Ernest Thompson Seton and the Woodcraft Indians
by Christiaan P. Vorkink
It was with these words that Ernest Thompson Seton first described the inspiration behind his organization of the Woodcraft Indian movement, which he founded in many ways as one of the focal points of his crusade in the latter half of the nineteenth century to return American society to its Native American past. At the time of Seton's birth in 1860, the American nation was very absorbed in an agricultural lifestyle, which for the most part emphasized the best ways for people to get the most out of the land; Seton, however, saw it best for the greater good of America for its people to interact with the land in a harmonious relationship, conserving their resources and landscapes, and learning from the Native Americans who had once lived in the forests and prairies around them. Thus, Seton organized the Woodcraft Indian youth movement in 1902, and it could very well be argued that such actions by Seton could be seen as very representative of a larger pattern of changing lifestyles which was taking place in America at the time: no longer was the materialism of the "Gilded Age" the norm, but rather, Americans were rediscovering their roots in nature and Native American society.
"It would help bring together young people from various so-called stations, break down the barriers that society has foolishly placed upon them, and establish in their minds when they are young a finer kind of humanity, a real understanding that the important thing is the association of a human spirit."
I. The Beginnings of Ernest Thompson Seton
Ernest Thompson Seton was born Ernest Evan Thompson in South Shields, England, on August 14, 1860. South Shields wan an industrial town at the mouth of the River Tyne, where it empties into the North Sea, and thus much of the town's business came as a result of its close proximity to the sea. His father, Joseph Logan Thompson, worked at sea, following in the steps of his father and grandfather, and also maintained his family's strict adherence to Presbyterian ideals in dealing with his wife and ten sons. It was a combination of this rigid moral upbringing and his father's often violent temper that caused Ernest to later remark that his father was "the most selfish person I ever heard or read of in history in fiction," and yet it appears that although such an environment may have had far more adverse effects on some of his nine siblings, Ernest was a very bright boy with a very able mind. Even at a very early age, his interest in and love for nature and the world outside the walls of his home were clearly keen; one of the only ways that his mother was known to be able to get Ernest to sit still as a toddler for more than a minute was to tell him, "You are a tree. Trees do not move," and thus he would sit motionless for more than an hour. A later anecdote of Ernest at a slightly older age also shows the beginnings of a concern for nature that would for sure not be deemed ordinary in that day and age: he and his cousin were chasing chickens around the yard one day with fishing irons, and after they caught one, they skewered it. Although entertained at the time, a forlorn Ernest was said to be later filled with feelings of remorse and revulsion at his "bloodthirsty, savage acts." He was five years old at the time.
The Thompsons remained in South Shields for another year, but then a number of misfortunes befell the family shipping business, and Ernest's father came to the realization that the most profitable thing for him to do would be to sell the remainder of his business, and so he did that a few months later, and moved his family across the Atlantic to Canada. After they landed in Quebec, they immediately boarded a train for a five hundred mile trip to their new home in Stony Creek, Ontario, four miles outside the town of Lindsey. There were very few people living near or around the Thompsons in their new surroundings; they were "pioneers" in the most fundamental sense of the word, and it is in this that clear foreshadowing of attitudes that Seton held central to his philosophy of "back to the earth" later in life can be found.
Although the Thompsons' stay in Stony Creek was to be somewhat short-lived, as they moved to Toronto five years later, Ernest took full advantage of his time in the wilderness and the opportunities he had to meet and converse with other pioneers and men and women of the frontier; by the time they left for Toronto, he was well-versed in the techniques and secrets of life in the outdoors. Being where they had been had also exposed the Thompsons to Native American life and culture, in which young Ernest also took a keen interest - while they were in Stony Creek, he was said to have written a short play to act out with his brothers and friends, which told the story of a mischievous Indian who, contrary to the times, ended up victorious in his tussles with European settlers. And thus it is clear that a solid foundation was set for Seton's environmentally-minded pursuits later in life. Through his continued exposure to nature and wilderness in England and in Canada, he developed an attitude toward life and the society of his time that was quite revolutionary, for it placed significant emphasis on a return to more traditional Native American-based relationship of humans with their surroundings. It shall be the focus of the next several sections of this paper to show how Seton's subsequent actions as he grew older reflected this attitude, as well as reflecting a greater trend on the part of the American population as a whole to depart from the environmental attitudes of the first half of the nineteenth century.
