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Ernest Thompson Seton: The Beginnings of Controversy
A contribution from David C Scott Cabinet Photograph, 1903
Cabinet Photograph of Seton, taken in 1903

David C Scott, from Texas, USA, is not only one of my Friends in Scouting, but also a Friend of Scouting Milestones. It is thanks to him that the image of his own discovery of a highly significant copy of a book by Ernest Thompson Seton appears on these Pages. This book was actually dedicated by Baden-Powell on Brownsea Island in 1907 and given by him to one of the boys who took part in his experimental camp at the very birthplace of Scouting. Dave Scott has also contributed other images to the Site, as well as helpful comments, additional information, and a review of one of the books on the Bibliography Page. His knowledge of Seton being far greater than mine, I was particularly pleased when he agreed to contribute this article.
The significance of the influence of Ernest Thompson Seton (14 August 1860 - 23 October 1946) on the development of the Scout Movement is the subject of debate. His involvement was acknowledged by Baden-Powell, but did he get the credit he deserved? The answer to this must be no, but that is at least partly due to the fact that his own organisation, the
Boy Scouts of America wrote him out of their own history. The story is controversial and the telling of it is not one that a non-American should undertake lightly. I can think of no one better to tackle this important subject than Dave, who not only unravels the facts, but gives us an intriguing insight into Seton's personality.
Johnny Walker

The Woodcraft Visionaries

I RECENTLY purchased a copy of the very well-known picture of Woodcraft's three main visionaries; Ernest Thompson Seton, Robert Baden-Powell (B-P) and Daniel Carter Beard. It was taken on the rooftop of the YMCA building in New York in 1910, on the same day that B-P publicly recognized the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in New York's grand Waldorf Astoria Hotel. His highly-publicized speech was given to about 300 affluent American citizens, dignitaries and YMCA officials, amidst two very interesting behind-the-scenes controversies. The first drama involved B-P's introduction.

Founders Picture, 1910

Ernest Thompson Seton, the BSA's first Chief Scout and author of the "Original Edition" of the Boy Scouts of America's Official Handbook in 1910, stood-up and gave a surprisingly complimentary series of remarks about B-P, whilst introducing him to the United States' Scouting community. For those of you who are familiar with Seton's claims of intellectual plagiarism by B-P, these remarks that night can be regarded as, at the very least, a genteel way of maintaining civility at a very high-profile gathering. I suspect that if he had not, the BSA would have had to overcome an almost insurmountable and thoroughly embarrassing public perception of looking like a bunch of pompous crybabies. And that, my friends, might have been the end of the BSA.

However, Seton, as the host of the event, introduced B-P as the "Father of Scouting." When B-P took to the podium, he addressed the assembled masses "correcting" Seton by exclaiming that:

"You have made a little mistake, Mr. Seton, in your remarks to the effect that I am the Father of this idea of Scouting for Boys. I may say that you are the Father of it, or that Dan Beard is the Father. There are many Fathers. I am only one of the Uncles, I might say . . . The scheme became known at home. [England] Then it was that I looked about to see what was being done in the United States, and I cribbed from them right and left, putting things as I found them into the book." (Scouting for Boys, 1908).

Now, since none of us was there that night, was B-P being truly genuine or was he, possibly, 'topping' Seton by acting excessively humbly and overly nice? Cases can be made for either side. I suggest that B-P took the high road by carefully and quite clearly giving credit to the Americans for originally creating the guts of the Boy Scouting program; parts of it which B-P himself freely admits to have "cribbed" for himself.

The second drama involved the positioning of the three Woodcraft visionaries in the photograph. As one can see, B-P is seated with Seton on the left of him and Daniel Beard on his right, both standing. As Seton wrote to Beard on the 22nd of December 1938 recalling the event,

"The assumption was that we were equals. As we were about to pose, B-P said, 'I think I'll sit down,' and moved over to the ventilator [on the roof of the YMCA]. You [Dan Beard] and I had to stand, by which trick he made us his subordinates, although he was the latest to enter the field."

Was B-P really the latest to enter the field? Were they really all equals? Maybe so, and then again, maybe not. So, do we really know who was the true "Father of Scouting?"

Who was the Father of Scouting?

WELL, in the United States, there were a couple of choices that come to mind, and both were in that picture. First, of course, was the great "Buckskinned Woodsman", Daniel Carter Beard. "Uncle Dan", as he was known to millions of Scouts in the BSA, was a noted illustrator for the world-famous American author Mark Twain. By 1905 Beard had founded the Sons of Daniel Boone and, by 1909, the Boy Pioneers. Obviously the Sons of Daniel Boone was Beard's precursor Movement to B-P's Boy Scouts, occurring some two years before Baden-Powell's Brownsea Island Experiment in 1907. And if one had asked Beard who originally had started the Scouting Movement, he would have said that he had, because "Uncle Dan" believed that B-P's English organization was born of his and Seton's visions. However, Beard would also add that Seton merely organized "a bunch of Indians", while he actually organized the "first pioneer or scout organization".

