What was the first Scout troop in the U.S.? The answer isn’t so simple

Troop 1 of Pawhuska, Okla., posed for a photo in 1909. The troop was formed eight months before the founding of the Boy Scouts of America. (Photo from the January-February 1991 issue of Scouting magazine.)

There were Boy Scout troops in America before there was the Boy Scouts of America.

A handful of Americans, having heard about or witnessed firsthand an exciting new program called “Scouting” in England, wasted no time bringing that idea to our shores.

By 1909, a year before the BSA was founded, Scout troops had sprouted in Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Oklahoma. These pre-BSA troops modeled their program after Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting program in England. They had handbooks and uniforms shipped to them across the Atlantic.

When the Boy Scouts of America was officially founded at 11:03 a.m. on Feb. 8, 1910, most of these unofficial troops made it official with their very own BSA charter.

But which troop was the first in existence? That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The BSA, like most members of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, doesn’t formally recognize a “first troop ever.”

This mystery might never be solved, but diving into everything we do know about these early BSA troops is both fun and fascinating.

A newly uncovered letter from 1940 — the year the Boy Scouts of America celebrated its 30th birthday — offers some excellent insight into this subject.

A group of Philadelphia Scouts at an encampment in 1912 in Washington, D.C.

The letter from the BSA

The letter was written by George W. Ehler, who was serving as assistant to the Chief Scout Executive in 1940, in response to an inquiry from a man named O.D. Sharpe.

Sharpe wrote the BSA headquarters — then in New York City — to ask which troop was the first organized under the Boy Scouts of America.

Ehler was the right person to ask. He was in charge of BSA registrations in 1940, making him the go-to guy for questions about Scouting history.

But Ehler’s response likely wasn’t what Sharpe wanted.

“After several years of experience with these inquiries and claims, I came to the conclusion that it was not possible from any accepted record to determine which was the first Troop.”

Keep in mind when this letter was written: Nov. 12, 1940.

If, as Ehler writes, “it was impossible to make a definite decision as to the first troop” 30 years after the BSA was founded, I can’t imagine the picture has become clearer in the eight decades since.

Edgar M. Robinson

One troop stands out

Ehler wrote that, in his view, all troops formed in 1910 had an equal claim at the title of “first troop ever.”

Somewhat contradictorily, though, he singled out a troop as having “the best showing toward this claim.”

He identified that troop as, simply, “the Troop in the Y.M.C.A. at Springfield.” But that only adds to the mystery, because Ehler identifies neither the state nor chartered organization of this Springfield troop. There are cities and towns called Springfield in more than half of all states in the country.

My guess is he’s talking about the YMCA at Springfield, Mass., known at the time as the YMCA International Training School. (This is where, in 1891, James Naismith invented basketball.)

That’s my guess because it’s the Springfield most associated with Edgar M. Robinson, a forgotten member of Scouting’s “founding fathers.” Robinson, a YMCA executive, helped get the BSA through most of its first year without a stumble.

From left: Scouting founders Ernest Thompson Seton, Robert Baden-Powell and Daniel Carter Beard

What other sources say

Wikipedia lists a number of claimants for the first troop in BSA history, and many of these were formed before the BSA was officially founded in 1910.

But anyone can edit Wikipedia, and none of these claims could be verified by any BSA records I could locate.

I scoured the archives of Scouting magazine, too, but that didn’t provide much clarity. When talking about early troops, my Scouting magazine predecessors used qualifying phrases. One troop is “said to be” the first in its state, Scouting magazine wrote. Another is “one of the first in BSA history.”

As I mentioned, if the head of registration for the BSA couldn’t identify a singular first troop in 1940, I don’t expect to have much luck now.

A historical marker in Burnside, Ky., commemorates the location of one of the claimants for first American Boy Scout troop.

40 troops that lasted from 1910 until at least 1976

A separate document, published in February 1976, offers even more interesting data. It’s a news release that lists 40 BSA troops that were in continuous operation, without a registration lapse, from 1910 until at least 1976.

In the release, the BSA reiterates that “it is impossible to pinpoint the first American Scout troop.”

These 40 troops have “a continuous, formal tie to those early days, when Chicago businessman William D. Boyce, prompted by the help he received from a young man in England, brought the Scouting program to the U.S.A. and incorporated the Boy Scouts of America.”

Here’s the list. Two things to note:

  1. Information like the council name, chartered organization and Scoutmaster was current when the document was published in 1976.
  2. It’s possible that some troops not listed might have been in continuous operation from 1910 until at least 1976. This list is based on BSA’s official records available in 1976.

East Central Region

  • Troop 309, Chicago
    • Chicago Area Council
    • 1st Congregational Church
    • Scoutmaster: Ernest E. Childs Jr.
  • Troop 1, Indianapolis
    • Crossroads of America Council
    • Tuxedo Park Baptist Church
    • Scoutmaster: Patrick M. Cobb
  • Troop 3, Indianapolis
    • Crossroads of America
    • Irvington Presbyterian Church
    • Scoutmaster: Robert J. Gelarden
  • Troop 2, Detroit
    • Detroit Area Council
    • Fort Street Presbyterian Church
    • Scoutmaster: Albert Thomas
  • Troop 1, Parkersburg, W.Va.
    • Kootaga Area Council
    • American Legion Post #15
    • Scoutmaster: Paul Polsey

North Central Region

  • Troop 2, St. Louis
    • St. Louis Area Council
    • Pilgrim Congregational Church
    • Scoutmaster: David Anderson
  • Troop 301, Webster Groves, Mo.
    • St. Louis Area Council
    • 1st Congregational Church
    • Scoutmaster: Marion C. Skouby

