Biography

Biographical Information about Ernest Thompson Seton

Seton, AKA “Chief”, AKA “Black Wolf” was an award winning wildlife illustrator and naturalist who was also a spell-binding storyteller and lecturer, a best selling author of animal stories, expert with Native American Sign language and early supporter of the political, cultural and spiritual rights of First Peoples. He was born August 14, 1860, in South Shields, Durham, England, of Scottish ancestry (both sides of the family fought for The Old and New “Pretenders”).

He was the eighth of ten brothers; the only sister died at age 6.

Family portrait, 1889

The family, with the exception of a couple of the oldest brothers, went to Lindsay, Ontario, Canada in 1866, after his father, Joseph Logan Thompson, had lost his fortune as a ship-owner. Joseph did not make a good farmer, and by 1870 they had moved to Toronto where he was employed as an accountant. Ernest Evan Thompson (Seton’s given name) went to Toronto schools for his basic education.

He was active in art from his early teens. A woman prominent in the Toronto art community became his mentor in this field, giving him advice (and money) to continue his studies. He won the Gold Medal for art before he was 18. At 19 (1879) he went to London to study art where he won a seven-year scholarship at the Royal Academy of Art; however, he did not stay in the program very long.  By 1881 his health was so bad from poor living conditions and bad eating habits that a cousin wrote his mother saying that she better get him back to Canada before he died. His family sent him a steerage ticket and he went back to Toronto.  Once back home and recovered, he no longer felt welcome under his father’s roof.  

He found work illustrating a set of Christmas cards that brought enough money to join two of his older brothers who were homesteading in Manitoba, near what is now the small town of Carberry.  He and his good friend William G. A. (Willie) Brodie, Jr. boarded a farm train with sixty chickens, four geese and four turkeys bound for Winnipeg in March 1882.  Willie’s father, Dr. William Brodie served as the boys’ mentor in natural history, leading field trips to the marshland around Toronto.  As they prepared for the trip west, he advised Seton to keep a daily journal and to record everything of interest on the same day.  

Once in Manitoba, Seton had a hard time staying focused on farming. He was easily distracted by the natural surroundings, spending his time watching the birds and animals instead of plowing fields.  He collected specimens of flora and fauna, took careful measurements and kept records in his journal.  Willie helped him identify many of the birds and insects they saw until he was tragically killed in an accident. His death was a heavy blow to Seton.

Pocket Gopher 1892

His natural history research in Manitoba involved activities such as  counting all the feathers on a grackle, learning the songs of the various birds and watching prairie chickens dance.  He would go off into the Carberry Sandhills for days on end. This behavior was frowned upon by the locals and he earned a reputation for being lazy and odd.   Here he wrote his first natural history articles and started corresponding with the Smithsonian Institute and submitting specimens to the US Biological Survey.  He also began exchanging study skins with other naturalists both in Canada and the United States, including Theodore Roosevelt.

His first visit to the United States was in December of 1883. He went to New York where he met many naturalists, ornithologists, artists and writers.  He became life-long friends with Frank Chapman, William Hornaday, Elliott Coues and many others.  From then until the late 1880’s he spent his time between Carberry, Toronto and New York. He became an established wildlife artist, and was given a contract in 1885 to do 1,000 mammal drawings for the Century Dictionary.  He also spent time at the New York Art Student’s League where he  met Daniel Carter Beard.

Sleeping Wolf shown at The Grand Salon, Paris, 1891

In the early 1890’s he went to Paris to continue his education in art.  He studied at the Académie Julian where he befriended the likes of Robert E. Henri, E. W. Redfield, Irving Coues and others  destined to become well known American artists.  This was where he did the research for his first published book, The Art Anatomy of Animals.  His painting “The Sleeping Wolf” hung “on the line” in the Paris Salon in 1891. His next painting “Awaited in Vain” AKA “The Triumph of the Wolves” was rejected by the Salon. Later it was exhibited at the First World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 as the entry from Manitoba. There was a lot of controversy about the painting, in Ontario as well as Manitoba, but ultimately, the painting hung in the exhibition and Seton was appointed Official Naturalist to the Government of Manitoba, a title he held until his death in 1946.