Beard in buckskins

Other than those beliefs, the main difference between Beard's organizations and B-P's or Seton's Movements was that he had no centralized infrastructure. Thereby, he required a commercial magazine to get out his monthly lessons to the members. "Uncle Dan" found his first home at the offices of Recreation Magazine in March of 1905. All was fine for about a year until the magazine first decided to eliminate his editorship in 1906 due to budgetary constraints, and second, asked him to work for a nominal rate to keep his name on the masthead. Therefore, Beard jumped ship to the Woman's Home Companion (WHC) in April of 1906, who quickly picked up the rights to his boys' program.

But by 1909, Beard's managerial concerns with the WHC again forced him to move his work again, this time to the Pictorial Review. However, since the WHC still owned the rights to the name The Sons of Daniel Boone, Beard had to dump the Sons and create a new organization for his new magazine. He entitled it the Boy Pioneers, whose original 1909 Charter can be viewed at the Boy Scouts of America's National Museum, in Irving, Texas.

Although Beard's contributions to Scouting are critical, in this article, I'm going to concentrate on the other 'father'.

Seton's Indians

THE second choice is Ernest Thompson Seton, whom in 1901 founded The Woodcraft Movement, also called Seton's Indians and additionally known as Ernest Thompson Seton's Boys, in 1901. His organization originated from his attempted rehabilitation of a gang of neighboring boys who had vandalized his fence on his Connecticut estate the previous year. In the late spring of 1901, Seton took about 12 of these neighborhood boys to what can best be described as an "experimental camp" on his Connecticut estate to test his idea of Woodcraft for youth.

From May through November of 1902, Seton authored a series of 7 articles in the popular magazine The Ladies' Home Journal, a monthly publication with a circulation of 800,000. His column was entitled Ernest Thompson Seton's Boys and it was the earliest form of his seminal, The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians, first officially published in 1906, although it had several other copyrights and forms from 1902 to 1906.

Ladies' Home Journal May, 1902
From The Ladies' Home Journal May, 1902

As Woodcraft goes, both Beard and Seton were absolutely fabulous outdoorsmen as well as brilliant artists. The differences between them, however, became more apparent later. For example, Beard pretty much rolled his boy movements into the BSA, whilst Seton kept his on 'stand-by' until he 'resigned' from the BSA in 1915 due to "philosophical differences" between himself and the then-BSA Chief Scout Executive, Dr. James West.

A Fracture in Paradise

Forester's Manual

UNFORTUNATELY for the BSA, these "philosophical differences" between Seton and the BSA's chief architect, West, stemmed from the direction that the Chief Scout Executive was leading it. Specifically, West preferred B-P's more 'militaristic' style of boy-development, whilst Seton sought a more 'Woodsman-istic' style of leadership with an emphasis towards the teachings of the Native American Indians. Also, Seton wanted to produce a series of Boy Scout Handbooks, with each one specializing on a different outdoors skill. The first and only one that he finished was The Forester's Manual, Number 2 of the Scout Manual Series published in 1912 in both soft cover and hardback formats. However, West did not want a serial handbook. He wanted one that expressed the overall beliefs and topics chosen by the BSA's Editorial Board.

Seton, as you may recall, was recruited to write the first Boy Scout handbook for the BSA in early 1910 as a stopgap measure to stem the tide of demand for an organizational manual for its program for boys. So, he used his resources and freely copied what he liked from B-P's Scouting for Boys along with his own creations already published in The Birch Bark Roll. Since Seton included Baden-Powell as co-author in the 6 earliest printings, they are now known amidst American Scouting collectors' circles as being both the 'dual-author' versions as well as the 'Original Edition' Official Handbook. In the Preface of this 'Original Edition' Official Handbook Seton writes:

"The Woodcraft and Scouting movement that I aimed to foster began to take shape in America some ten years ago. Because the idealized Indian of Hiawatha has always stood as the model for outdoor life, woodcraft, and scouting, I called its brotherhood the 'Woodcraft Indians.' In 1904 I went to England to carry on the work there, and, knowing General R.S.S. Baden-Powell as the chief advocate of scouting in the British Army, invited him to cooperate in making the movement popular. Accordingly, in 1908 he organized his Boy Scout movement, incorporating the principles of the Indians with other ethical features bearing on savings banks, fire drills, etc., as well as by giving it a partly military organization, and a carefully compiled and fascinating handbook. All of the last that is applicable in America (from Scouting for Boys) has been included here, with due credit to General Baden-Powell, and combined with the Birch-Bark Roll."

BSA's Official Handbook

As one can read, Seton, clearly, takes credit as the originator of both the Woodcraft and Scouting Movements, while still crediting B-P with providing valuable information to this version of the Handbook. I believe, based upon the fact that Seton complained so incessantly about not being properly acknowledged in B-P's Scouting for Boys, that Seton was trying to make a point by being excessively generous with his credits of B-P and his contributions to the 'Original Edition' Official Handbook.

In the various printings of the 1910 'Original Edition', Seton includes what he deems that boys should know about woodcraft and the outdoors, like how to build a log cabin as well as an Indian Tee Pee. Furthermore, at the end of the book Seton also includes his system of advancements borrowed from his Woodcraft Indians entitled Red Honors, White Honors and Blue Honors; which you present day Woodcrafters would recognize as Coups and Grand Coups. Seton also includes B-P's system of personal recognitions known as 'proficiency badges', which Seton retitled 'merit badges', along with inclusion of 'Kim's Game', the 'Eengonyama Cheer', the basic form of English Scouting's hierarchy, and a large number of B-P's wonderful drawings from Scouting for Boys.

