Apostle Islands Scrapbook

On the Trail of the Island Hermit


by Bob Mackreth

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

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

The tale of the 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 Hermit during his lifetime, writers and tale spinners over the ensuing century-and-a-half have felt free to make things up as they went along. As one writer confessed, "There are a number of different versions to this tale. The author has chosen the one which most appealed to him."

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

"Nothing is known of his early life," says one writer, "He came from no one knew where." Not so, says another: "He was born in Canada of Scottish parents," confidently adding that the year was 1792, and the place was Sault Ste. Marie.

Most sources agree that Wilson was a fur trader in his youth, and roamed the mountains as far as the Pacific Ocean. Tiring of the wandering life, one account tells how he walked cross-country, hoping to return to the land of his birth. Arriving there, 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 of the Hermit's story. An 1890's account describes a mysterious moment:

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

Hmmm… who might this mysterious lady have been? Perhaps she was a woman wronged: one source says that at the age of 18, "he ran away from home, deserting a young 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 out to the Columbia River and there deserted. Later, repenting of this cruelty, he sought to reclaim them and found they had been murdered."

Perhaps there 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 Apostle Islands country! Indeed, the stories do grow more detailed, the tellers more confident. He came to LaPointe in 1841, we are told, and worked as a cooper, or barrel maker. His employer, John Bell, was every bit as fierce as Wilson, and just a bit tougher, it seems. The two men came to blows one day in 1847, and we hear that Bell laid Wilson out with one punch. Humiliated, Wilson vowed he would never stay on an island where he was not the best man, and so loaded a canoe with provisions and set off to an island where no man would ever be his better.

There, on what 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 did not encourage them to linger. Yet some writers say he had no need to raise cash. They say that on his rare trips to town, he attracted attention by paying for supplies from a purse filled with silver Mexican coins. Others whispered of a store of gold, buried somewhere near his cabin.

Perhaps this rumor 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 by parties in search of his wealth." There was "evidence of a violent death struggle, crude furniture broken, the trunk empty, money bags missing."

"Not exactly," says another story: it was whiskey that laid him low. "Wilson had died of delirium tremens… as misshapen monsters appeared against the mud-lined walls of his lonely cabin, he forced his trembling old body to go after them until life wrenched from it in a final, violent convulsion."

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

One suspects he would have preferred it that way.

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Please note: the Scrapbook articles are presented here for public information and education only. Written for the National Park Service, they are in the public domain. (Though if you borrow them for your own web page, please be honest and give proper credit- okay? Thanks.)