Southeast Region

  • Troop 1, Paducah, Ky.
    • Four Rivers Council
    • Grace Episcopal Church
    • Scoutmaster: Danny Middlton
  • Troop 3, Nashville, Tenn.
    • Middle Tennessee Council
    • East End United Methodist Church
    • Scoutmaster: Robert C. Ramsey

Northeast Region

  • Troop 1, East Hartford, Conn.
    • Long Rivers Council
    • 1st Congregational Church
    • Scoutmaster: Leroy Spiller
  • Troop 3, Jamaica Plain, Mass.
    • Boston Council
    • Congregational Church
    • Scoutmaster: Woodbury Morrison
  • Troop 2, Cambridge, Mass.
    • Cambridge Council
    • North Congregational Church
    • Scoutmaster: Edward J. Benoit
  • Troop 1, Leominster, Mass.
    • Nashua Valley Council
    • 1st Unitarian Universalist Church
    • Scoutmaster: Michael E. Young
  • Troop 16, Danvers, Mass.
    • North Bay Council
    • Maple Street Congregational Church
    • Scoutmaster: Michael W. Smith
  • Troop 603, Malden, Mass.
    • Minuteman Council
    • 1st Baptist Church
    • Scoutmaster: George H. Burgess
  • Troop 17, Chestnut Hill, Mass.
    • Norumbega Council
    • Church of the Redeemer
    • Scoutmaster: John W. Reading
  • Troop 1, Hingham, Mass.
    • Old Colony Council
    • Group of the Citizens
    • Scoutmaster: Herbert Muscato
  • Troop 42, Norwood, Mass
    • Old Colony Council
    • 1st Congregational Church
    • Scoutmaster: Paul Thompson
  • Troop 7, Worcester, Mass.
    • Mohegan Council
    • 1st Baptist Church
    • Scoutmaster: John T. Heffernan
  • Troop 2, Bloomfield, N.J.
    • Tamarack Council
    • Presbyterian Church on the Green
    • Scoutmaster: Stanley Politowicz
  •  Troop 59, Collingswood, N.J.
    • Camden County Council
    • Tatem Shield American Legion Post #17
    • Scoutmaster: James Scott
  • Troop 13, Montclair, N.J.
    • Essex Council
    • Union Congregational Church
    • Scoutmaster: Thomas McDermott
  • Troop 7, Newark, N.J.
    • Essex Council
    • Forest Hill Presbyterian Church
    • Scoutmaster: Herman F. Seeger
  • Troop 1, West New York, N.J.
    • Hudson-Hamilton Council
    • Trinity Reformed Church
    • Scoutmaster: Kenneth A. Glockner
  • Troop 505, Jersey City, N.J.
    • Hudson-Hamilton Council
    • United Reformed Church
    • Scoutmaster: Richard J. Hunter
  • Troop 2, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
    • Westchester-Putnam Council
    • Men’s Club of the 1st United Methodist Church
    • Scoutmaster: Perrin Smith Jr.
  • Troop 3, Paterson, N.J.
    • Passaic Valley Council
    • Eastside Presbyterian Church
    • Scoutmaster: Ferdinand Miller
  • Troop 1, Unadilla, N.Y.
    • Otschodela Council
    • Freedom Lodge #324
    • Scoutmaster: Thomas W. Jones
  • Troop 1, Schenectady, N.Y.
    • Schenectady County Council
    • 2nd Reformed Church
    • Scoutmaster: Herbert J. Roes
  • Troop 1, Babylon, N.Y.
    • Suffolk County Council
    • Christ Church Episcopal
    • Scoutmaster: David L. Williams
  • Troop 2, Amityville, N.Y.
    • Suffolk County Council
    • 1st United Methodist Church
    • Scoutmaster: Charles Dequillenfeldt
  • Troop 4, Lewistown, Pa.
    • Juniata Valley Council
    • Men’s Barraca Class of United Presbyterian Church
    • Scoutmaster: William D. Johnston
  • Troop 4, Ardmore, Pa.
    • Valley Forge Council
    • 1st Presbyterian Church
    • Scoutmaster: John W. Widtfeldt
  • Troop 16, Bala-Cynwyd, Pa.
    • Valley Forge Council
    • St. Asaphs Episcopal Church
    • Scoutmaster: Nuel Bardwell
  • Troop 63, Lansdowne, Pa.
    • Valley Forge Council
    • Fellowship Bible Class of the 1st Presbyterian Church
    • Scoutmaster: Robert Dongan
  • Troop 1, McKeesport, Pa.
    • East Valley Area Council
    • Central Presbyterian Church
    • Scoutmaster: Allen G. Filson
  • Troop 1, Providence, R.I.
    • Narrangansett Council
    • Broad Street PTA
    • Scoutmaster: Robert Carvalho
  • Troop 20, Brooklyn, N.Y.
    • Greater New York Council
    • New Utrecht Reformed Church
    • Scoutmaster: Alphonese DeLeo
  • Troop 1, Flushing, N.Y.
    • Greater New York Council
    • Dads Club of Troop 1, Flushing Inc.
    • Michael F. Roberti
  • Troop 2, College Point, N.Y.
    • Greater New York Council
    • St. Johns Evangelical Lutheran School
    • Scoutmaster: John Spero

Tell us about your troop’s history

Whether your troop was formed in the 1910s or the 2010s, you have a story to tell.

Please share anecdotes, memories and photos in the comments section below.

About Bryan Wendell 3282 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.