Scouter uncovers fascinating new details about BSA’s first Eagle Scout

From left: Ernest Thompson Seton, Robert Baden-Powell and Daniel Carter Beard on Jan. 31, 1912 — the day Arthur Eldred (inset) had his board of review at BSA headquarters.

When Boys’ Life announced in its May 1912 issue that Arthur R. Eldred had become the first Eagle Scout in history, the magazine piled on praise.

“He is a sturdy, well-built, keen-eyed little fellow, and his Scoutmaster commends him highly,” BL wrote. “Among the activities in which Eldred has shown himself proficient are handicraft, poultry farming, horsemanship, dairying, bicycling, cooking, chemistry, electricity, gardening, pathfinding and swimming.”

Much is known about Eldred’s Scouting success. We know, for example, that when Eldred became an Eagle Scout he was one of just 50 boys to have earned at least a single merit badge. (He earned 21 to get Eagle.)

But we don’t know much about Eldred’s board of review — that final step to Eagle. We don’t know who else was in the room where it happened. Or where that room was. Or the date Eldred officially earned Scouting’s highest honor.

Actually, that’s no longer true. We didn’t know those details, but we do now, thanks to some super sleuthing from David C. Scott, author and longtime Scouting volunteer.

Scott shares more in this guest post, below.

Newly uncovered details shine light on Eldred’s Eagle

By David C. Scott, author of The Scouting Party and My Fellow Americans.

Some mysteries take more than a century to solve.

This one began in April 1912 when newspapers across the country announced that Arthur Rose Eldred of Rockville Centre, N.Y., had become America’s first Eagle Scout.

To get there, Eldred, a 17-year-old member of Troop 1, had to pass a board of review for the ages. The adults on his board included Chief Scout Ernest Thompson Seton, National Scout Commissioner Daniel Carter Beard, Chief Scout Executive James E. West and Red Cross lifesaving pioneer Wilbert E. Longfellow. They made up the National Court of Honor.

Since Eldred’s rise to Scouting’s top honor was so swift, had to wait for his Eagle Scout medal to be manufactured. He received it five months later — September 1912.

So, what’s the mystery?

For decades, some details and dates surrounding Eldred’s Eagle board of review have been unknown or merely assumed.

That changed in June 2017 when I published some newly uncovered findings in the International Scouting Collectors Association’s Journal.

In it, I provide the long-lost details behind the Eldred Eagle story that I culled from an obscure Burlington, Vt., newspaper article. It provides his official board of review date (Jan. 31, 1912) and confirms its location (BSA headquarters, which was then in New York City).

Furthermore, it provides a list of attendees that we now know includes the worldwide founder of Scouting himself: Robert Baden-Powell.

We also know that B-P was “delighted” when Eldred successfully made fire without matches. But why was this Scouting legend there at all?

Baden-Powell had arrived in New York harbor only hours before to begin the North America sector of his round-the-world Scouting inspection tour. He was greeted aboard his ship by Chief Scout Executive West and a young Scout, William Waller, who presented the general with a letter of welcome from U.S. President William H. Taft.

Afterward, Baden-Powell headed down the gangplank toward a line of sharply dressed Scouts and their leaders that included Eldred and his troop. Baden-Powell’s personal diary, currently held in the National Scouting Museum, reveals that he spent time at Boy Scout headquarters that day.

Additional details in the news item confirm that the vote to present Eldred with the Eagle award was not made that day. Eldred would have to wait.

This was the first significant rank advancement decision the National Court of Honor would ever make, so they deliberated for a month before they voted. Courtesy of an obscure letter discovered in the Minnesota Historical Archive by Scout Executive John Andrews and forwarded to noted Eagle Scout historian Terry Grove, we now know the date of that vote.

This letter, authored by BSA Field Secretary H.E. Schaffer, states for the official record that Arthur Eldred was awarded the rank of Eagle Scout on March 29, 1912. Now we have a clear picture behind the awarding of Scouting’s first Eagle.

Dates to know

  • Jan. 31, 1912: Eldred sits for his board of review, which included key founders of American Scouting plus worldwide Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell.
  • March 29, 1912: The National Court of Honor votes to award Eldred the rank of Eagle Scout.
  • April 1912: Scouting officials issue a news release to the national wire services announcing Eldred’s landmark achievement.
  • Sept. 2 1912: Eldred receives the nation’s first Eagle Scout medal at a local ceremony.

30 Comments

  1. “Eldred successfully made fire without matches” – Sounds like his Board of Review was a Re-test…

    • Shy of reading the material in it’s entirety, that’s an assumption.

      The scout could have volunteered to demonstrate this skill.

      • My advancement history collection would indicate that rank “examinations” requiring minimum scores to pass at Courts of Honor were the standard procedures until about 1930. I have a 1937 policy book that uses Troop Board of Reviews for all ranks except Tenderfoot and Eagle and no reexamination is allowed. The function of the BOR is to discuss ideals and principles of scouting and to counsel the scout on the practical application of the knowledge they have gained.

        Eldred had a “National Court of Honor”. My 1920 book speaks to “winning merit badges” and Life was before Star but those ranks were not required for Eagle. Some folklore says that the BSA wasn’t quite sure what to do about some boy earning 21 MBs so early in the program and that’s why Seton, Beard and West were ones to sit with him to ensure the quality was being upheld.

    • My Eagle BoR was January 16, 1970. We were tested over what we had learned all along the way. From First Class through Eagle we had a Morse Code test. The last five letters on the test for Eagle were EAGLE.

      Was this following the rules of the time? I don’t know. It’s the way it was done though.

