessmuk had the knifesmith start with thinner stock to create a lighter blade that is easy to keep sharp. This illustration is from the 1884 book.
For those interested in learning more about George W. Sears, his book “Woodcraft” can be downloaded for free at https://archive.org/details/woodcraft00searuoft/page/n6.
The Green Library in Wellsboro has several Nessmuk works including the following: “Woodcraft,” “Forest Runes,” “Wood Craft and Camping” and “Canoeing the Adirondacks with Nessmuk: The Adirondack Letters of George Washington Sears.”
Alternately, a hard cover anthology titled “Forest Life: Practical Meditations on Canoeing, Fishing, Hunting, and Bushcraft” is available locally at From My Shelf Books and Gifts in Wellsboro. Indeed, the anthology would also make a great gift for a Tioga adventurer.
Chances are that somebody on your Christmas list needs a Nessmuk sheath knife, and your choices range from an affordable, mass-produced model by Condor Tool and Knife (I have been very pleased with a Condor hatchet I bought years ago for rough carving decoys) to a custom-made version for hundreds of dollars.
When you wrap the gift, you can include this column. That way, the recipient can brag that the best outdoors men and women have always come from Tioga County, and the proof is right there on their belt.
An archaeologist, Chris Espenshade grew up hunting, fishing, and trapping in rural North Carolina. A resident of Wellsboro, he is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association.