Much of Seton's own contributions to the 'Original Edition' Official Handbook are taken from the various articles that he had published previously in several American magazines, like The Ladies' Home Journal and Country Life. So, this book is an obvious hybrid of Seton's published writings on Scouting as well as literature from B-P's fully operational English Scouting Movement at the time.

In fact, in today's lingo, one could even look at Seton's Handbook as a 'Xeroxed' publication. since there is a limited portion of truly original material that had not been previously published. But there is, however, a definite attempt to distinguish this Handbook from its English counterpart, with its opening lesson on the American flag, rather than on the Cadets of Mafeking. Yet I find this attempt somewhat suspect since the front cover of this Handbook is still B-P's cover drawing from Part Five of Scouting for Boys, less the British 'Union Jack' in exchange for 'Old Glory'. Even so, just to make this 'Americanization' a bit more noticeable to the reader, a subsequent printing of the 'Original Edition' Official Handbook includes a little glued-in notice that states:

"On account of the very fast spread of the Boy Scout Movement in this country, the urgent demand for a working Handbook necessitated a somewhat hasty compilation of the present Official Manual. Large blocks of the material thus used were taken from General Baden-Powell's English book, 'Scouting for Boys'. While fitting admirably the existing conditions existent in this country.

The Official Handbook is now being revised and thoroughly Americanized, and made to fit more exactly into American life and conditions. It will be ready for distribution some time in the Spring at a price of 25 cents."
Official Handbook

This 'Original Edition' Official Handbook did do the trick of popularizing the BSA in June of 1910. In fact, thousands of men and boys flocked to the BSA and signed-up as members. But West was very dissatisfied with the content of this book, so he quickly created plans for the next edition of the Handbook; the one that that is now known as the BSA's 'First Edition' of the Handbook for Boys. And that's the book that West eventually had printed a year later in mid-1911. But would it be as popular as the first one? West hedged his bets by circulating a 'proof copy' nationally.

So, by the 20th of June 1911, West sent out 4,500 copies of the 'Proof Edition' of the Handbook for Boys to Scouters, Scoutmasters and interested community leaders all over the United States, allegedly hoping to get a few copies sent back with some notes of improvements and miscellaneous comments. I find it doubtful that he realistically expected any copies to return with any major changes in them, which is why he scheduled the first printing a short two months later. In effect, West shrewdly used this 'Proof Edition' as a national promotional tool for the BSA. And on the 31st of August 1911, 40,000 copies of the BSA's 'First Edition' of the Official Handbook for Boys were printed and released nationally for distribution.

However, Seton, then the Chief Scout of the BSA, was not ready for his 'Original Edition' Official Handbook to be retired, so he got the BSA's permission (most likely West's) to privately print it after the release of the 'First Edition' of the Official Handbook for Boys in late 1911. Yet West must have later changed his mind, probably because he did not want the odd stigma of seeming to have two "official handbooks". Therefore, Seton changed the title of his latest revision of his 'Original Edition' from Official Handbook to the Official Manual. The next logical question would be, "The Official Manual of What?" It surely wasn't of the BSA.

1911 Official Manual

Sadly, as it turns out, after writing the entire handbook in 1910, by the 14th printing (1916), all of Seton's sections had been re-assigned by the Editorial Board and re-written by others. In the January 1916 issue of Boys' Life Magazine, the Boy Scouts of America - addressing this and other topics brought about by their very public quarrel with Seton - issued the following statement:

"Ernest Thompson Seton did not resign from the position of Chief Scout, as he alleged in a statement which he gave to the newspapers on December 4, (1915) but was dropped by the National Council at its annual meeting last February. Mr. Seton was dropped because he was not a citizen of the United States and refused to say that he would become one, and because he was not in sympathy with American customs and ideals . . . In order that Mr. Seton might be spared the embarrassment of a public announcement of the failure of the National Council to re-elect him, it was decided to do the scout-like thing and say nothing about it."

Furthermore, with respect to his participation in the 'Original Editions' of The Handbook for Boys, this public statement also addressed the question of why he was written out:

"Mr. Seton was not a member of the Editorial Board which compiled the original handbook (First Edition), and contributed nothing to the preparation to the first chapter which completely covers the scout program and the scheme of organization. The comparatively small number of pages of material written by Mr. Seton are interesting, but nothing essential to the program of scouting. They can be easily replaced in future editions by eminent American citizens."

The national response to the firing of Seton was surprisingly pro-BSA, which resulted in hundreds and thousands of letters of support flowing into the BSA's National Headquarters in New York City. For example, one Plainfield, New Jersey, Scout leader and businessman applauds the organization's foresight for "ridding the scout movement of hyphenates." He continues:

"I want to tell you what an inspiration it is for me to know that the men from whom we take out inspiration for scout work have the nerve to stand up and bravely take the position, square of shoulder and firm of footing for good, old-fashioned American patriotism."

