Uniformed Youth Group Biography: Ernest Thompson Seaton (Canadian/American, 1860-1946)

Figure 1.--This photograph was taken at Standing Rock Village, showing Seaton applying war paint to a group of braves about 1903.

Ernest Thompson Seaton, or "Black Wolf," was an award winning wildlife illustrator and naturalist who was also a spell-binding storyteller and lecturer, a best selling author of animal stories, expert with Native American Sign language and early supporter of the political, cultural and spiritual rights of First Peoples. He played a major role in the development of the American Boy Scout movement, writing the first American handbook and serving as Chief Scout. He promoted the naturalist and native American approach to Scouting, but lost out to thoise who want a more militarist approach. He devoted much of his energy to the Woodcraft movement in America.


Both sides of Seaton's Scottish family fought for The Old and New "Pretenders" and therefore had to leave Scotland after the 1715 and 1745 rising of the clans). Ernest's father Joseph Seaton was a ship-owner, but lost his fortune. He also did not make a good farmer, so by 1870 they had moved to Toronto where he was employed as an accountant. Earnest was the eighth of ten brothers that lived. (One sister died at age 6) The family, with the exception of a couple of the older brothers, went to Canada (Lindsay, Ontario) in 1866, when his father had lost his fortune.


He was born August 14, 1860, in South Shields, Durham, England, during the heighth of the Victorian era. The family was of Scottish ancestry. He was raised in Canada. Seton grewup without boyhood friends. His father was very demanding and exhibited little affection. He turned instead to nature. His fascination with wilderness as a child growing up in Canad led him to become a naturalist, an artist, and an amazingling prolific author. These works had a significant impact on both Baden-Powel and the American Scouting movement. He develped into an "impassioned defender of wild nature and youthful playfulness against the utilitarian demands of modern society." Through his future boys' work, he may have been trying toi relive hi own lost boyhood. [Macleod, p. 131.]


Seton went to Toronto schools for his basic education. He was active in art from his early teens on. A woman prominent in the Toronto art community became his mentor in this field, giving him advice (and money) to continue his studies. He won the Gold Medal for art before he was 18. At 19 (1879) he went back to England to apply for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Art. He won (it was a juried entry) a seven year scholarship, that he did not complete. By 1881 his health (from poor food and living conditions) was so bad that a cousin wrote his mother saying that she better get him back to Canada before he died. His family sent him a steerage ticket and he went back to Toronto.


Two of the older brothers were homesteading in Manitoba, near what is now the small town of Carberry. In 1881 he went by train to join his brothers. His natural history mentor was a Dr. William Brodie of Toronto. Brodie had a son (of the same name) and about Seton's age. They had done natural history studies in the Toronto before and after the English expedition. Seaton made a worse farmer than his father. Always distracted by natural surrounding, this was the time of his most active animal art and research. He counted every feather on the wing of a grackle by candlelight. He would go off into the Carberry Sandhills for days and weeks on end. Was thought lazy and odd by the conventional people of the town (still is!) Here he wrote his first natural history articles and began exchanges of study skins with other naturalists both in Canada and the United States, including Theodore Roosevelt. Brodie the younger came to Manitoba, then went on to hunt land for himself. He was killed in an accident. It was a heavy blow to Seton.

Growing Interest in Art

His first visit to the United States was in December of 1883. He went to New York where met with many naturalists, ornithologists and writers. From then until the late 1880's he spent his time between Carberry, Toronto and New York. He became an established wildlife artist, and was given a contract in 1885, by the Century Company to do 1000 mammal drawings for the Century Dictionary. He did many of those drawings at the American Museum of Natural History, became life-long friends with Frank Chapman, William Hornaday, Coues, Elliot, and many others. He also spent some time at the New York Art Student's League.

In the early 1890's he went to Paris to study art there. This was where he did the research for his first book, The Art Anatomy of Animals, published in England. While speaking with his publisher in England, he met Mark Twain for the first time. His painting The Sleeping Wolf hung in the Paris Salon in 1891, his next painting Awaited in Vain (AKA "Triumph of the Wolves") was rejected by the Salon and hung with the showing of the artists that had been refused. This, of course, was during the height of the impressionist period. The painting "Triumph of the Wolves" was exhibited at the First World Fair in Chicago in 1893, as the entry from Manitoba. There was a lot of controversy about the painting, in Ontario as well as Manitoba.


