Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946)

Recently I found a nice copy of The Century Illustrated Magazine for January 1909 featuring a serialization of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Domino Reynard of Goldur Town the History of a Silver Fox. Two of my favorite childhood books were his semi-autobiographical Two Little Savages (1903), which had over two hundred illustrations, and one of Seton’s early woodcraft books which contained at the back a sympathetic history of the North American Indian from prehistoric times to the massacre of Wounded Knee.

Ernest Thompson Seton, naturalist, artist, author and lecturer was born 14 Aug 1860 in South Shields, Durham, England. He moved with his parents to Lindsey, Ontario, then to Toronto. He spent his late teens at his brother’s farm in the sand hill country near Carberry, Manitoba. In the 1880’s he served as the Manitoba government’s official naturalist. He wrote Lives of the Hunted, Autobiography of a Grizzly, Rolf in the Woods, Mammals of Manitoba, and Birds of Manitoba. Seton founded the Woodcraft Indians for boys and girls in 1902, and was chairman of the committee which established the Boy Scouts of America.

Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts, based on Seton’s Woodcraft Indians, were a decidedly militaristic organization. The Boy Scouts of America was a mingling of Sons of Daniel Boone, later The Boy Pioneers, founded by Daniel Carter Beard, and Ernest Thompson Seton’s Woodcraft Indians. Seton and Beard both objected to what they saw as the military propaganda of the Boy Scouts, and supported the anti-imperialist movement that opposed the annexation of Cuba and the Philippines.

On 4 Dec 1915 Ernest Thompson Seton resigned his post as Chief Scout of the Boy Scouts of America, a movement begun in England following the Boer War, because of its creeping militarism. “Militarism now comes first and woodcraft, the original purpose of the movement second,” he said. “When Baden-Powell and I organized the boy scouts of England in 1908 and the boy scouts of America in 1910 our purpose was to make all young people of America outdoor children by teaching them the joys of outdoor life.”

“The study of trees, flowers and nature is giving way to wig-wigging, drills, and other activities of a military nature, thus destroying the symbolism of the origin.”

The Boy Scout Council responded that Seton, a British subject raised in Canada, did not resign; he had been dropped because he was pussyfooting about becoming an American citizen and had objected to a chapter on patriotism added to the Boy Scout handbook. James E. West, Chief Scout Executive, blasted Seton for his “radical” and anarchist” viewpoint, claiming that Seton had “contended that the Boy Scouts of America should not undertake to have the boys pledge allegiance to their country, but should leave them free to support our country when they thought our country was right and to damn it when they thought it was wrong. He personally made clear that he damned our country for most of its past history.”

Seton replied through the newspapers. “Not long ago Mr. West accused me of being a ‘monarchist’ and said I was too ‘autocratic.’ If the Boy Scout Board will look up my letter they will find that in the same paragraph in which I criticize America for the Mexican wars I was still more severe on England for the Chinese opium war. In other words I was denouncing all aggressive warfare. I am sorry to learn that the Chief Scout Executive approves such things.”

Ernest Thompson Seton died Wednesday, 23 October 1946 at Seton Village, his estate near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This odd advertising endorsement from 14 Jan 1927 has anti-imperialist Seton touting bananas for the United Fruit Company. Odd that he would have forgotten the notorious Banana Wars of 1903.

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