Other offers of support came from the Chancellors at both New York and Syracuse Universities, along with the director of physical education at the University of Wisconsin, who writes that Seton's criticism of the BSA is absurd and that "Seton should sign his name with a little print of a 'jackass' hoof, instead of this little fox track, or whatever it is." This gentleman also refers to Seton's "loud braying" produced by his "obvious selfishness and jealousy." I will address Seton's unique signature later on in this essay.

And a third Seton critic states that he was glad that the Movement was free of its "noisy Prima Donna always clamoring for the center of the stage. . . "

However, possibly the worst part of this fracture between Seton and the BSA was that it did not go unnoticed by B-P. In fact, in a most interesting discovery by noted English Scouting scholar, Colin Walker, B-P had written a short paragraph about Seton in a letter to the Secretary of the Boy Scouts Association in England, Percy Everett dated the 2nd of January 1915. This is an interesting insight into how Seton was perceived by his international Scouting 'brothers'. B-P wrote,

"I am much amused by Thompson Seton and his row with the American Boy Scouts (BSA) - especially at his saying they were making it too material and not sufficiently spiritual. He once told me that he had explained why he put no moral teaching into his 'Woodcraft Indians' - because he had none himself."

Of Patriotism and Spirituality

IN the above quotation, B-P's memory of Seton's remarks suggests that by 1915, the Chief Scout of the BSA believed the BSA Handbook to not have a sufficient spiritual basis. But was that really the case? Without delving into the idiosyncrasies of how the Handbook's material was chosen by the Editorial Board in 1915, suffice it to say that duty to God was still the Twelfth Scout Law.

So, why did Seton allegedly say this? Was he hurting from being completely written-out by that time? Was he upset that his original plan of combining the Scouting and Woodcraft Movements together was not possible anymore? Or was B-P's memory of the exact statement incorrect? I believe that all of these hypotheses are true. But with regard to B-P's statement, Seton was very spiritual, but not in the strict tradition of Judeo-Christianity. He abided by Indian teachings on the subject, which he used as his frame of reference for his creation of the spiritual lessons in his numerous editions of the Woodcraft Manual.

For example, in the latter part of 1915, Seton issued The Fourteenth Birch Bark Roll, in which he gives us some clues into his organization's spiritual basis. In the Introduction, he states, "all men are born children of the Great Spirit and may retain or regain their birthright if they have courage and strength for the fight" and that "true religion fits all days as well as Sunday." This is definitely based in Native American spirituality. In his 1936 book, The Gospel of the Redman, Seton tells us, "The Redman's religion is not a matter of certain days and set observances, but is a part of his every thought and his daily life."

Birch Bark Roll fo Girls

In the 1916 printing of The Woodcraft Manual for Girls, Seton goes a step further and states that, "Patriotism and religion are the finest expressions in the life of man." In The Gospel of the Redman, Seton writes:

"There was no stronger impulse in the Indian than the deep abiding love of his country [i.e. 'patriotism'] and the soil on which he and his people had lived for generations. Their most desperate fights were those in which the bravest gladly gave their lives to hold their own country for their own people."

Additionally, Seton tells of sitting in Curley's lodge among the Crow Indians in Montana in 1912. Curley was General George Custer's Chief Scout and last of two survivors of "Custer's Last Stand". During the visit, the Scout gave Seton a signed copy of the Crow refusal to leave their lands in order to avoid an attack by Custer. I feel that it most succinctly states the emotional grounds upon which Seton bases his views of patriotism, "The land as it is, is my blood and my dead; it is consecrated; and I do not want to give up any portion of it."

So, were there examples of Woodcrafter patriotism during World War I? Yes, in fact, the Seventeenth Birch Bark Roll, published in 1918, is dedicated to Carl Edwin Ekstrand in his memory for being the first Woodcrafter to give his life for his country in the War.

Additionally, in the January 1918 issue of The Totem Board, the official magazine of the Woodcraft League, Seton addresses what good deeds Woodcrafters can do for their country during wartime and this statement is re-printed in between the Preface and the Dedication Page to Ekstrand in the Seventeenth Birch Bark Roll under the heading, War Time Honors:

"There never was a time when the value of the Woodcraft training was more clearly demonstrated than now. Men at the front testify to its value . . . America is called on to fight for its existence and every boy and girl, man and woman, must respond . . . We are now living in a time of war, which brings prominently to a point the instinct of loyalty to one's group; that is Patriotism so far as it relates to one's country . . . Woodcraft Boys and Girls can render service to the country. The Council of Guidance believes such service should be recognized, standardized and energized by presenting Honors for exploits and accomplishments inspired by Patriotism."

Woodcraft Way Drawing from the 1927 Birch Bark Roll

He lists Coups and Grand Coups that can be earned in the categories of "War Relief", "Conservation of Food Materials", "War Finance" and "General". Additionally, a "War Time Degree" can be earned with the completion of "fifteen of the above coups." Such coups include, collecting 500 pounds of paper, canning three dozen jars of food, selling $50 worth of War Savings Stamps, and distributing Liberty Loan posters or circulars.

So, clearly, the Woodcraft Movement was in lock step with the BSA in terms of the importance of national war service. Thereby, this manual shows that Seton had obvious patriotic feelings towards his adopted country. However, he still believed that B-P's movement was being used to train boys for military service.