  2. “Baden-Powell’s personal diary, currently held in the National Scouting Museum,…”

    Why isn’t in a museum in England, where he started Scouting?

    • Because the BSA acquired a wealth of the Founder’s documents and personal papers after his death, in 1941.

    • If memory serves, Lady Olave Baden-Powell gave it and other BP papers to William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt for his BP biography: TWO LIVES OF A HERO. We probably got it from Bill.

    • I have been to what passes for a Baden-Powell shrine in England and it is disappointing beyond description. The U.S. honors Powell and Scouting much more than England or any other country for that matter.

  3. One of the interesting things about Eldred is that he never earned Life or Star, as they were not required before Eagle. Also, since Eagle itself did not have specific required merit badges, (5 were in the list for Life, but it was not yet a prerequiste). If you review the sash that is shown on the web, you will note that Eldred did not earn First Aide, though he did earn First Aide for Animals. Since someone from the Red Cross was on his board according to this article, we may guess that area was covered in some manner.

    David, do you have additional info on the other “first” candidates, those two that were in the back of the queue for the first review?

    • Terry Grove and Scout Executive John Andrews have definitive information and official documents that confirm that Eagle # 2 Roy Young of Minnesota did not beat Eldred as Eagle #1 (despite Young’s hometown newspaper declaring the opposite). Grove’s dossier also includes Young family documents, papers, and even Roy’s BSA Handbook. The misinformation of Young being cheated out as Eagle #1 due to delayed mail, lack of stamps…etc, is unfortunately not the case. He completed his 21 merit badges a month or so after Eldred had completed his. Without question, Eldred is secure in his legacy’s primacy.

  4. Two additional notes on BP’s arrival and presence there: On his voyage across the Atlantic that January, 1912, just three months before the Titanic, he had met the future Lady BP, Olave Soames, 32 years younger to the day (February 22 their birthday).
    BP’s ‘Journey of Consequence’ in Two Lives of a Hero, page 318, was prompted by a dream he had (late 1911?) wherein he met Saint Peter at the Gate of Heaven, who asked BP, “And how did you like Japan?” “Japan?” BP replied. “I was never in Japan.” Peter then admonished BP to go forth around the world to spread the message of Scouting.
    The tale of that dream and its importance to all of us to this day is something I never tire of retelling to 21st Century Scouts to encourage them to pay attention and learn from their nightly dreams. Incidentally, their firstborn son they named Peter.

  5. Kenneth, you state David’s work is superficial and unreliable but do not say why. It would be best if his references were clearly indexed. The news paper being obscure does not make it unreliable. Reviewing old news papers often reveal vital tidbits and facts that are often missed by more prominent papers as they tend to cater to their often small audience rather then the masses. Please state your concerns and allow for a response rather attack the work provided. V/r

  6. Glad to read this. I too am a Eagle Scout and had the privilege to go to Philmont in the 1970’s!
    The best thing I put on my resume was “Eagle Scout”

  7. Nice article!
    Our troop has the privilege of placing a flag on the this fine scouts grave every year.
    While we service the cemetery for the all the veterans on Memorial Day, we also pause to pay our respect to the first scout to have attained such an honor and place a flag on his head stone.

  8. Arthur R. Eldred was first to be awarded the eagle badge but not the first to earn it. Just the first to submit the paperwork, Do a little more research to discover the true history

    • I have to respectfully disagree. An examination was required by both the Council and National “Court of Honor”, just as successfully completing an Eagle Scout board of review is required today. One has not earned the award until all the requirements are met.

  9. So, lets see. Eldred goes with his troop to salute BP as he gets off the ship. Then he high tails it to the Scout office to have his board of review. Then BP arrives at the office in time to see the fire starting demonstration, a part of his BOR.

    Or, Eldred and BP arrive at the office before the BOR starts, and BP gets to watch from a corner.

    And maybe afterwords the picture of him with Seton and Beard was taken. That was a busy day for both Eldred and BP.

    Do you suppose they got a photo of the NCOH members while the photographer was still there? That would be really cool.

  10. Thank you for your critique Kenneth. From your comments, I’m pretty sure you’re not familiar with my books or historical work. With regard to my sourcing, please look it up for yourself as the reason it had not been found probably relates to their misspelling of his name. it came from the Burlington Free Press, Friday February 2, 1912, page 2. I would also urge you to temper your comments regarding Bryan Wendell’s historical posts as your personal history is to call his posts fake without having any facts to back it up.

  11. This ‘newly discovered’ fact has been known for sometime time in circles where people care about such things. Also, no great secret that archives of US papers are readily available if one just takes the time to look. This article is not all relevant to the present BSA. We have issues moving into the future than revisiting obsure facts whether someone was present or not during a BoR over 100 years ago that play no role in the current program.

  12. Allan Green makes an excellent point on BP’s and Eldred’s schedules. Researching one newspaper article on the internet is not a contribution to true history as it could been a number of reasons a reporter got it wrong or enhanced the story. A closer examination or investigation of who was where and when is in order. Checking Mr. Scott’s books, I see he is a Scout collector, but no indication he is a trained historian. This would not have been released by a professional without a vetting of all facts from many sources, not just one citation from one newspaper found on the Internet.
    Though interesting, I also agree with Husker Hank why some Scouters spend endless time arguing these ‘origins’ without direct relevance to the contemporary BSA and its youth. Eldred is someone that should be celebrated. Whether BP was there or not does not diminish his accomplishments or role in BSA history, at least he had the BSA’s heavy hitters. That’s what we need to see more of.

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