II. The Woodcraft Indians
Seton the adult was driven by many of the same values and ideas that inspired the American president who was perhaps more comfortable than any other in the forests and mountains, rather than in the boardrooms of Washington: Teddy Roosevelt. While Roosevelt was well known for his hunting expeditions and also supported some actions such as the flooding of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley in California, which were criticized by other early-twentieth century environmentalists such as John Muir, he was also a dedicated proponent of the active outdoor lifestyle which Seton advocated. Both believed firmly in "youth, adventure, and the great outdoors and the ideal of physical fitness based on sports and rigorous exercise to revitalize the American character." While the manifestation of these ideals in President Roosevelt's life was the Rough Riders, Seton, on the other hand, as is indicated by the quotation which opens this paper, believed that the solution to the deterioration of America was to be found in America's young people. In his opinion, industrial growth and the expansion of urban America were causing the country and its youth to lose many of the positive attributes which had enabled them to become so great in the beginning: "money grubbing, machine politics, degrading sports, cigarettes, town life of the worst kind, false ideals, moral laxity, and lessening church power, in a word, 'city rot' has worked evil in this nation," he said, and thus began to dream of what would become the Woodcraft Indians in 1902.
The beginnings of Woodcraft itself were almost accidental and represented fairly spontaneous action on Seton's part. He had decided to fence part of his property in Wyndygoul, New York, despite the fact that it had once been a favorite hunting ground of local boys, but after a number of the boys ran rampant on his land, defacing his buildings and killing his animals, he responded in a way unusual in his times. Instead of seeking revenge, Seton invited the boys up to his house during their Easter vacation to camp out. When the forty-two of them arrived on Good Friday, 1902, for a camping adventure which they viewed rather suspiciously, they were met with an experience unlike anything they had anticipated. Rather than being vindictive towards his young vandals, Seton took advantage of the opportunity their presence afforded him to induct them into his tribe of Woodcraft Indians, which up to this point had only existed in his imagination.
For the boys, the vacation seemed rich in ceremony and tradition, for Seton had carefully thought out all aspects of Woodcraft before they arrived. Central to their experience was a main "council ring" where the 43 spent most of their time, where the boys listened to stories of the Plains and Indians life, as Seton, as he would later describe it, "gaug[ed] my stories in a steady crescendo till I had renewed the Fenimore Cooper glamour of romance, and heightened it to a blaze of glory." It is clear that it was quite an inspiring affair for the boys which transcended their previous relationship with their natural surroundings, teaching them a new reverence for natural beauty and nature's creatures. Each boy, as part of the process of "think[ing] Indian," was given an Indian name, and was instructed in identification of various plants and animals, as well as in the arts of stalking and trail making, and a variety of other Indian games and rituals. When the holiday was over, some of the boys were reluctant to leave, for the man whom they had once hated because he had fenced in one of their favorite places to hunt had shown them a previously unknown side of the natural world to which they now felt very strong ties. Many came to idolize Seton as "Black Wolf," his chosen Indian name, and some even viewed him as a father figure.
The appeal and success of Seton's holiday retreat spread rapidly, and, due to his active promotion of Woodcraft throughout the region, camps with different leadership, but following the same set of noble ideals, sprung up all over the Northeast. Seeing the rising popularity of his following among the young men of America, Seton decided to write a handbook for Woodcraft use, to clear away ambiguities about tradition and ceremony, and thus he published The Birchbark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians in 1903. More and more boys became "braves" in the first decade of the twentieth century, and by 1910, it was estimated that more than two hundred thousand were either alumni or currently involved in what had become a prominent movement in the restoration of America's understanding of its Native American past.
