Ernest Thompson Seton

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Greenwich residents are familiar with historical fiction author Anya Seton.  Ms. Seton, who died in 1990, wrote such famous historical novels as "The Winthrop Woman", "Foxfire" and "Dragonwyck". Some people, however, may not readily make the connection with Ernest Thompson Seton. Anya - nee "Ann" - was Mr. Seton's daughter from his first marriage. People traveling along Riversville Road have no doubt seen the sign for the Ernest Thompson Seton Scout Reservation. This is because Mr. Seton  was instrumental in establishing the Boy Scouts of America. Suffice it to say, Mr. Seton's life was anything but dull!

Mr. Seton was born on August 14, 1860, in Durham, England, to Joseph Logan and Alice (Snowdon) Thompson. He was the twelfth of fourteen children. His father was a strict Calvinist. Although he was christened Ernest Evan Logan, he later used Ernest E. Thompson and Ernest Seton-Thompson as his pen names. (Seton was a name believed to be derived from British royalty.) Nonetheless, he had his name officially changed in 1901.

In 1866, the family shipping business went bankrupt. His family immigrated to Canada. Although his father bought a farm in Lindsay, Ontario, his father soon decided he had no interest in farming. His father sold the farm, and they moved to Toronto where his father took a job as an accountant.

Having spent four years in the country, Ernest decided he wanted to become a naturalist. His father, however, decided Ernest should become an artist. Ernest studied at the Ontario School of Art and The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. At this point, he contracted the first of a series of illnesses and it was necessary for him to travel to his brother's farm in the country to recuperate, where he was able to explore, hunt, sketch and collect natural specimens. One might say he "overdid it" as he ended up with sever arthritis in his right knee.


In the late 1800s, he published his first scientific articles. Seton was able to combine his love of nature and art ability to produce many illustrated works.  These included "Mammals of Manitoba", "Birds of Manitoba", "Wild Animals I have Known" and bird articles for The Auk. He was contracted to submit 1000 drawings for "The Century Dictionary". In 1884 he went to the Art Students League in New York City, and in 1890 traveled to Paris for further training in anatomical study. He is credited with authoring over 40 books on nature and wildlife.

Ernest had to return to the United States since he got ill in Paris. On a return trip to Paris in 1894, he met Grace Gallatin. She was a writer, feminist and social leader from San Francisco. They married, but were often apart as Ernest travelled all over Canada and the United States. He even traveled to Norway and nearly the North Pole! (In his travels, Ernest met such celebrities as Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain and John Burroughs.) The couple eventually had dwellings in New York, New Jersey and Greenwich. They were residents of Greenwich for 34-years. Their first residence was "Windygoul", a house they purchased in Cos Cob in 1900. Later they purchased "Little Pequot" on Lake Avenue.

In 1902, Mr. Seton founded the Woodcraft Indians. He wanted young boys to learn about camping, woodcraft and Indian lore. This would make them self-resilient. This group eventually changed into the Woodcraft League. Several years later, he met William Baden Powell, who started the Boy Scouts in England. Initially he had wanted to talk Powell into adopting his organization. Instead, Seton co-founded the Boy Scouts in 1910. He became Chief Scout Executive and wrote the first Boy Scout Manual. Unfortunately, he resigned in 1915 in protest because Teddy Roosevelt wanted Scouts to learn how to use firearms.

In 1930, Seton moved to Santa Fe where he bought 2,300 acres. He founded the Seton College of Indian Wisdom (later known as The Seton Institute of Indian Lore). He married his second wife - Julia Moss Buttree. They taught summer courses in arts and crafts, outdoor activities and leadership. Ernest Thompson Seton died on October 23, 1946.

Some critics considered his drawings of nature more artistic than realistic. Seton insisted his renderings were accurate. It's hard to imagine a world without his artwork. I went back to see if he was a contemporary of either John Audubon or Roger Tory Peterson. To my amazement, I discovered that John Audubon lived from 1785 to 1851, Ernest Thompson Seton lived from 1866 to 1946, and Roger Tory Peterson lived from 1931 to 1996!  I'd like to think that each writer built on the work of his predecessor.  Certainly, each contributed something important to our knowledge of natural history.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Carl White published on October 13, 2010 7:41 PM.

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