Seaton had trouble with his eyes (mostly from the close work on the Anatomy book), was told that unless he did not use his eyes heavily for at least 6 months he would be blind. So he left France, went to New Mexico to the ranch of a man named Fitz-Randolph, and hunted wolves. The story of Lobo came from this hunt, was first published in Scribner's Magazine, and then with other stories in book form as wild animals I have known. From then on he was a famous writer, lecturer, artist, and environmentalist. As well known in Europe as in North America. Seton was a prolific author. He wrote approximately 10,000 scientific and popular articles during his lifetime. He received an honorary Master's Degree in Humanities from Springfield College, MA.


Seton established himself as an artist, naturalist, and author of animal stories. He was appointed Official Naturalist to the Government of Manitoba in 1893, a title he held until his death in 1946. Seaton in 1907 made an epic 2,000 mile canoe trip in northern Canada, with Edward Preble of the US Biological Survey as his traveling companion. The trip was funded by Seton. Although he was not a surveyor and did his mapping with only a good compass, the maps he made on this trip were used until the 1950's, and are still considered extremely accurate.


Seaton was a lifelong isonoclast. He was disdainful of modern conventions and preferred nature and a simple, uncomplicated lifestyle. He appaers to have especially identified with the lone wolf. He signed letters with a paw print and seldom bathed or cut his hair. [Macleod, p. 131] It is easy to see why he did not get on with straight-laced James West when he becasme BSA Executive. Seton was one of the great turn-of-the century voices for conservationism in America. He in particular exalted the Native American for their life style living in harmony with nature. He thought an individual should act upon natural drives and instincts--presumbably because he has been so regimented by his strict teacher. As a result of these believes, Seton revered Native Americans and throughtout his live sought involved Indian lore in his writings and youth work. [Macleod, p. 131.]

First Wife

Seaton married for the first time in 1896, to Grace Gallatin, a wealthy socialite, who was also a pioneer traveler, founder of a women's writers club, a first rank suffragette, and a leading fund raiser for War Bonds during World War I. Grace Gallatin Seton was born in Sacramento California. Her father had a home built in Sacramento in 1877 he sold it to Joseph Steffens father of Lincoln Steffens in 1887. Steffens sold it to the State of California as a home for the Governors. Thirteen California governors have lived in the mansion. It is now a State Historic Park and landmark. Jane Gallatin the older sister of Grace married Frank Powers (a lawyer). After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, Jane and Frank co-founded the art colony Carmel-by-the–Sea. Grace was the co-founder of the Pioneer Girls later known as the Campfire Girls. Grace Gallatin Seton was an author in her own right and traveled around the world writing stories about her travels. Their only child, a daughter, Ann, was born in 1904. Grace lived until 1959. Ann who wrote under the pen-name of Anya Seton, wrote historical novels that were very popular, several were made into movies in the 1940s and 50s. Anya passed away in 1990.

Youth Organization

Early ideas

Seton began to formulate his "Woodcraft Idea," in the 1890s. He was stronly influenced by a theory for youth work based on the Darwinian instinct psychology of G. Stanley Hall. Seaton saw the American Indian as the model woodcrafter. Seton in 1898, urged on by no less than Rudyard Kipling, to casting his Woodcraft Idea into the form of a novel. Seaton, over the next few years, worked simultaneously on the novel, Two Little Savages: Being the Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived as Indians and What They Learned (1903), and on a handbook for the organization he envisioned.

Woodcraft Movement

Seaton in 1902 published the first of a series of articles that began the Woodcraft movement. Seaton's respect for Native American traditions and life style played an important part in the program. One of the most important American magazines of the day, Ladies Home Journal, in 1902 agreed to establish a new Department of American Woodcraft for Boys, helping Seton launch the organization that he had conceived by publishing a Seton article each month. Seaton published Two Little Savages (1903), How to Play Indian (1903), and The Red Book (1904). Some of the Indian play activities can be seen here (figire 1). These books gave Seaton a national reputation as a leader in youth work. The Woodcraft Indians were the single most important American precursor to Americam Scoiting. Yet the ethos of the Woodcraft Indians was sharply different from that of Scouting.

