Seton, Ernest Thompson

Naturalist, best-selling author, lecturer, and artist who studied wildlife and Native American culture, Ernest Seton Thomas is most widely known as chairman of the committee that established the Boy Scouts of America and as the founder of Woodcraft Indians. Seton also was deeply concerned with the future of the prairie, fighting strenuously to establish reservations for Native Americans and parks for animals threatened by extinction.

Definition/Life Highlights

Ernest Thompson Seton was a naturalist, best-selling author, lecturer, and artist who studied wildlife and Native American culture. He is most widely known as the chairman of the committee that established the Boy Scouts of America and as the founder of Woodcraft Indians.

Historic Roots

Seton was born in South Shields, Durham, England on August 14,1860. He was the eighth child in a family of ten sons. His parents moved the family to Lindsay, Ontario in 1866. It was in this remote wooded area of western Canada that his fascination with nature evolved.

Seton was interested in art early in life. He studied art at numerous institutions throughout the world, including the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in London in 1879. He had been awarded a seven-year scholarship after winning numerous art contests, but chose to leave school due to poor living conditions and illness. Seton moved in with two of his older brothers in Manitoba, Canada, where he was able to expand his knowledge of natural history. He was named the official Naturalist for the Government of Manitoba from 1892-1946. In 1883, he attended the Art Students League in New York City. A year later, he studied at the Julian Academy in Paris, France. In 1885, he was given a contract by the Century Company to do 1000 mammal drawings for the Century Dictionary. Over his lifetime, he created 4,000 paintings, drawings, and sketches, predominately, of wildlife and nature. His work has been on display in museums and galleries in France, Canada, and the United States. He eventually received an honorary Master's Degree in Humanities from Springfield College, Massachusetts.

Seton gained much of his knowledge by hiking and hunting in the prairie country of Manitoba in the final years of the 19th century. He used this knowledge as the basis for his animal stories. Studies in the Art Anatomy of Animals, was Seton's first published book. He went on to become a best-selling author with 60 books and thousands of articles to his credit. In 1898, he wrote his most famous book of animal stories, Wild Animals I Have Known, which has been published in a dozen languages.

In 1902, Seton founded Woodcraft Indians. It was a group of a dozen young boys who met on weekends to study nature. In 1906, Seton met Sir Robert Baden-Powell in England to help develop the Boy Scout movement. In 1910, he wrote the first Boy Scout Manual and was made the first Chief Scout of the Boy Scouts of America. Though the Boy Scouts had adopted many of the principles of Seton's Woodcraft Indians upon its inception in England in 1907, Seton left the Scouting movement in 1915 because he disagreed with the military style set by Baden-Powell. However, he did receive the Silver Buffalo Award from the Boy Scouts of America in 1926, the year of the award's inception.

After resigning from the Boy Scouts, Seton founded the Woodcraft League of America, similar to his original Woodcraft Indians. It served as a co-educational organization serving all ages. Seton established a program he called "brownies" in 1921 for age 6 through 11 girls and boys. This program serves as the origin of the Brownies in the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.

In 1930, Seton moved to New Mexico, where he spent the rest of his life. In Santa Fe, he built a castle on 100 acres and continued to train leaders in Woodcraft.


Woodcrafters are committed to seeking knowledge, pursuing truth and beauty, increasing tolerance and understanding, and to improving social and environmental conditions through personal and collective action coupled with creativity and imagination" (ETSI, 2).

Seton was deeply concerned with the future of the prairie. He fought strenuously to establish reservations for Native Americans and parks for animals threatened by extinction.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Seton's contributions to the philanthropic sector are most measurable in the inception and growth of the Scouting movement in America. In fact, by also inspiring Baden-Powell and contributing to his model of scouting, Seton affected an activity participated in by boys and girls throughout the world. Since the first official American Boy Scout troop began in 1910, the organization has had close to 90 million members. Seton's naturalist instincts, lessons and respect for nature carry on in the nonprofit scouting troops in our country and across the world.

In addition, the Ernest Thompson Seton Institute was established to "preserve the physical treasures Seton left behind and spread the spiritual treasures he bequeathed" (ETSI). The Institute is designed to promote scholarship; understanding of and interest in the works, teachings, philosophy, and historical legacy of Seton and of the Woodcraft League; and to catalog, study, and collect his works, illustrations, drawings, paintings, historical properties, sculptures, and collections.

Key Related Ideas

  • Environment
  • Natural Art
  • Naturalism
  • Natural History
  • Scouting Movement
  • Zoology

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Boy Scouts of America
  • Campfire Club of America (now Campfire Boys and Girls)
  • Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.

Organizations Seton belonged to:

  • American Bison Society
  • American Institute of Arts and Letters
  • American Museum of Natural History
  • American Ornithology Association
  • Campfire Club of America - Charter member and President
  • Explorers Club, New York
  • New York Zoological Society
  • Woodcraft Indians
  • Woodcraft League of America


The Boy Scouts of America. Founders of Scouting and the BSA.
Available: (16 October 2000).

ETSI, Ernest Thompson Seton Institute. Woodcraft. Available: (4 October 2000).

Gilbert, Bill. Ernest Thompson Seton. Smithsonian Magazine, July 1997.  

Seton, Ernest Thompson. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia. Available: (23 October 2000).

Additional Books Available:

The Chief: Ernest Thompson Seton and the Changing West by H. Allen Anderson

Ernest Thompson Seton: Man in Nature and the Progressive Era, 1880 - 1915 by John H. Wadland

Ernest Thompson Seton, Scout and Naturalist by Wyatt Blassingame

Selected Stories of Ernest Thompson Seton by Patricia Morely

Black Wolf: The Life of Ernest Thompson Seton by Betty Keller

The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry 1916-1949 As a New Age Alternative to the Boy Scouts by Derek Edgell

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.