By Donald Wharton
This is a story about Adirondack hermits, but the place and time in which it unfolds
are as big a part of the tale as anything else. It was the late 1800s, see, and everything in
America was changing. Our nation’s population was expanding at an astounding pace
– growing at a rate of 25 percent per decade. The West had been settled, the buffalo
slaughtered, the Native American resistance largely quelled. The Civil War had fueled
a manufacturing boom, and we were transforming from an agrarian economy to an
New York was changing as rapidly as any part of the country. Seventy-five percent
of the state had been cleared of forest, with much of what remained clustered in the
Adirondacks, where the terrain made settlement difficult. Even in the Adirondacks,
though, the forests had been pecked away for a century; first to go were the mature
white pine and red spruce, then the hemlock for tanbark, then smaller stuff for the
hungry pulp mills downriver. The state had sold the land for pennies an acre to pay
back Revolutionary War debts, and after the early timber barons extracted what value
they could from the timber many simply abandoned their properties, rather than
continue to pay taxes, in some cases leaving lumber camps standing for the first
squatters to come along.
And come they did. A report by the New York Conservation Commission indicated
that there were some 800 individuals of various means living on state land around
1915, to say nothing of those camped on private timberland without benefit of a title.
The squatters’ circumstances varied, but a healthy number were woodsmen who just
didn’t fit in with the Industrial Age. Here, amidst millions of acres of open space, in a
forest that teemed with deer, small game, and furbearers, these pioneers went about
living a life that, for the most part, didn’t exist anymore.
In the 1880s, word began filtering out of the woods
about a mysterious person living in the upper reaches
of West Canada Creek in Hamilton County. Only a few
of the more adventuresome trappers and woodsmen
had encountered this man; they described him as being
somewhat short, having a heavy beard and more than a
few patches on his wool trousers.
Folks in Newton Corners (Speculator today) knew
him as French Louie, although his real name was
Louis Seymour. Louie came to New York State as a boy
in the 1850s, arriving from the Dog River area north
of Ottawa, Canada. He worked several jobs around
the state, including as a mule driver on the Erie Canal
and as a circus hand near Saratoga, before moving to
the Adirondacks and working in the lumber woods.
Solitary Life in the Northwoods
French Louie’s stomping grounds.