Baden Powell

Seaton in 1906, while in England, met with Baden-Powell, who was introduced to him by the Duke of Bedford. They exchanged correspondence from then until after BP founded the Boy Scouts. Baden-Powell in fact borrowed much material and many concepts from Seton without giving him credit and the relationship between the two soured. Latter much ill will developed between the two as Seaton felt that Baden Powell had taken many of his ideas and presented them as his own. Seaton sent a copy of his book to Baden-Powell in July of 1906 as a precursor to Seton's visit to England for a series of fall lectures. On October 30th, the two men met at the Savoy Hotel. Baden-Powell's treatment of Ernest Thompson Seton, the founder of a youth movement similar to the Boy Scouts, also has been criticized. He willingly shared his ideas with Baden-Powell, including games he had invented for boys to play in the woods. Did Baden-Powell steal his ideas? Seton thought so. He wrote to Baden-Powell in 1910, "When first your (BP's) `Scouting for Boys' appeared, in 1908, I was astounded to find all my ideas taken, all my games appropriated ..." Seaton's introduction to the Original Edition of the BSA's Boy Scout Handbook makes it clear that he considered himself to be the real founder of the World Scouting movement:

In 1904, I went to England to carry on the work [of fostering a 'Woodcraft and Scouting movement'] there, and, knowing General R. S. S. Baden-Powell as the chief advocate of scouting in the British Army, invited him to cooperate with me, in making the movement popular. Accordingly, in 1908 he organized his Boy Scout movement, incorporating the principles of the [Woodcraft] 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 book."

Boy Scouts

Like Daniel Carter Beard, the founder of the Sons of Daniel Boone, Seaton was a strong supporter of the Boy Scouts. When William Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America in February 1910, Seton merged his Woodcraft Indians with the new organization and became the BSA's first Chief Scout (from 1910 to 1916). The original 1910 handook included 50 pages from Baden-Powell and 100 pages of Seton's writings. Seaton in 1910 was chairman of the founding committee of Boy Scouts of America. He wrote most of the first edition of the BSA Boy Scout Handbook (1911). He included B-P's Scouting material in addition to many of his own concepts. Seaton's text resembles the Birch Bark Roll as much as or more than it does the first British Scout handbook written by Baden-Powell. This mix of Baden-Powell and Seaton still embues Scouting throughout the world. Seaton served as Chief Scout from 1910 until 1915.

James E. West

Seaton did not get along well with James E. West who had been appointed BSA Executive in 1911 to administer the BSA. Seton in particular did not like the military aspects of Scouting, and many in Scouting did not like the Native American emphasis of Seton. With the coming of World War I, the militarists won, and Seton resigned from Scouting. He accused the New York businessmen and bankers that had come to doninate American Scouting of abandoning the Woodcraft Idea he had in mind as the ideological foundation for American Scouting. He felt it was this foundation that should distinguished American Scouting from Baden-Powell's more militaristic model. The conflict came to a head in 1915 over the fact that Seton had never become an American citizen. The position of Chief Scout was abolished, and amid very bitter public exchanges Seton left the Boy Scouts to redevote himself to his Woodcraft Indians/Rangers.

Differences with Scouting

Seton had a falling out with BSA Chief Scout James West and left the movement in 1915. Both West and Seton were strong-willed and soon found they had conflicting ideas on how the Scouting movement should be develop. There were several issues as well as a personality clash between the two men. Seaton disagreed with the military style set by Baden-Powell and West. Seaton was a natioanlly recognized figure even before he started working with the BSA. He thought of West as an upstart and desk-boind administrator. He challenged West's authority to control the young program's development. West had the organization and power base, and forced Seton out in 1916 (also removing all of Seton's writing from the Boy Scout Handbook--although it is not clear if this was West's choice or if Seton demanded they be removed). Seton's contribution, however, had been considerable and American Scouting owes a great deal to both leaders.

Woodcraft Rangers

Seton then founded the Woodcraft League of America. Seaton revived Woodcraft in 1915 after leaving the BSA. It was not a children's or youth organization, but as a coeducational organization serving all ages--the Woodcraft League of America. It prospered. In 1922 the children's organization "Little Lodge" was merged with the "Western Rangers", and became the "Woodcraft Rangers". They were not interested in girls or adults, so this became a young boys organization. The Woodcraft Rangers became a co-educational organization by the early 1950s. Seton continued to run Woodcraft Leadership Camps in Greenwich until 1930 when he moved to Santa Fe.


One of the many issues that West and Seaton had disagreed on was Cubbing. Unlike West and Beard, Seaton was a strong proponent of Cubbing. Seton developed a plan for incorporating younger boys into Scouting in 1911. It was based on his experiences with the the Woodcraft Indians. The original group in 1902 was for boys aged 12 to 15 years and was based on North American Indian lore and outdoor life. In 1906 he added the Little Lodge of Woodcraft Indians for younger boys and girls, which in many ways was the fore runner of Cubbing, even though it took the Boy Scouts many years to establish Cubbing--well after most other countries had established the program. Seatons 1911 idea for BSA Cubbing was to be called "The Cubs of America" and use the bear cub as its symbol. Disagreements among Scouting's founders over the value of the new program caused it to be set aside. Seaton later came back to the BSA in 1930 finally organize Cubbing for the younger boys.