In continuing the spirituality argument, in the 1918 printing of The Seventeenth Birch Bark Roll, Seton designed and used a Woodcraft symbol for the cover of the manual that encompassed the objectives of his Movement. It was the diagram of the breakdown of the twelve Woodcraft Laws, surrounding "the Four Lamps of the Great Central Fire." And, of course, the other name for the Great Central Fire is the Great Spirit.

Child Spirit Drawing from 1927 BBR

In the Twentieth Edition of The Woodcraft Manual, published in 1925, Seton introduces a larger section "On Patriotism", in which he states, "The word patriotism stands in history for the noblest type of fortitude and self-sacrifice, and yet that same word can be used as a cloak for almost any crime." He does, however, list four incidents "which shed light or contain guidance for those who are in need of such." Example 4 is from Luke 10 in The Holy Bible, in which Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to the Pharisees. He also includes a little drawing entitled The Child Spirit of Woodcraft, which clearly bonds with the Woodcraft Movement's slogan of "For Boys and Girls from 4 to 94."

And then in 1936, Seton collaborated with his second wife, Julia M Buttree Seton, and published the book that I have mentioned several times in this article, The Gospel of the Redman, An Indian Bible, a work that is still being sold in the BSA's National Scoutfitter Catalog as well as still being used at some American Wood Badge courses as a model for non-denominational Chapel services. (On an interesting side note, although I do not have a copy of The Gospel of the Red Man from the National Scoutfitter, I can see from its 2003 annual catalog, that the cover of this book does not show the authors of it.) The book describes and documents various philosophical teachings and beliefs of Native American Indians in a form that can be easily read, understood and taught in the outdoors. And it is highly spiritual and clearly states that "service to fellow man" is paramount. On page one Seton writes:

"The culture of the Redman is fundamentally spiritual; his measure of success is, 'How much service have I rendered to my people?' His mode of life, his thought, his every act are given spiritual significance, approached and colored with complete realization of the spirit world."

Seton adds a story told in a 1928 book by Buffalo Child Long Lance of a missionary who comes to convert the Suksiseoketuk Indian Tribe to Christianity:

Gospel of the Redman cover
"'But,' said the missionary, 'there is only one God, and you must worship him.'

'Then if that is true,' said our Chief, 'we Indians are worshipping the same God that you are - only in a different way. When the Great Spirit, God, made a different world, He gave the Indians one way to worship Him and He gave the Whiteman another way, because we are different people and our lives are different The Indian should keep to his way and the Whiteman to his, and we should all work with one another for God and not against one another. The Indian does not try to tell you how you should worship God. We like to see you worship Him in your own way, because we know you understand that way.'"

Clearly, Seton's knowledge and expertise of Native American Indian culture was a tremendous influence upon his personal philosophies on patriotism and spirituality. But did their base in Native American culture also end-up closing-off his Movement from most of the world? Possibly. B-P's Scouting Movement was clearly different.

If one examines the spiritual basis for B-P's Scouting Movement, it is clear that it has an obvious cornerstone in a broad-based, Judeo-Christian spirituality, which undoubtedly helped its overall mass appeal in the early years. In fact, B-P states his organization's spiritual goals in his 1929 book, Scouting and Youth Movements. In it, he writes:

"Our object in the Scout Movement is to give such help as we can in bringing about God's Kingdom on earth by inculcating among youth the spirit and the daily practice in their lives of unselfish goodwill and co-operation. . . . In our Movement for youth we do not give preference to any one form of religion over another where all are working for the best in accordance with their respective beliefs."

Seton's Morality

WHEN referring back to B-P's letter to Everett stating that Seton put no moral teachings in the Woodcraft Movement "because he had none himself", I look to Webster's Dictionary for its definition of morality, which is "conformity to accepted notions of right and wrong."

Ten Commandments

So, are there 'accepted notions of right and wrong' in Seton's writings? Absolutely.

In 1904, Seton delivered a lecture at Harvard University entitled The Natural History of the Ten Commandments, in which he examines these laws with respect to morality that he had observed in the animal kingdom.

In this thesis, Seton hypothesizes that:

"The Ten Commandments are not arbitrary laws given to man, but are fundamental laws of all highly developed animals. [Seton's italics] If this be true I shall be able to trace them through the animal world. We can learn an unwritten law only by breaking it and suffering the penalty. My task therefore was to discover among the animals disaster following breach of the ten great principles on which human society is founded."

Since Seton writes of "the ten great principles on which human society is founded", he must have some acceptable concept of morality. In this work, he notes that the Ten Commandments involve some sort of fundamental basis for the rules of behavior outside of mankind's immediate domain. And clearly, the Ten Commandments address the issue of 'conformity to accepted notions of right and wrong.'

In fact, Seton probes his theory that the Ten Commandments rule the animal kingdom by describing in detail, numerous animal actions and behaviors that illustrate how animals either obey these laws and live, or break these laws and die. In an example of obeying Commandant Six, ("Thou shalt not kill"), Seton notes that a "New-born rattlesnake will strike instantly at a stranger of any other species, but never at one of their own." Of Commandment Seven, ("Thou shalt not commit adultery"), Seton describes how incest in the animal world produces inferior young who will die out in a generation. "There is evidence," he adds, "that in the animal world there has long been a groping after an ideal form of marriage."

