Seton, born Ernest Evan Thompson, was an award-winning wildlife illustrator and naturalist who was also a spell-binding storyteller and lecturer, a best-selling author of animal stories, an expert in Native American Sign language, and an 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 to reach adulthood; a sister died at age 6.
He was known by several names and nicknames throughout his life, including three given by leaders of separate North American Indigenous Nations: Ah-pas-to (Sign Talker), given by the Blackfoot Nation in 1916; Mahto Ska, given by Yanktonais Chief White Bear in 1927; and shunka sapa (Black Wolf), given by the Lakota Nation. Black Wolf was also his Woodcraft name. Nicknames included Chief, ETS, Wolf Thompson, and Wolf Seton.
The family emigrated 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.
Seton attended Toronto schools. 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 at the Ontario School of Art. He won the Gold Medal in the spring of 1879. In August, he went to London to study art, where he won a seven-year scholarship to the Royal Academy of Art in December 1880; however, he stayed less than a year. 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 returned 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 embraced the life of a field naturalist rather than a homesteader. He was easily distracted by the natural surroundings, spending his time watching the wildlife 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.
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. The locals frowned upon this behavior, and he earned a reputation for being lazy and odd. He wrote his first natural history articles, started corresponding with the Smithsonian Institute, and submitted specimens to the US Biological Survey. He also began exchanging study skins with other naturalists in Canada and the United States, including Theodore Roosevelt.
His first visit to the United States was in December of 1883. He visited New York and met many naturalists, ornithologists, artists, and writers. He became lifelong friends with Frank Chapman, William Hornaday, Elliott Coues, and many others. From then until the late 1880s, he spent his time between Carberry, Toronto, and New York. He became an established wildlife artist and was contracted 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.
In the early 1890s, he re-visited his art education in Paris, studying 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 researched 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” or “The Triumph of the Wolves,” was rejected by the Salon; but later was exhibited at the first World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Seton was appointed Official Naturalist to the Government of Manitoba – a title he held until he died in 1946 – as compensation for designing and building the natural history exhibit for Manitoba at the Fair.
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 North America and 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 (formerly the International YMCA College) in Springfield College.
He married his first wife, Grace Gallatin, in 1896. Raised in California, Grace was 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 as a well-known historical novelist under the 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 until after BP founded the Boy Scouts, borrowing many materials and concepts from Seton without giving him credit.
1907 Seton made a 2000-mile canoe trip in northern Canada, with Edward Preble of the US Biological Survey as his traveling companion. Seton funded the trip. 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 1950s 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 BP’s Scouting for Boys material) and served as Chief Scout from 1910 until 1915. Seton did not like the military aspects of Scouting, and some key Scouting leaders 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 1950s.
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 and secretary, and they performed joint lectures in schools, clubs, churches, and lecture halls of towns and universities throughout the United States, Canada, England, France, Mexico, 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 lectured on her own, her last tour sponsored by the Audubon 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.