One interesting aspect of the Seaton legacy is his thoughts on religion. Seaton looked primarily to American Indian religions as the model for spirituality and ethics. Based upon reading and interviews, Seaton composed the "The Indian's Creed." He found while native Americans believed in many gods, he accepted "one Supreme Spirit." Seaton was convinced that the "redman's religion" could revitalize 20th century white society, Seton described in detail the "redman's" traits: he was reverent, clean, chaste, brave, thrifty, cheerful, obedient, kind, hospitable, truthful, honorable, and temperate, the model of physical excellence. Seton clearly was more in tune with American Indian religions more than traditional European faiths. As one reviewwe wrote, "Seaton was as likely to hold up the famed Shawnee chief Tecumseh as a model of spiritual manhood as he was Christ." This is of course quite different than the current positiion on religion of American Scouting.


Seaton in 1931 he became a United States citizen. In Santa Fe, he built a castle on 100 acres in his "retirement" and continued to train leaders in Woodcraft.

Second Wife

Seaton and Grace in 1934 were divorced. Ernest soon after the divorce married Julia Moses Buttree on January 22, 1935 in El Paso, Texas. Julia was an author who wrote about Native arts, crafts and music. Julia was also known as Julia Moss Buttree. They adopted a daughter (1938), now Dee Seton Barber, who appeared with them on stage during Seton's lifetime. Julia was an author in her own right. Her first book, Rhythm of the Redman was published before she married Seton. He did the illustrations for this book. She worked as Seton's assistant, secretary, and they performed joint lectures in schools, at clubs, in churches and lecture halls of towns and universities, throughout the United States, Canada, France, England and the Czech Republic. The Leadership camps continued in Santa Fe, until World War II (1941), but were not continued after the War. Seaton passed away in 1946, at the age of 86. After Seton's death, Julia continued to write and maintain the Santa Fe estate, and also lectured on her own, her last tour sponsored by the Audobon Society in 1967. She suffered a stroke in 1968 and died in 1975 in Santa Fe.