He concludes his thesis with the following observation,

"I was seeking in the animal nature for beginnings of the spiritual life in man, for something that might respond to the four higher ordinances. Maybe in this instinct of the brute in extremity, we have revealed the foundation of something which ultimately had its highest development in man, reaching, indeed, like the Heathen Thinker's Tree, from root in the earthly darkness to its fruit in the Realm of Light."

With respect to the Woodcraft Movement, there are clear expectations of behavior and conduct called the Woodcraft Laws, of which there are twelve, including "Be reverent: Worship of the Great Spirit and respect all worship of Him by others." Additionally, there are provisions in the Woodcraft Manual for changes to the National Laws as well as the ultimate punishment of "'death'; that is, banishment from the Tribe."

So clearly, Seton's Movement had 'accepted notions of right and wrong'; i.e. moral teachings. Therefore, I find it very hard to believe that he actually stated to B-P that he "had none himself."

The Brilliant Artisan

ALL of this philosophical stuff aside, there was no denying that Seton was a brilliant naturalist and artist, who had both practical experience and a worldwide reputation. In the world of art, he had his most famous oil painting, Sleeping Wolf, hanging on the wall of the Paris Salon, and in the world of nature, he was the Official Naturalist for the Government of the Canadian Province of Manitoba in 1893, a title that he held until his death in 1946.

By the time of his release from the BSA in 1915, he was a highly-published and highly-paid author, lecturer, and magazine storywriter. Interestingly enough, many of his most well-known works had been published in serial form in various magazines, much like the great English author Charles Dickens. Like Dickens, Seton wanted to force his readers see various aspects of humanity in a different way and ultimately change their behavior. Dickens, however, fought for the rights of the under-privileged classes in Victorian England, whilst Seton fought for the sincere appreciation of the outdoors and the 'nobility in spirit' of wild animals.

Lobo and the Paw Print Signature

Lobo drawing

ERNEST Thompson Seton's greatest testament to this belief is locked-up within his trademark signature, the one that was described earlier as a "jackass hoof". Beginning in the late 1890's, it included the drawing of a wolf paw print, specifically the paw print of the 'King' Wolf, Lobo of the Currumpaw. In 1893, Seton was drawn to New Mexico, USA, by the story of the wolf that could not be captured. Seton, however, did just that in January of 1894 for the grand bounty of one thousand dollars. Although he did not kill Lobo outright, Seton did capture and kill Lobo's mate, Blanca, and dusted her scent on a steel foot trap. When Lobo smelled her on the trap, he gave-up, tripped it, and lay down to die. As Seton recalled this incident in his most famous animal story in Scribner's Magazine in November of 1894, he believed that the King Wolf "died from a broken heart" resulting from his unending devotion to his "silly young wife".

This revelation was a turning point in Seton's life and that day two things happened. First, he promptly ended his brutal trapping career, and second, and more importantly, he and Lobo's spirit became one. The latter of which caused him to devote his life's work to the mantra that the Animal Kingdom has "superior morality" over the murderous nature of man, since man often kills for sport while animals do not. Hence the paw print signature.

All of which leads me to another note about his unique autograph: His signature is probably one of the most misunderstood features of this man by those who are supposed to be highly-tuned to literature. Yes, I am talking about antiquarian booksellers. I have seen it described as "a wonderful little dog track under his name" and as "a bear paw doodle" but both of these descriptions completely belittle what it represents. The capture and death of Lobo caused a monumental change in the direction of his life from part-time animal trapper to full-time animal advocate. So, please think of his life-changing story of Lobo the next time that you see Seton's signature.

However, his signature has not always been this complicated. Or has it?

Variations Upon a Common Theme

I DRAW your attention to the following story to illustrate his 'Signature Schizophrenia'.Panther Drawing, 1885

Let's go back to 1885 when he drew Mother Panther. At the time he used the signature of Ernest E T Seton. (For those of you who don't know, the "E" stood for Evan.) Strangely enough, even the two Setons cannot agree on its correct title because this artwork appears under the names of 'Puma with Cubs' in Seton's autobiography, Trail of an Artist Naturalist, and as 'Cougar and Kits' in Julia M. Seton's book, By a Thousand Fires: Nature Notes and Extracts from the Unpublished Journals of Ernest Thompson Seton. To make matters worse, each illustration also has a different signature on it.

The reasons for the differences are a bit of a mystery, but we do know these facts: The work was done about the same time that Seton was working on his 1,000 drawing commission for the Century Dictionary and this pen and ink drawing was eventually made into an etching and reproduced. However, if one locates this etching in By a Thousand Fires, there is no signature on it. Yet in Trail of the Artist Naturalist, it clearly shows a signature by E T Seton.

Panther signature, 1885

So which one is correct? Well, since I know that the original artwork done in 1885 is signed "Ernest E T Seton", Seton held the original copyright. So then why did he allow different signatures to be reproduced on the etchings? The most likely answer is that, since his signature changed over time, he probably just used the current one (if any at all) on the etching plate at the time of printing.

