Biography of Ernest Thompson Seton

Ernest Thompson Seton

It would help bring together young people from various so-called stations, break down the barriers that society has foolishly placed upon them, and establish in their minds when they are young a finer kind of humanity, a real understanding that the important thing is the association of a human spirit

It was with these words that Ernest Thompson Seton first described the inspiration behind his organization of the Woodcraft Indian movement, which he founded in many ways as one of the focal points of his crusade in the latter half of the nineteenth century to return American society to its Native American past. At the time of Seton’s birth in 1860, the American nation was very absorbed in an agricultural lifestyle, which for the most part emphasized the best ways for people to get the most out of the land; Seton, however, saw it best for the greater good of America for its people to interact with the land in a harmonious relationship, conserving their resources and landscapes, and learning from the Native Americans who had once lived in the forests and prairies around them. Thus, Seton organized the Woodcraft Indian youth movement in 1902, and it could very well be argued that such actions by Seton could be seen as very representative of a larger pattern of changing lifestyles which was taking place in America at the time: no longer was the materialism of the “Gilded Age” the norm, but rather, Americans were rediscovering their roots in nature and Native American society.

The Beginnings of Ernest Thompson Seton

Ernest Thompson Seton was born Ernest Evan Thompson in South Shields, England, on August 14, 1860. South Shields wan an industrial town at the mouth of the River Tyne, where it empties into the North Sea, and thus much of the town’s business came as a result of its close proximity to the sea. His father, Joseph Logan Thompson, worked at sea, following in the steps of his father and grandfather, and also maintained his family’s strict adherence to Presbyterian ideals in dealing with his wife and ten sons. It was a combination of this rigid moral upbringing and his father’s often violent temper that caused Ernest to later remark that his father was “the most selfish person I ever heard or read of in history in fiction,” and yet it appears that although such an environment may have had far more adverse effects on some of his nine siblings, Ernest was a very bright boy with a very able mind. Even at a very early age, his interest in and love for nature and the world outside the walls of his home were clearly keen; one of the only ways that his mother was known to be able to get Ernest to sit still as a toddler for more than a minute was to tell him, “You are a tree. Trees do not move,” and thus he would sit motionless for more than an hour. A later anecdote of Ernest at a slightly older age also shows the beginnings of a concern for nature that would for sure not be deemed ordinary in that day and age: he and his cousin were chasing chickens around the yard one day with fishing irons, and after they caught one, they skewered it. Although entertained at the time, a forlorn Ernest was said to be later filled with feelings of remorse and revulsion at his “bloodthirsty, savage acts.” He was five years old at the time.

The Thompsons remained in South Shields for another year, but then a number of misfortunes befell the family shipping business, and Ernest’s father came to the realization that the most profitable thing for him to do would be to sell the remainder of his business, and so he did that a few months later, and moved his family across the Atlantic to Canada. After they landed in Quebec, they immediately boarded a train for a five hundred mile trip to their new home in Stony Creek, Ontario, four miles outside the town of Lindsey. There were very few people living near or around the Thompsons in their new surroundings; they were “pioneers” in the most fundamental sense of the word, and it is in this that clear foreshadowing of attitudes that Seton held central to his philosophy of “back to the earth” later in life can be found.

The Woodcraft Indians

Seton the adult was driven by many of the same values and ideas that inspired the American president who was perhaps more comfortable than any other in the forests and mountains, rather than in the boardrooms of Washington: Teddy Roosevelt. While Roosevelt was well-known for his hunting expeditions and also supported some actions such as the flooding of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley in California, which were criticized by other early-twentieth century environmentalists such as John Muir, he was also a dedicated proponent of the active outdoor lifestyle which Seton advocated. Both believed firmly in “youth, adventure, and the great outdoorsand the ideal of physical fitness based on sports and rigorous exercise to revitalize the American character.” While the manifestation of these ideals in President Roosevelt’s life was the Rough Riders, Seton, on the other hand, as is indicated by the quotation which opens this paper, believed that the solution to the deterioration of America was to be found in America’s young people. In his opinion, industrial growth and the expansion of urban America were causing the country and its youth to lose many of the positive attributes which had enabled them to become so great in the beginning: “money grubbing, machine politics, degrading sports, cigarettes, town life of the worst kind, false ideals, moral laxity, and lessening church power, in a word, ‘city rot’ has worked evil in this nation,” he said, and thus began to dream of what would become the Woodcraft Indians in 1902.

The beginnings of Woodcraft itself were almost accidental and represented fairly spontaneous action on Seton’s part. He had decided to fence part of his property in Wyndygoul, New York, despite the fact that it had once been a favorite hunting ground of local boys, but after a number of the boys ran rampant on his land, defacing his buildings and killing his animals, he responded in a way unusual in his times. Instead of seeking revenge, Seton invited the boys up to his house during their Easter vacation to camp out. When the forty-two of them arrived on Good Friday, 1902, for a camping adventure which they viewed rather suspiciously, they were met with an experience unlike anything they had anticipated. Rather than being vindictive towards his young vandals, Seton took advantage of the opportunity their presence afforded him to induct them into his tribe of Woodcraft Indians, which up to this point had only existed in his imagination.

For the boys, the vacation seemed rich in ceremony and tradition, for Seton had carefully thought out all aspects of Woodcraft before they arrived. Central to their experience was a main “council ring” where the 43 spent most of their time, where the boys listened to stories of the Plains and Indians life, as Seton, as he would later describe it, “gaug[ed] my stories in a steady crescendo till I had renewed the Fenimore Cooper glamour of romance, and heightened it to a blaze of glory.” It is clear that it was quite an inspiring affair for the boys which transcended their previous relationship with their natural surroundings, teaching them a new reverence for natural beauty and nature’s creatures. Each boy, as part of the process of “think[ing] Indian,” was given an Indian name, and was instructed in identification of various plants and animals, as well as in the arts of stalking and trail making, and a variety of other Indian games and rituals. When the holiday was over, some of the boys were reluctant to leave, for the man whom they had once hated because he had fenced in one of their favorite places to hunt had shown them a previously unknown side of the natural world to which they now felt very strong ties. Many came to idolize Seton as “Black Wolf,” his chosen Indian name, and some even viewed him as a father figure.

The appeal and success of Seton’s holiday retreat spread rapidly, and, due to his active promotion of Woodcraft throughout the region, camps with different leadership, but following the same set of noble ideals, sprung up all over the Northeast. Seeing the rising popularity of his following among the young men of America, Seton decided to write a handbook for Woodcraft use, to clear away ambiguities about tradition and ceremony, and thus he published The Birchbark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians in 1903. More and more boys became “braves” in the first decade of the twentieth century, and by 1910, it was estimated that more than two hundred thousand were either alumni or currently involved in what had become a prominent movement in the restoration of America’s understanding of its Native American past.