III. The Relation of Woodcraft to American Society
Seton's development of the idea of Woodcraft in a larger sense also coincided with an emerging trend in the American conscience as a whole at the beginning of the twentieth century, namely, to view Native American life as the model for American society. Especially indicative of one aspect of this relationship might be these words of Seton's in his work The Gospel of the Red Man: "No man owns the woods of the forest, or the water of the rivers, or the soil of the earth. He did not make them, they are the harvest of the land that belongs to the whole people; and only so much of them is his as he can gather with his own hands and use in his own homeno man owns game or wild animals, for these are the produce of the land that belongs to the nation - only so much of them is his as he can effectively and lawfully possess with his own hands." These words attack no less than the entire American attitude of the times towards the land and consumption of natural resources, both living and non-living. Even a quick look at the state of the American landscape during the time in which Seton lived would indicate that many parts of the country were not in good condition; it may even be possible to see events and environmental disasters of the period such as the great Dust Bowls of the Midwest as not entirely dissimilar to the stage of ruin in Thomas Cole's epic series of paintings, The Oxbow, which was painted nearly one hundred years earlier. Seton was undoubtedly aware of the condition of the American landscape as well, and thus it is not unreasonable that should he liken its health, so to speak, in the early stages of the twentieth century, to the desolate stage of Oxbow, his Woodcraft might thus be the impetus which could lift the countryside out of its depression and begin a new American enlightenment.
In a larger sense, Seton's words above express a then-revolutionary attitude which he wished to instill in each and every new Woodcraft brave, and which to him was symbolic of all that was terribly wrong in America's perception of the proper interaction between man and his environment. For the first half of the nineteenth century, before Seton's birth, the relationship of Americans with the land was almost exclusively a consumer-commodity one; living in a nation whose economic focus was mainly agricultural, people moved farther and farther west in search of more arable lands, and then after the agricultural potential of the land had been exhausted, they would move on. Before the Industrial Revolution of the 1850's, industrial activity was generally at a minimum, and conservationism had yet to become much of a mainstream movement. However, the Industrial Revolution only brought about an even more antagonistic and harmful relationship between man and the American landscape, and so it almost seemed as if Seton and Woodcraft were answering a calling from within America for a voice of reason and guide out of the era of environmental decadence.
IV. Other Voices of Note of the Environmental Renaissance
As it is has been the thesis of this paper to show that Ernest Thompson Seton and his Woodcraft Indians were symbolic of the greater trend among Americans at the time towards a reevaluation of environmental concerns, it is perhaps appropriate here to comment upon a number of other key players of the same era as Seton, who also contributed to the change in the American conscience. Foremost among these figures might be John Muir, who, like Seton, was born abroad - in Scotland in 1838 - but after coming to America as a young man, became an ardent conservationist and supporter of change in America's view of the natural world. Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892 as means for Americans to embrace the unspoiled natural world and wilderness as an alternative to American society of the time; in nature, he advocated feelings of "beauty-loving tenderness like a gardener" in places such as the Hetch-Hetchy and Yosemite valleys of California. While at first, there was less political motivation in Muir's actions, as the debate over the fate of the Hetch-Hetchy came to a head, he became less of a mere hiker and tour guide through the wilderness and more the most prominent defender of the valley in its fight not to become a reservoir for the city of San Francisco. When Muir died in 1914, he left behind a legacy of environmentalism in the work that he did in making the Sierra Club one of the easiest and most effective ways for a member of the general American public to get involved with conservation of the American wilderness.
Another man who lived during the same period who was equally important in the creation of the environmental movement was Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot, trained at the Yale School of Forestry, in fact saw himself as the founder of American conservationism, but his ideas of environmentalism were slightly different from those of Seton or Muir. Rather than maintaining a strictly conservationist position, Pinchot instead embodied more of a combination between traditional conservationism and the philosophical concept of utilitarianism; his views were conditioned by notions of "the greatest good, for the greatest number, over the greatest time." Thus, his fundamental sympathies lay with ideas such as the first duty of mankind being not to conserve his environment, but rather to control the land he lived upon, for if nature could not be controlled, it would be wasted. Since people were able to change the earth, Pinchot continued to reason, they must take control. While this was a departure in some ways from the purely conservationist ideals about which Muir and Seton preached, it is clear that Pinchot was also calling for a major reconsideration of the American relationship with the natural world.