He had trouble with his eyes caused by too much close work while developing the Anatomy book.  A doctor advised him not to use his eyes heavily for at least six months or he would go blind. So he left France and took a job hunting wolves in New Mexico for Mr. Fitz-Randolph, an acquaintance he had made on an Atlantic crossing. The story of “Lobo” came from this hunt, was first published in Scribner’s Magazine, and then with other stories in book form as Wild Animals I have Known. The book has been in print since 1898. It launched him into the celebrity world and he became a  famous writer, artist, lecturer/storyteller and environmentalist in both North America and in Europe. Seton wrote approximately ten thousand scientific and popular articles during his lifetime. He received an honorary Master’s Degree in Humanities from Springfield College, MA. 

 He married his first wife, Grace Gallatin, in 1896.  Raised in California, Grace a wealthy socialite, a pioneer traveler, the founder of a women’s writers club, a first rank suffragette, and a leading fund raiser for War Bonds in WWI. Grace was instrumental in organizing Seton’s first books.  They divorced in 1935.  Grace lived until 1959.  Their only child, Ann was born in 1904. She grew up to be a well-known historical novelist under the pen-name of Anya Seton.  Two of her books were made into movies. Ann lived until 1990.

In 1902, the first of a series of articles that began the Woodcraft movement was published in the Ladies Home Journal. In 1906 while in England he met with Baden-Powell, who was introduced to him by the Duke of Bedford. They exchanged correspondence from then until after BP founded the Boy Scouts, borrowing much material and many concepts from Seton without giving him credit.

In 1907 Seton made a 2000 mile canoe trip in northern Canada, with Edward Preble of the US Biological Survey as his traveling companion. The trip was funded by Seton. Although he was not a surveyor and did his mapping with only a good compass, the maps he made on this trip were used until the 1950’s, and are still considered extremely accurate.

In 1910 Seton was chairman of the founding committee of Boy Scouts of America. He wrote the first handbook (including B-P’s Scouting for Boys material) and served as Chief Scout from 1910 until 1915. Seton did not like the military aspects of Scouting, and Scouting did not like the Native American emphasis of Seton.

With WW I, the militarists won, and Seton resigned from Scouting. He revived Woodcraft in 1915, not as a children’s organization, but as a coeducational organization serving all ages, THE WOODCRAFT LEAGUE OF AMERICA.

It prospered. In 1922 the children’s organization “Little Lodge” was merged with the Western Rangers, and became the Woodcraft Rangers. They were not interested in girls or adults, so this became a young boys organization. The Woodcraft Rangers became a co-educational organization by the early 1950’s.

Seton continued to run Woodcraft Leadership Camps in Greenwich until 1930 when he moved to Santa Fe. In 1931 he became a United States citizen.

In Santa Fe, he bought a 2,500 acre plot and built a school, The Seton Institute College of Indian Wisdom and continued to train leaders in Woodcraft.

In 1935 Seton and Grace were divorced. In 1935 (Jan.22) Seton married his second wife, Julia Moses Buttree (also known as Julia Moss Buttree) in El Paso, Texas. In 1938 they adopted a daughter, later Dee Seton Barber, who appeared with them on stage during Seton’s lifetime.

Julia was an author in her own right. Her first book, ‘Rhythm of the Redman’ was published before she married Seton. He did the illustrations for this book. She worked as Seton’s assistant, secretary, and they performed joint lectures in schools, at clubs, in churches and lecture halls of towns and universities, throughout the United States, Canada, France, England and the Czech Republic.

The Leadership camps continued in Santa Fe, until 1941 (WW II), but were not continued after the war, as Seton died in 1946, at the age of 86.

After Seton’s death, Julia continued to write and maintain the Santa Fe estate, and also lectured on her own, her last tour sponsored by the Audobon Society in 1967. She suffered a stroke in 1968 and died in 1975 in Santa Fe.

Dee Seton Barber died in 2006.

This page is based on material originally written by Dee Seton Barber