Seaton was an amazingly prolific author. His major books included: 1886 Mammals Of Manitoba 1891 Birds Of Manitoba, Foster 1894 How to Catch Wolves, Oneida Community 1896 Studies in the Art Anatomy of Animals, Macmillan 1898 Wild Animals I Have Known, Scribners 1899 The Trail of The Sandhill Stag, Scribners 1899 Lobo, Rag, and Vixen, Scribners 1900 The Wild Animal Play For Children (Musical), Doubleday & Curtis 1900 The Biography of A Grizzly, Century 1900 Lobo 1900 Ragylug 1900 American Printing House For The Blind, Wild Animals I have Known (NY point system) 1900 Pennsylvania Institution for the Blind Four Books In Braille: Lobo, Redruff, Raggylug, Vixen 1901 Lives of the Hunted, Scribners 1901 Twelve Pictures of Wild Animals (no text) Scribners 1902 Krag and Johnny Bear, Scribners 1903 How to Play Indian 1903 Two Little Savages, Doubleday 1903 How to Make A Real Indian Teepee, Curtis 1903 How Boys Can Form A Band of Indians, Curtis 1904 The Red Book 1904 Monarch, The Big Bear of Tallac, Scribners 1905 Woodmyth and Fable, Century 1905 Animal Heroes, Scribners 1906 The Birchbark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians 1907 The Natural History of the Ten Commandments, Scribners 1909 Fauna of Manitoba, British Assoc. Handbook 1909 Biography of A Silver Fox, Century 1909 Life-Histories of Northern Animals (2 Volumes), Scribners 1910 BSA: A Handbook of Woodcraft, Scouting, and Life-craft, Including General Sir Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys. Doubleday and Page for the Boy Scouts of America 1910 The Forester's Manual, Doubleday 1911 The Arctic Prairies, Scribners 1911 Rolf In The Woods, Doubleday (Dedicated to the Boy Scouts of America). Note: Full text is available on-line, thanks to Ted Soldan and the holders of the copyright. 1912 The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore 1912 The Red Lodge, private printing of 100 copies 1913 Wild Animals At Home, Doubleday 1915 The Slum Cat, Constable (London) 1915 Legend of the White Reindeer, Constable (London) 1915 The Manual of the Woodcraft Indians 1916 Wild Animal Ways, Doubleday 1916 Woodcraft Manual for Girls 1917 The Preacher of Cedar Mountain, Doubleday 1917 Woodcraft Manual for Boys; the Sixteenth Birch Bark Roll by Ernest Thompson Seton. Published for the Woodcraft League of America, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, Page & Company, 1917. 441 pp., illus. and music. 1918 The Woodcraft Manual for Boys; the Seventeenth Birch Bark Roll by Ernest Thompson Seton. Published for the Woodcraft League of America, Inc. Garden City, New York Doubleday, Page & Company, 441 pp. Illus. and music. 1918 The Woodcraft Manual for Girls; the Eighteenth Birch Bark Roll, Published for the Woodcraft League of America, Inc. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 424 pp. Illus. and music. 1918 Sign Talk of the Indians, Doubleday 1919 The Laws and Honors of the Little Lodge of Woodcraft., 8 vo. Published at Cheyenne, Wyo. August. 4th edition. 1921 The Brownie Wigwam; The Rules of the Brownies. Fun outdoors for boys and girls under 11 years of age. Woodcraft League of America, N. Y. 8 vo., 7 pp. 5th edition, the first being part of the Birch Bark Roll for 1906 1921 The Buffalo Wind 1921 Woodland Tales 1921 The Book of Woodcraft 1922 The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore; Doubleday, Page & Co., 590 pp. More than 500 drawings by the author; 3rd edition of the 1912 issue, enlarged by the inclusion of "The Foresters Manual." 1922 Bannertail: The Story of A Gray Squirrel, Scribners 1922 Manual of the Brownies; Manual of the Brownies, the Little Lodge of the Woodcraft League of America. 6th edition. A pamphlet of 10 pp. Oct., New York. 1923 The Ten Commandments in the Animal World, Doubleday 1926 Animals, The Nature Library, Doubleday (Color Plates) 1927 Lobo, Rag, and Vixen (The Scribner Series of School Reading), Scribners, 147 pp. ca. 1927 Old Silver Grizzly, Hodder (London) ca. 1927 Raggylug and Other Stories, Hodder (London) ca. 1927 Chink and Other Stories, Hodder (London) ca. 1927 Foam The Razorback, Hodder (London) ca. 1927 Johnny Bear and Other Stories, Hodder (London) ca. 1927 Lobo and Other Stories, Hodder (London) 1928 Animals Worth Knowing, (As Above), The Little Nature Library, Doubleday (No Color Plates) 1925-1928 Lives of Game Animals (4 Volumes), Doubleday 1928 Blazes on The Trail, Little Peegno Press (3 Pamphlets): Life Craft or Woodcraft; Rise of the Woodcraft Indians; Spartans of the West 1929 Krag, The Kootenay Ram and Other Stories, University of London Press 1930 Billy the Dog That Made Good, Hodder (London) 1930 Cute Coyote and Other Stories, Hodder (London) 1930 Lobo, Bingo, The Pacing Mustang 1932 Famous Animal Stories 1934 Animals Worth Knowing 1935 Johnny Bear, Lobo and Other Stories, (Modern Standard Authors) Scribners 1936 The Gospel of the Redman, with Julia Seton, Doubleday 1937 Biography of An Arctic Fox, Appleton-Century 1937 Great Historic Animals, Scribners 1937 Mainly About Wolves (Same as above), Methuen (London) 1937 Pictographs of the Old Southwest, with other authors, Cedar Rapids 1938 Buffalo Wind, Private printing of 200 1940 Trail and Camp-Fire Stories 1940 Trail of an Artist-Naturalist: The Autobiography of Ernest Thompson Seton, Scribners 1945 Santanna, The Hero Dog of France, Limited printing of 500 copies with 300 autographed, Phoenix Press 1949 The Best of Ernest Thompson Seton 1954 Ernest Thompson Seton's America; Selections of the writings of the artist-naturalist. New York: Devin-Adair Co. 413 pages Edited with an intro by Farida A. Wiley 1958 Animal Tracks and Hunter Signs 1958 The Gospel of the Redman; with Julia M. Seton, Santa Fe NM; Seton Village 1976 The Worlds of Ernest Thompson Seton. (Edited, with introduction and commentary, by John G. Samson). New York: Knopf. 204 pp.

Reader Comments

A reader writes, "I found this very interesting. Ernest Thompson Seton ( real name Ernest Seton Thompson ) was my grandfather's brother and was actually Canadian by birth. My side of this family has always lived in Toronto and my late father was going to see his uncle at the so-called Seton Castle when World War II broke out. ETS died in 1941." [Thompson]


Macleod, David I. Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920 (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 315p.

Thompson, James. E-mail message, January 27, 2007.


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Created: December 2, 2000
Last updated: 4:28 PM 7/31/2007