And thus it is clear that Seton, Muir, and Pinchot, no matter their differences in philosophy, were all important in the development of the changing American attitude towards the environment in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the 1900's. While before the births of these three men, the American landscape had been alone at the whim of governmental policy and public opinion, this trio, and Seton especially, left behind means for significant transformation, in both public and private spheres, in the way in which the environment and its conservation were to be perceived. Instead of seeing nature as merely a vehicle for economic gain, Americans were now more open-minded in terms of how they might connect with their natural settings; in 1925, new opportunities for interaction were available for members of the American public of all ages to find themselves relating to and involved with nature as never before. The youngest citizens could become braves in Seton's Woodcraft; adolescents could follow in the steps of Pinchot at new academic institutions which focused on environmental issues, such as the Yale School of Forestry; and adults could become members of Muir's Sierra Club, and in doing so, become more active in the preservation of American wilderness and natural resources, so that future generations might also enjoy the beauty of America's unspoiled nature. It is not merely coincidental that activism in these three stages of life is very much in concord with traditional Native American ideals of individual involvement in nature, and therefore all three men might very well have looked to a future of American environmentalism in keeping with these words of Seton's as he brings to conclusion The Gospel of the Red Man:
"Our system has broken down - our system is a failure. Wherever pushed to logical conclusion, it makes one millionaire and a million paupers. There is no complete happiness under its blight and still I held my vision of the perfect man - athletic, fearless, kind, picturesque, wise in the ways of the woods, and without reproach of life. And, by a long, long trail, with ample knowledge of histories and of persons, I was led, as many before have been, to choose the ideal Red man. By all the evidence at hand, his was a far better system, a better thought, because it produced far nobler, better men. He, more than any type I know, is the stuff that fires our highest dreams of manhood, realized complete. Him, therefore, I proclaim as the model for an outdoor life, our travel guide of the fourfold way that leads to perfect manhood."
Woodcraft Relates to the Present Part of the reasons I chose to write this paper was a long-standing interest I have always had in Ernest Thompson Seton. Since 1988, I have attended and worked at a YMCA camp for boys in New Hampshire, and outside of the YMCA motto of "God first, the other fellow second, myself last," some of the most important philosophy which guides the campers and members of the staff (which I have been for the past five summers) comes from Seton's Woodcraft. Every Sunday evening during the summer, and since the camp's inception in 1903, the whole camp of 300 boys and staff members gathers in a circle of benches nestled among tall pine trees along the shores of New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee, very reminiscent of Seton's first Easter camp, to enjoy a council fire and learn of the ways of the Woodcrafter. While many who try to explain Woodcraft to those who have not experienced it cannot exactly pinpoint what it is that draws them back to the circle time after time, it is clear that even the youngest campers, who are only eight years old, understand and appreciate the lessons that Woodcraft attempts to teach each and every one of us. True to Seton's original intents, our Woodcraft combines messages of moral and environmental awareness, with guiding maxims such as "Be brave; courage is the noblest of all attainments" and "Be friend to all harmless wildlife; conserve the trees and flowers, and especially be ready to fight wildfire, in forest or in town," in hopes of forming each camper into a better citizen, of higher moral fiber, as well as being more environmentally responsible. I have found principles such as the above to be very significant in how I choose to live my life, and thus I do not think it would be a stretch for me to say that I owe much of my own morality and environmental awareness to none other than Ernest Thompson Seton himself. In a way, therefore, although Woodcraft no longer enjoys the wide appeal it did seventy-five years ago, except in a few select places such as the YMCA camp where I work, it is possible to see Seton's ideals living on in the few remaining "tribes" of Woodcrafters, just as strong as ever.
[Footnotes available from the author on request.]