So, how much did his signature change?
  • Well, a year later, in 1886, when he published his first research piece done for the Manitoba Scientific & Historical Society entitled A List of the Mammals of Manitoba, he was Ernest E Thompson.
'Mammals' signature
  • In 1898, he published Wild Animals I Have Known under the nom-de-plume of Ernest Seton Thompson (without the hyphen plus the Lobo paw print).
'Wild Animals' signature
  • And in late 1899 he published Trail of the Sandhill Stag as Ernest Seton-Thompson (with the hyphen plus the Lobo paw print).
Ernest Seton-Thompson Autograph, 1900
  • And finally in late 1900 he became Ernest Thompson Seton (without any hyphen plus the Lobo paw print), although he was still lecturing under the name Seton-Thompson in 1901.
And there are more variations after that.
Ernest Thompson Seton Signature

Ernest Thompson-Seton Flyer
Throughout his life, he would sign E T Seton Lost BBR signature, 1906
or he would elaborate his "proper" signature with a colored drawing, such as the one of a vixen from one of his animal stories, shown here, or a simple sketch, like this one referring to Hitler in World War IIVixen DrawingNazi sketch

Which leads me up to the question of why he had so many different signatures. This is an intricate story that can best be read in his autobiography. This is the very general history of his signature.

Officially, his father's legal surname was 'Seton, the Earl of Winton', according to the customs of his Scottish ancestry, but his ancestors chose the name of Thompson after fleeing to South Shields, Durham, England to avoid persecution for supporting the losing Scottish Stuarts at the failed Battle of Culloden in 1746, against the English King George II. Seton himself was born there on August 14th, 1860.

However, at the age of twenty-one, Ernest announced that he would assume his ancestral name of 'Seton', to which his father approved but his mother "was silent". So, in February of 1883, his full legal name was Ernest Evan Thompson Seton.

Then later on, his mother asked him to drop the name of 'Seton' and only go by 'Thompson' for as long as she was alive. When his father heard of the agreement he persuaded Ernest to go by Seton-Thompson only as a nom-de-plume during that time (several of his brothers were already doing it), but to go back to his legal name after she died. He stayed Seton-Thompson until her death in 1897. After that, his surname was officially 'Seton', which was confirmed by the Supreme Court of New York on the 28th of November 1901.

Does the fact that his legal name and signature changed multiple times over 15 years have any bearing on what we know about the man. Yes, as does the following:-

Anger Personified

ACCORDING to Betty Keller in her biography of Seton, Black Wolf (one of his many nicknames), she states that he held a lifelong, impassioned hatred for three people: St. Paul the Apostle; United States Cavalry General George Custer and his own father. St. Paul infuriated Seton due to his part in the Catholic doctrine that dictated that Woman was created by God to serve Man. And this condemned his beloved mother, whom he regarded as a saint and a martyr, to be his father's lifelong slave.

Seton family

Next, Seton believed that General George Custer was a supremely evil man because the long-locked, blonde-headed Custer was a noted slaughterer of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians in the American West. And finally, Seton described his father, Joseph, in his memoirs as "a worthless loafer, a petty swindler, a wife-beater, and a child-murderer." And that he was, he added, "the most selfish person I ever heard of in history or in fiction."

On an odd side note, the Seton family photograph shown here has some interesting drama surrounding it. In Keller's book, the caption clearly states that it is of "Alice and Joseph Logan Thompson with Ernest Even Thompson (Seton), 1854". However, we all know that Seton was not born until 1860. Another historian, H Allen Anderson, author of The Chief notes it as "Ernest Thompson Seton, age 2, with his mother and father", which would date the photograph to 1862. Confusing? Possibly. Logic supports the Anderson caption, although his name was not Ernest Thompson Seton in 1862. Therefore, does all of this inaccuracy suggest that Keller and Anderson's accounts of Seton are wholly without error, or does it suggest that they both need better editors? I submit the latter and that these errors undoubtedly confirm that there is a lot of genuine confusion surrounding the life of this very complicated man. But I digress.

Whether these accusations about his father are true or not are outside the scope of this article. The fact remains that Seton believed them to be true, which had an obvious effect on how he saw the world. But the most interesting observation about his psyche comes from Keller, and it leads right into the next story and his lifelong cries of plagiarism by B-P. Keller states that: "the power of Seton's vigorous imagination allowed him to identify completely with both his mother and the Indians - in fact, with all underdogs - so that he felt the injustices and the abuse inflicted on them exactly as if he had been the recipient, and he smouldered with rage at those he considered responsible."

Did his imagination play a part in the next story? Probably.

A Nature Faker? And Summation

Atlantic Monthly, 1903

IN the March 1903 issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, Seton read a scathing article written by the beloved dean of naturalists at the time, John Burroughs, entitled Real and Sham Natural History. In it, Burroughs accused Seton of being a fake and seeking "to profit by the popular love for the sensational and the improbable." Burroughs wrote:

"In Mr. Thompson Seton's Wild Animal I Have Known, and in the recent work of his awkward imitator, the Reverend William J Long, I am bound to say that the line between fact and fiction is repeatedly crossed, and that a deliberate attempt is made to induce the reader to cross, too, and to work such a spell upon him that he shall not know that he has crossed and is in the land of make-believe. . . . Are we to assume that Mr. Thompson Seton, in his few years of roaming in the West, has penetrated farther into the secrets of animal life than all of the observers who have gone before him? There are no stories of animal intelligence and cunning on record, that I am aware of that match his. . . . Fact and fiction are so deftly blended in his work that only a real woodsman can separate them."
John Burroughs, 1899
John Burroughs, photographed in 1899

According to Keller, Burroughs, who was known in the nature community as 'Uncle John', had severely wounded Seton's ego, and the scientific and literary community immediately took sides. But within 3 weeks, all was well again. In fact, both men had been invited to appear at financier Andrew Carnegie's estate for his annual literary dinner, and Carnegie ended-up seating the two naturalists next to each other in the hopes of their mutual reconciliation. And that's exactly what happened.

