On the Trail of the Island Hermit

Shunninghuman contact, the brooding, bearded man retreated to the woods, hiding himselfaway in a tiny cabin devoid of comforts. No one knew for sure what privatedemons pursued him- some said that he nursed a wounded heart, others hintedthat he hoarded an ill-gotten treasure. Many thought him uncouth, but othersdescribed him as a gentleman, well educated. Just about everyone agreed it wasbest to keep far away from him, though. "He was sullen and ugly," onewriter recalls, "and on several occasions it is said that he used his gun todrive away unwelcome meddlers." He refused to pay taxes, and once greeteda visiting sheriff with a loaded rifle.

A characterfrom today's headlines? No, the long-ago hermit of Hermit Island.

The tale ofthe Hermit is a story filled with violence, romance, and wealth. Or maybe not-it's hard to say. You see, since there was nothing written about the Hermitduring his lifetime, writers and tale spinners over the ensuingcentury-and-a-half have felt free to make things up as they went along. As onewriter confessed, "There are a number of different versions to this tale.The author has chosen the one which most appealed to him."

The Hermit'sname was William Wilson… or maybe it wasn't. Some accounts claim that his namewas anything but Wilson, and that the pseudonym concealed a dark past.

"Nothingis known of his early life," says one writer, "He came from no oneknew where." Not so, says another: "He was born in Canada of Scottishparents," confidently adding that the year was 1792, and the place wasSault Ste. Marie.

Most sourcesagree that Wilson was a fur trader in his youth, and roamed the mountains asfar as the Pacific Ocean. Tiring of the wandering life, one account tells howhe walked cross-country, hoping to return to the land of his birth. Arrivingthere, he found his parents dead, his former sweetheart married.

It seems that few writers could resist the temptation to place a woman at the center ofthe Hermit's story. An 1890's account describes a mysterious moment:

One day a friend found him sleeping besidethe cabin. He did not disturb him. But out of his dreams he awoke, and in anagonizing cry he uttered one word…"Estelle!"

Hmmm… whomight this mysterious lady have been? Perhaps she was a woman wronged: onesource says that at the age of 18, "he ran away from home, deserting ayoung French girl he was to have married." Not true, says another account:"He had a wife and daughter at L'Anse, in upper Michigan, who he took outto the Columbia River and there deserted. Later, repenting of this cruelty, hesought to reclaim them and found they had been murdered."

Perhapsthere was no wife, no French girl, no "Estelle." Who can be certain?But surely we must know more about his life once he appeared in the ApostleIslands country! Indeed, the stories do grow more detailed, the tellers moreconfident. He came to LaPointe in 1841, we are told, and worked as a cooper, orbarrel maker. His employer, John Bell, was every bit as fierce as Wilson, andjust a bit tougher, it seems. The two men came to blows one day in 1847, and wehear that Bell laid Wilson out with one punch. Humiliated, Wilson vowed hewould never stay on an island where he was not the best man, and so loaded acanoe with provisions and set off to an island where no man would ever be hisbetter.

There, onwhat is now called Hermit Island, Wilson built a log cabin, planted a garden,and raised chickens. To earn a few dollars, he kept up his work as a cooper.Fishermen would stop by to purchase barrels for their catch, but the Hermit didnot encourage them to linger. Yet some writers say he had no need to raisecash. They say that on his rare trips to town, he attracted attention by payingfor supplies from a purse filled with silver Mexican coins. Others whispered ofa store of gold, buried somewhere near his cabin.

Perhaps thisrumor of hidden wealth led to the Hermit's death. In 1861, he was found"dead in his cabin, where he had undoubtedly been murdered… evidently byparties in search of his wealth." There was "evidence of a violentdeath struggle, crude furniture broken, the trunk empty, money bagsmissing."

"Notexactly," says another story: it was whiskey that laid him low."Wilson had died of delirium tremens… as misshapen monsters appearedagainst the mud-lined walls of his lonely cabin, he forced his trembling oldbody to go after them until life wrenched from it in a final, violentconvulsion."

Oh, my! Amidall this embellishment, what do we really know about Wilson the hermit? We canbe confident that he did exist- that in the decade before the Civil War, atormented man spent his declining years all but shut-off from human society ona lonely island in Lake Superior. Beyond that, it seems that the Hermit willforever remain a man of mystery.

One suspectshe would have preferred it that way.

Last updated: January 5, 2016

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