Seton’s Woodcraft Indians

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In March of 1902, Ernest Thompson Seton, a naturalist and wildlife artist, held a weekend campout for schoolboys on the grounds of Wyndygoul—his forested estate outside Greenwich, Connecticut. Forty-two boys accepted Seton’s invitation, and the event marked the inception of his Woodcraft Indians movement, a forerunner of the Boy Scouts of America, founded eight years later.

The success of Seton’s experiment spread rapidly, and his Woodcraft Indians recorded tribes with upwards of two thousand boys across the Northeast by the end of the year.

Unlike other scout movements that emerged during the same decade, the Woodcraft Indians emphasized Native American culture rather than national character. Tribes proceeded troops. Teepees were raised instead of tents. Citizenship was subordinated by wilderness survival and self-sufficiency. Seton’s Birch Bark Scroll, which collated his encyclopedic knowledge of Indian lore and camp skills, would serve as an important model for the first edition of the Boy Scout Handbook.

In 1910, Seton received the honorary title of Chief Scout in the newly founded Boy Scouts of America. Seton had a contentious relationship with the larger movement’s founder Lord Baden Powell, but he remained an ardent supporter of scouting in America, even as it absorbed and recast many of the traditions established by his own Woodcraft Indians.

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Ernest Thompson Seton with Blackfeet Indians, 1917.

Ernest Thompson Seton with Blackfeet Indians, 1917.

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