However, Seton recalled the details of the story a bit differently in his Trails of an Artist-Naturalist. In it he wrote that he had persuaded Carnegie to seat the two men together and that Burroughs actually "broke down and wept." Keller added that, "no one else present at the dinner seems to have seen Burroughs in tears."

So was it a bad memory on Seton's part, or another type of a 'fantasy story' that he had created in his own mind, this time without animals? I believe that his "vigorous imagination" was starting to take over and that his underdog complex was about to surface permanently.

All of which leads me to the following conclusion:

Ernest Thompson Seton was truly an inspired, creative genius, but also an incredibly insecure man, who would instantaneously follow the path of his burning passion until his ego was fully satisfied, regardless of whether that appeasement was obtained through means of fantasy or reality.

All of which leads me back to the source of B-P's inspiration for his scheme, and that, my friends, just might be a good enough reason to go and pick a fight.

I, for one, believe that issues like these must be studied and debated in our Scouting circles in order for our vivid and exciting history to be kept alive. Furthermore, I also live by the mantra that, "One must look to the past to understand where one is going." So, let the discussion begin. I look forward to your feedback.

Dave Scott, Winter, 2002

Next Installment: Ernest Thompson Seton vs. B-P's Scheme


My particular thanks to:
I would like to give my sincerest thanks to two people who were instrumental in getting this essay written. First, to Colin Walker for providing an outstanding forum for discussing and examining one of Scouting's most highly contested issues and second, to Mike Ryalls, who unabashedly put up with my constant re-writing and seemingly unending plethora of pictures to format and re-format and re-format.
Johnny Bear Sketch
Signed in an extremely rare fashion by the "Ex-Chief Scout" on the 13th of October 1945, Seton, at the age of 85 and one year before his death, was still a hero to many Boy Scouts of America
Printed Sources
Letters in the Dee Seton Barber Collection
Letters in the BSA Archive
Letters in the David C Scott Collection
Ladies' Home Journal, May 1902
Atlantic Monthly Magazine, March 1903
The Birch Bark Roll - The Fifth Edition, Ernest Thompson Seton, 1906
Original Edition Official Handbook, Ernest Thompson Seton and Lt.-Gen. Robert Baden-Powell, 1910
Boy Scouts John L Alexander, 1911, published by Minute Tapioca
Original Edition Official Manual, Ernest Thompson Seton, 1912
Letter to Sir Percy Everett, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, January, 1915
Manual of the Woodcraft Indians - The Fourteenth Edition Birch Bark Roll, Ernest Thompson Seton, 1915
Boys' Life Magazine, Boy Scouts of America, January 1916
The Woodcraft Manual for Girls of the Woodcraft League: The Fifteenth Birch Bark Roll, Ernest Thompson Seton, 1916
The Woodcraft Manual for Boys - The Seventeenth Edition Birch Bark Roll, Ernest Thompson Seton, 1918
The Birch Bark Roll of Woodcraft - The Twentieth Edition of the Manual, Ernest Thompson Seton, 1925
The Birch Bark Roll of Woodcraft - The Twenty-First Edition Birch Bark Roll, Ernest Thompson Seton, 1927
Scouting and Youth Movements, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, 1929
The Gospel of the Redman - An Indian Bible, Ernest Thompson Seton and Julia M Seton, 1936
The History of the Boy Scouts of America, William Murray, 1937
The Natural History of the Ten Commandments, Ernest Thompson Seton, 1938
Trail of an Artist-Naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton, 1940
Baden-Powell - Two Lives of a Hero, William Hillcourt, 1964
By a Thousand Fires: Nature Notes and Extracts from the Unpublished Journals of Ernest Thompson Seton, Julia M Seton, 1967
Beard, Boys, and Buckskins: Daniel Carter Beard and the Preservation of the American Pioneer Tradition, Allan Richard Whitmore, 1970, Unpublished dissertation
Seton's Indians: As told by Leonard S. Clark, Penny Bott, 1976
Black Wolf - The Life of Ernest Thompson Seton, Betty Keller, 1984
The Chief - Ernest Thompson Seton and the Changing West, Allan Anderson, 1986
Kahunas Katalog of Boy Scout Handbooks, Joe Price, 1998
The Boy-Man: The Life of Lord Baden-Powell, Tim Jeal, 1990
Seton Museum and Library, Philmont Scout Ranch, Cimarron, New Mexico
Internet Sources
Ernest Thompson Seton Institute
The Boy Scout Handbook 1910 - Today, Jeff Snowden
Scouting Milestones, Colin Walker

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