Biographical Information about Ernest Thompson Seton
Seton (“the 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” and therefore had to leave Scotland after the ’15 and ’45).
He was the eighth of ten brothers that lived. (One sister died at age 6) The family, with the exception of a couple of the older brothers, went to Canada (Lindsay, Ontario) in 1866, when his father had lost his fortune as a ship-owner. Joseph (father) did not make a good farmer, so by 1870 they had moved to Toronto where he was employed as an accountant. Seton went to Toronto schools for his basic education.
He was active in art from his early teens on. 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 back to England to apply for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Art. He won (it was a juried entry) a seven year scholarship, that he did not complete. By 1881 his health (from poor food and living conditions) was so bad 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.
Two of the older brothers were homesteading in Manitoba, near what is now the small town of Carberry. In 1881 he went by train to join his brothers. His natural history mentor was a Dr. William Brodie of Toronto. Brodie had a son (of the same name) and about Seton’s age. They had done natural history studies in the Toronto before and after the English expedition.
Seton made a worse farmer than his father. Always distracted by natural surrounding, this was the time of his most active animal art and research. He counted every feather on the wing of a grackle by candlelight. He would go off into the Carberry Sandhills for days and weeks on end. Was thought lazy and odd by the conventional people of the town (still is!) Here he wrote his first natural history articles and began exchanges of study skins with other naturalists both in Canada and the United States, including Theodore Roosevelt. Brodie the younger came to Manitoba, then went on to hunt land for himself. He was killed in an accident. It was a heavy blow to Seton.
His first visit to the United States was in December of 1883. He went to New York where met with many naturalists, ornithologists and writers. 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, by the Century Company to do 1000 mammal drawings for the Century Dictionary. He did many of those drawings at the American Museum of Natural History, became life-long friends with Frank Chapman, William Hornaday, Coues, Elliot, and many others. He also spent some time at the New York Art Student’s League.
In the early 1890’s he went to Paris to study art there. This was where he did the research for his first book,The Art Anatomy of Animals, published in England. While speaking with his publisher in England, he met Mark Twain for the first time. His painting “The Sleeping Wolf” hung in the Paris Salon in 1891, his next painting “Awaited in Vain” AKA “Triumph of the Wolves” was rejected by the Salon and hung with the showing of the artists that had been refused. This, of course, was during the height of the impressionist period.
He had trouble with his eyes (mostly from the close work on the Anatomy book), was told that unless he did not use his eyes heavily for at least six months he would be blind. So he left France, went to New Mexico to the ranch of a man named Fitz-Randolph, and hunted wolves. 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. From then on he was a famous writer, lecturer, artist, and environmentalist. As well known in Europe as in North America. 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 for the first time in 1896, to Grace Gallatin, a wealthy socialite, who was also a pioneer traveler, founder of a women’s writers club, a first rank suffragette, and a leading fund raiser for War Bonds in WWI. Their only child, a daughter, Ann, was born in 1904 and died 1990. Grace lived until 1959. Ann who wrote under the pen-name of Anya Seton, wrote historical novels that were very popular, with two made into movies in the forties and fifties.
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 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 built a castle on 100 acres in his “retiremen,t” and continued to train leaders in Woodcraft. In addition to this, he wrote most of the first U.S. edition of the Boy Scout Handbook and was responsible for many of the concepts found within Scouting throughout the world.
In 1934 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