10 fascinating facts about Scouting founder Ernest Thompson Seton

Ernest Thompson Seton in 1915He was the first Chief Scout of the Boy Scouts of America. He helped write the first Boy Scout Handbook. And today there’s a Scout camp in Greenwich, Conn., that bears his name.

But there’s a lot you probably don’t know about Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America. Fortunately, Julie A. Seton, Ph.D., is something of an expert on the man. After all, she’s his granddaughter.

Julie Seton recently rereleased her grandfather’s autobiography, Trail of an Artist-Naturalist, which you can find at your local Scout Shop or online. And she shares these 10 fascinating facts about this Scouting founder:

1. He understood humans first.

Seton gained fame for his understanding of animals, but he knew a lot about humans, too.

The foundations of Seton’s “scheme of education in outdoor life” started with a study of human instinct. He observed and recorded 60 instincts, including hero worship, gang instinct, love of glory, hunter instinct, caveman instinct, play, fear of the dark, initiation instinct and more.

Along with many national leaders, Seton was concerned about the youth of the time. He used his understanding of humans to start an organization for youth designed to have them develop into adults with compassion for the natural world and commitment to community.

2. He started a youth organization that precedes Scouting.

Seton’s hero was the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, whom Seton considered “physically perfect, wise, brave, picturesque, unselfish, dignified.”

So it makes sense that Seton would name his youth organization the Woodcraft Indians. Boys who joined learned to swim, canoe, identify birds and more.

Seton announced the organization’s creation in the May 1902 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal and started the first tribe of Woodcraft Indians in Cos Cob, Conn.

3. He sent a copy of his Woodcraft Indians handbook to Robert Baden-Powell.

In 1906, Seton sent a copy of The Birch-Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians, essentially that organization’s handbook, to Baden-Powell. B-P was impressed.

He met with Seton at the Savoy Hotel in London on Oct. 30, 1906, and the two men spent several hours in discussion about Seton’s work with boys.

A year later, Baden-Powell held an experimental camp on Brownsea Island in England, which is considered the beginning of the worldwide Scout movement.

4. He helped create the Boy Scouts of America.

The original members of the Woodcraft Indians became the first Scouts in the Boy Scouts of America when the BSA began in 1910.

Seton served as president of the committee that formed the BSA.

5. He helped write the first BSA handbook.

Seton used material from The Birch-Bark Roll and B-P’s Scouting for Boys to create a provisional BSA handbook.

In the preface, he took credit for starting Scouting.

6. He was the BSA’s first Chief Scout.

Soon after the BSA’s founding in 1910, Seton became the first Chief Scout of the BSA.

At the time, though, he didn’t know he’d also be the BSA’s only Chief Scout. Ever.

7. He wrote for Boys’ Life magazine.

Seton wrote for the iconic magazine for boys. His first article — “Smoke Signals, Sign Talk and Totems” — appeared in 1912.

In one timeless section of the article, he responded to boys seeking advice for patrol names.

“We have used animals and birds chiefly, but why not trees, natural wonders, clans of men?” he asked.

Later, Seton’s Boys’ Life column “With the Chief Scout” became a standard feature where he shared his experiences meeting with Scouts across the country. These articles were written as dialogues with individual Scouts and demonstrate “good turns,” such as picking up broken glass and turning off the electricity when leaving the room.

8. He clashed with James E. West.

In 1915, BSA executives removed the position of Chief Scout, and James E. West became Chief Scout Executive.

As recounted in this Scouting magazine story, the relationship between Seton and West had soured.

He and Chief Scout Executive James E. West had never seen eye to eye, and on Dec. 5, Seton called a press conference to announce his resignation from the BSA. His verdict on Scouting was simple: “Seton started it; Baden-Powell boomed it; West killed it.”

9. He was one of the first recipients of the Silver Buffalo Award.

The tension ended in 1926.

That’s the year the BSA established the Silver Buffalo Award, which is the highest honor available to adults. Seton was part of that first Silver Buffalo class of 22 men, sharing the honor with Robert Baden-Powell, William D. Boyce, Daniel Carter Beard, the Unknown Scout … and James E. West.

10. His legacy is honored at a Scout camp in Connecticut.

Seton Scout Reservation in Greenwich, Conn., honors the legacy of Ernest Thompson Seton.

In addition to starting the first Woodcraft Indians tribe near Greenwich, Seton was the first president of the BSA’s Greenwich Council.

Learn more

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About Bryan Wendell 2855 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.