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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Hermit Island in Lake Superior

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin is a popular spot for visitors to hike, boat and swim among some of the nation's most remarkable natural beauty. One of the islands, Hermit's Island, did not always have such an idyllic feel.

During the 19th century, a recluse who went only by the name of Wilson lived there and fiercely defended his outpost against trespassers. In 1845 Benjamin Armstrong, an interpreter among the Ojibwe Indians, befriended the eccentric hermit. Armstrong later described this strange character and the mystery surrounding his death.

Wilson had crossed the continent for many years as a fur trader and lost his young wife to an early grave. He retired from the world and lived alone on the island, without friend or family. He kept visitors away by his reputation, aided when necessary by his rifle. He wouldn't even tolerate animals, save for some chickens and a pet rat. But somehow Wilson warmed to Armstrong and "appeared to look upon me as the best friend he had."

One day after receiving a barrel of liquor from the mainland, Wilson asked for Armstrong's help in transporting it to his cabin. When the job was done, Wilson produced several buckskin bags and a stocking filled with coins, and asked Armstrong to count out his payment. He then requested Armstrong to please "count his money and tell him how much there was of it, that he might know how he was getting along in his business."

Armstrong assented, and after the door had been bolted he counted out nearly $1,300 in various coins. Wilson took great pains to hide the money away again without Armstrong observing, and then rowed his friend back to the mainland.

Years later, in 1861, Armstrong heard there had been no chimney smoke seen for several days on Hermit Island. Concerned for the old man, Armstrong raised a group of helpers including a judge and rowed them out to investigate. They found Wilson dead, to all appearances murdered in his own home. The men searched the house for Wilson's fortune but found only a small stash of coins.

Whether Wilson was killed by robbers or if his money was still successfully hidden in the house was never discovered. By the end of the century the island began to sprout fancy summer cottages like this one, though it still takes its name from the eccentric loner who called it home long ago.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on July 6, 2010

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