A Brief History of the BSA

A Brief History of the BSA


The Scouting movement is considered the brainchild of a British Army Officer and war hero, Robert S. S. Baden-Powell. While stationed in India, Baden-Powell found that his men didn’t know basic first aid or outdoor survival skills. They couldn’t follow a trail, tell directions, read danger signs, or find food and water.

In 1896, Baden-Powell drew upon his background as an army scout to write a small military handbook Aids to Scouting. He hoped to teach his men resourcefulness, adaptability and the leadership qualities demanded by frontier conditions.

Baden-Powell became world famous during the South African Boer War in 1899. He held the small town of Mafeking during a 217 day siege. The enemy force was estimated to be ten times the size of his defending garrison. He returned to London a national hero and was promoted to Lieutenant-General. In many of the news stories of the day, he was referred to as B-P, short for Baden-Powell. This abbreviation was widely used in public and private references to him for the rest of his life.

B-P found that his little handbook had captured the imagination of English boys and was widely read. In August of 1907, he began a test of an idea which had been growing in his mind for years. He gathered 22 boys from all parts of England. Some were from exclusive schools, others from the slums, shops or farms. He took them to Brownsea Island in a sheltered bay off England’s southern coast. Along the shore they set-up a camp which was their home for the next 12 days. The boys had a great time! They were organized into patrols. They played games, took hikes, cooked without utensils, learned stalking and pioneering skills. In the evenings, around the magic of a campfire, they were spellbound by B-P’s stories of his army adventures. Scouting had begun in earnest and was destined to spread around the world.

After the Brownsea camp, B-P rewrote his earlier handbook and called it Scouting for Boys. It was first published as a five-part series of magazine articles. People liked the series so well that it was published as a book in 1908. B-P also published a booklet for Scoutmasters and a weekly magazine for boys called The Scout. That same year, the first Scout gathering at the Crystal Palace was attended by 10,000 boys!

Scouting came to the United States through a chance encounter in the London fog and a good turn done by an unknown Scout. Chicago businessman and publisher William D. Boyce was impressed by this good deed and by an evening spent with B-P. When he boarded the steamer to return to the United States, he carried B-P’s dream and a suitcase filled with information and uniforms.

Boyce found other people in the United States to share this dream for boys. Two visionaries had already started programs for boys with many of the same goals. On a farm in Connecticut, Scots-born naturalist, author and lecturer, Ernst Thompson Seton organized a group of boys called the Woodcraft Indians. At about the same time, Daniel Carter Beard, a backwoodsman, artist and writer, formed The Sons of Daniel Boone which had quickly become the largest boys’ club in the United States.

These three men decided to pool their talents and programs. They also solicited help from their friends and acquaintances, including many businessmen known by Boyce. On February 8, 1910, Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America under the laws of Washington, D.C. Seton became the first Chief Scout of the BSA. He was the primary author of the first edition of the Handbook for Boys published in 1911 and of many more Scouting publications. Beard became National Commissioner and Chairman of the National Court of Honor. He designed the BSA Scout uniform, but usually wore buckskins himself.

B-P came to the United States in September, 1910, to meet with all of BSA’s early supporters. He would return many more times for Jamborees and other events — always inspiring adults and youth with his vision, enthusiasm, wisdom and stories.

In January of 1911, the fourth major player was drafted onto the BSA team. Boyce, Seton and Beard selected James E. West for his vision, energy and administrative skills as Executive Secretary. West had a very different background from Seton and Beard. He was an orphan with a physical disability. He had worked his way through high school, college and law school. West was a well-known and respected attorney. He would serve Scouting until he retired from the position of Chief Scout Executive in 1943.

Boyce brought the vision of B-P and his many business contacts to the BSA. Seton and Beard brought the magic of camping and love of the outdoors. West brought his administrative and legal skills. He also had a gift for convincing others to support the BSA. Out of these, an Americanized Scouting program was born. They added “to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight” to B-P’s Scout Oath. “Brave, Clean and Reverent” were added to his Scout Law. Ranks were created, insignia adopted and 14 merit badge subjects defined. Boy’s Life magazine was purchased in 1912 to inform the boys. Scouting magazine was created for the adult leaders in 1913.

Arthur R. Eldred of Troop 1, Oceanside, New York, completed his Eagle requirements by May of 1912. He was notified of the approval of the National Board of Review in August. He received the very first Eagle medal on Labor Day. A few weeks after becoming the first Eagle Scout, he saved the life of a fellow Scout. For this action, he was awarded a Bronze Honor Medal.

Also in 1912, the Sea Scouts were started. In 1927, eight Sea Scouts would go to the Bering Sea as part of the Borden-Field Museum Expedition. The Sea Scout program was the foundation for today’s co-ed Venturing and Exploring programs for young adults.

The Boy Scouts of America received its first national charter from the Congress of the United States in 1916. President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt gave his support as a Vice-President of BSA and Chief Scout Citizen.

The Order of the Arrow (OA), BSA’s national brotherhood of honor campers, was founded by Dr. E. Urner Goodman and Carroll A. Edson in 1915 at the Treasure Island Camp of the Philadelphia Council, Boy Scouts of America. It became an official program experiment in 1922. OA was approved as part of the Scouting program in 1934. Then, in 1948, OA became an official part of the national camping program of the BSA.

Boyce also created the Lone Scouts for boys who couldn’t meet with regular Troops. This originally separate organization was merged into BSA in 1924. Recognizing a need to serve younger boys, BSA created the Cub Scouting program in 1930. From its founding in 1910 to today, the Boy Scouts of America has grown to over 4.4 million youth members.

The Movement begun by Baden-Powell now exists in almost every country in the world. It has more than 25 million members. B-P was knighted and created a baronet, Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, in recognition of his vision and tireless efforts on behalf of Scouting. During his later life, he was revered as Chief Scout of the World.

Want to see a timeline of significant events in the BSA’s history? It has been augmented with historical events in the history of this council.